While I may have been the most dreadful hacker in the 144-person
field at the 17th annual Colgate Alumni Golf Tournament last
July, it was not for a lack of helpful tips from my father, who
would wait, before dispensing them, until a millisecond before I
began my backswing.
"You're hooding the club face."
"Stop! Look at your feet!"
November 2, 1998
Aside from fantasizing about seizing the Ginty from his bag and
using it to commit parricide; aside from spending the weekend
concealing my politics from my dad's gin-blossomed,
tartan-blazered classmates; other than being treated by my wife,
Laura, upon my return, like a man who had blown two weeks wages
on a drinking and gambling binge, I could not have had a better
Laura, herself a Colgate alum (class of '85), grudgingly
green-lighted the three-day outing after I reminded her that
since we moved to the West Coast seven years ago, I had seen too
little of my East Coast-dwelling parents, who are not getting
any younger. That became starkly apparent on the second morning
of the tournament when I entered one of the communal bathrooms
in Curtis Hall, where the university was billeting us. Standing
at the sink and sporting nothing but the shaving cream on his
face was my old man. I'm not saying Rex isn't in pretty good
shape for a guy with a fake hip and a fake knee whose main
source of exercise is gardening. I'm just saying that the sight
of one's nude 68-year-old father is something that, if possible,
one should brace for.
We, the alumni of Colgate, go through life smiling politely at
twits who make toothpaste jokes about our alma mater, a liberal
arts school nestled in the Chenango valley of central New York.
Rex graduated in '51, having played varsity football and sung in
the Thirteen, the university's superb glee club. He joined the
Marines and fought in the Korean War, after which he earned his
M.B.A. from the Wharton School at Penn and embarked on a
successful career in the steel industry. Although he was
brilliant as a salesman, he has been slow to grasp the nuances
of retirement. To wit: Because he no longer has a half-dozen
sales calls to make on any day, he no longer has to drive like a
methamphetamine addict with a full bladder. Yet he does.
I graduated, sans honors or varsity letters, in '83 and became a
sportswriter. My ability to hold down this job has partly
alleviated the disappointment my father felt, and pointedly
expressed to me, when I quit football after my sophomore season.
In the months before the tournament, I signed up for golf
lessons and bought new clubs in the ardent hope that I would
play well. To that end, two days before the tournament I also
accompanied Rex to Point Judith (R.I.) Country Club, of which he
is a member. That we could not proceed immediately to the
driving range--our visit coincided with the annual Ladies
Invitational--rankled Rex. We retreated to the men's grill,
which does not have a NO GIRLS ALLOWED sign on the entrance,
only because that proscription is understood.
As we skimmed the morning news, the chatter and laughter of the
women exiled to the porch caused Rex to look up from his paper
and snap, "They sound like a bunch of parrots!" He looked up a
moment later and said with resignation, "Before long they'll be
in here, you know."
"I thought they had an 8:30 shotgun start," I said.
"Not today," he said ominously. "But soon."
FRIDAY: The tournament format, which I am lifting directly from
the mailing, is "four-ball [better-ball] match play [54 holes]."
That means that if you are in one of the five other twosomes in
our flight--there are 12 flights in all--you get to brag
afterward, "Murph the younger was getting a stroke a hole, and
we still kicked their butts."
Our opponents are all perfectly nice, actually. Competing
against Rex and me tends to put people in a good mood. On the
par-4 10th hole, for instance, one of our opponents, Ken Styles,
merrily recounts how, a couple of years ago, he put his second
shot on this hole in the middle of the pond, where it caromed
off a turtle to within four feet of the pin. He made the putt.
Ken is 83, and this account of an amphibian-assisted birdie is
not the last of his remarkable claims. "Married 59 years," he
says later in the round, "and still putting beans in the jar."
SATURDAY: Rex is shaving naked and bantering with the hungover
twentysomethings whose carousing kept us up last night. My
father's pathological congeniality--he often startles strangers
(tollbooth attendants, for instance) with effusive greetings--is
as embedded in his character as, paradoxically, his volcanic
temper. He can no more curb his bonhomie than he can control his
need to tailgate and to spew Rexisms, the name my seven siblings
and I assigned to his distinctive figures of speech. An
incompetent can "screw up a two-car funeral"; taking a pratfall
is going "ass over tea kettle"; "dry skin" is his defense
whenever we bust him for picking his nose.
When, having dressed, he suggests we head over to Seven Oaks
early to hit the breakfast buffet, I correctly sense an imminent
Rexism. "I'm so hungry," he says, "I could eat the ass off a
Maybe it wasn't the greatest idea to take a lesson two days
before the tournament. Every time I address the ball, I've got an
in-box full of swing thoughts--Flatten out swing plane...load
right side...think inside out--and nary a clue to where the ball
is going. On the 507-yard 12th hole, for instance, I lie 4 and am
still 400 yards from the green. I am club-throwing mad. I am also
out of line. When you play six times a year, you waive your right
to complain about sucking.
The weekend will yield no golf-related revelations, other than
this: All revenues expended by me on clubs and lessons might as
well have been flushed down the toilet. The weekend is slightly
more illuminating in regard to my relationship with my father,
who is uncharacteristically patient and compassionate as I drag
us to the depths of the standings. My failure to play well, to
please the old man, leads me to self-pity. From there it is a
short trip to resentment. He was, after all, the one who put me
in this position.
Instead of telling me to grow up and stop sulking, Rex drapes an
arm around me after my calamitous Laurel and Hardy (10) on the
12th. "Who the hell cares how either of us is playing," he says.
"We've got some time together; let's enjoy it."
The instant I realize he means it is the instant I start having a
better time. His paternal pride in me is unconditional. He
doesn't care how I play. He just wants to hang with me and
introduce me to some of his college pals, whom I meet at
tonight's sit-down dinner and who charm me with such comments as
"I always look at the magazine, but I never see your byline."
"Do they no longer allow you to write funny, is that the
"Do you have a business card? I may need Super Bowl tickets."
SUNDAY: We are playing against another father-son duo, Don and
Bruce Smith. My play is scraping a new low when, on the 3rd tee,
Bruce, a chipper sort, says, "Is this the perfect golf day or
While I harbor murderous thoughts about Bruce, Rex--who is not
exactly on a pace to break the course record himself--pounds the
wheel of the cart and replies, "I was just thinking that."
They're both right. Seven Oaks, one of the top college courses
in the country, has never been more lush. For the first time in
Colgate's 179-year history, I am fairly certain, the school has
had three consecutive sunny days. While I have made the
occasional show of reaching for my wallet, I haven't paid for
squat. What, other than my game, is not to like?
I make an effort to improve my attitude, since, apparently,
nothing I do will improve my play. The Smiths trounce and amuse
us. Bruce confides that his father prefers to play golf without
his hearing aid. Unable to hear opponents concede him putts, his
son tells us, Don has spent the weekend knocking gimmes past the
The golf, mercifully, at an end, Rex and I flee Seven Oaks and
stop at a convenience store for premade sandwiches. On this
Sunday afternoon in the prime of Rex's retirement, we are four
minutes behind schedule, which fills him with a sullen anger
that is compounded when we get stuck for three quarters of a
mile behind a hay truck on the outskirts of Hamilton, N.Y.
Thirty or so miles into the trip, Rex asks me, "Were those
sandwiches cut in half? Could you check? I want to give half of
mine to your mother."
Such inspiring gallantry! Mom is meeting us in Springfield,
Mass., at a Quality Inn just off the highway. She will rescue
me, and Rex will proceed north, to Ogontz, N.H., for a four-day
choral camp. (You wouldn't think that a guy who once followed a
drunken driver to his home and punched out the poor souse in his
own front yard would sing in a chorus, but there it is.) It
warms me to learn that the weekend's Catastrophe Quotient will
be diminished, however slightly, by the sight of my mother's joy
upon receiving this token of her husband's thoughtfulness: Sorry
I've been away golfing all weekend. As an expression of my
undying love, please accept this waterlogged half sandwich of
sodden turkey matter and month-old lettuce.
The cranky vibe I pick up from Rex when I report the sandwiches
are not cut in half makes it clear this is something I should
have noted in the minimart. Yes, the sandwich can be torn, but
the unevenness of the tear will detract from the thoughtfulness
of the gift. We ride awhile in silence.
The cloud lifts quickly, as always with Rex and me. After
bisecting the sandwich, I ask him if he is ready for his half. He
is. He is so hungry, he tells me, he could eat the ass off a
"Elbow in," my father said as I started to swing. "Stop! Look at
On the 12th, I lie 4 and am still 400 yards from the pin. I'm