During a visit toa shrink a while back, I spent way too much time talking about golf beforecoming to the altogether healthy conclusion that my money would be better spenton another sort of therapist: a PGA teaching pro. The psychiatry wasn't acomplete waste of time, however. The guy might not have known Ben Hogan fromHulk Hogan, but he knew something that I didn't--that my talking about golf wasreally a way of talking about my father. ¬∂ Three years ago, when my father wasabout to turn 70, my sisters and I returned to my parents' home to help throw asurprise birthday party at his beloved country club in Eugene, Ore. In my toastI talked about how I had always loved being on the course with him, just thetwo of us. It must've been a pretty good speech. I'd never seen my father crybefore, and there he was in tears. ¬∂ So what was so problematic about golf, andmy relationship with my father vis-√†-vis golf, when the game had, for the mostpart, been a source of happiness? ¬∂ "For the most part?" I can hear thepsychiatrist repeating. I wasn't simply talking about golf. I was talking aboutsomething equally baffling. I was talking about love.
I thought a lotmore about these connections a few months later, when I took my father on agolf trip to Scotland. In anticipation I had worked on my game, reading oldinstruction books and retooling my swing with a pro. From experience I knewthat the better I played, the better company I would be.
As a kid I hadoften heard that I had a nice swing. Problem was, I had a lousy temperament.Visiting my parents a few years ago, I got to talking with my dad about thesports I'd played as a kid. "Wiffle ball!" I said, joking. "Thatwas my sport!"
"You can be agood golfer," my dad said.
July 15, 2007
Can, not couldhave been. As in, It's not too late.
"Give it up,Dad," I said. "I'm almost 40. It ain't going to happen."
"You have anice swing," he said. "You simply--"
"No, you makeit more difficult than it has to be."
I let it go. Iwanted to believe that I had made my peace with¬†golf.
Yet I knew that myfather was right. As a golfer I hadn't been honest with myself. Not many of usare. Isn't the essence of every golfer's devotion to the game the desire to oneday become his own platonic ideal? We all have our moments, after all, whenfantasy and reality coincide. Suddenly the veil of incompetence is lifted. Thefairway yawns wide. Our drives take off on a trajectory that had always seemedreserved for the tour gods. You're hitting three- and even two-irons from thefairway. You're like a musician with perfect pitch. Staring down a 30-footputt, you see the line of a double break as if a calligrapher had drawn it.
As a boy Icouldn't believe how far my father hit the ball. I remember caddying for him ona Sunday morning. One of the guys in his group was the assistant pro at theclub, yet on the 1st¬†hole my dad outdrove him. "Dad," I said,hustling to keep up with him, "you're way better than he is!"
"Did you hearthat," my dad hollered out to his friends. "Tom says I'm betterthan¬†. . ." whatever the pro's name was. They all thought that waspretty funny.
"Well, youare," I said.
"Thanks forsaying so, Tom," he said quietly. "That's nice of you."
Of course, Ieventually figured out that he wasn't better than the pro. He was simply O.K.At his best he got down to a nine handicap, and he once won his flight in theclub championship. At the time I thought he had won the championship.
Then somethinghappened. Sometime when I was in high school my father lost interest in golf,in me, in everything. On weekends he'd sit there all day, watching TV, a blackhole sucking all of us into his unhappiness. I'd ask him if he'd like to tee itup, and he wouldn't respond. I'd wait a minute, confused by his silence, thenask again.
"Dad," I'dsay, "it's a nice day. Do you want to play nine holes?"
This was not myfather. We could always get him to play catch after dinner. As for golf, he wasalways the one doing the asking. For him to say no to us about anything,particularly golf, and to say it so curtly, so grimly, was strange andfrightening. I'd try to sit there with him, watching TV, feeling horriblyguilty about leaving him.
It was that potentcombination of guilt and concern that briefly caused me to get serious aboutthe game. My dad was lost to me, and the course seemed the place to find him. Ieven went out for the high school team. But when I went off to college I didn'ttake my clubs, and I played only on brief summer visits home. During one ofthose visits my father, whose good moods would return erratically (freaking meout even more than the bad ones), entered us in some sort of better-balltournament. The whole thing was excruciating. We came in dead last. I see nowthat I had built up a lot of resentment (I wanted my dad to appreciate me on myterms) and that playing so abysmally must have subconsciously seemed a good wayof expressing it. Besides, golf had come to symbolize something that I wasdetermined to get as far away from as possible--not my dad, but the suburbanlifestyle that I thought led inexorably to hopeless depression.
We've never talkedabout it, but now I wonder if golf wasn't what ultimately got my father throughhis hard times. To play golf, it seems to me, is to live hopefully. On restlesswinter nights when I haven't played in weeks, I often lie awake playing a roundin my head, re-creating my best shots, recalling my better self, dreaming ofbecoming that better person. And on the course every so often those dreams cometrue. No matter how bad things get, no matter how ugly one's game, for a golferthere is always, as John Updike says in Golf Dreams, a "bubblingundercurrent of hope, of a tomorrow when the skies would be utterly blue andthe swing equally pure."
Going to Scotland,we both were hoping for a moment of the game's stingy grace.
With no treespinching the fairways and none of the man-made water hazards that trick up U.S.courses, links courses present few obvious difficulties. From the foreshortenedperspective of the tee box, the famous pot bunkers are often invisible. And theburns you've seen balls trickle into on TV? What are they, three feet wide? Yetreared in the lush and piney bowers of Georgia's parkland courses, Bobby Joneswas at first flummoxed by the open and undulating expanses of the links.Playing miserably in the 1921 British Open, Jones quit in the middle of thethird round. "It was the most inglorious failure of my golfing life,"he'd say later.
So it would be forme. Playing our first round at Turnberry, I shot a shabby 94. At Prestwick Iwas two strokes worse. By the back nine at Royal Dornoch, in the Highlands, Ihad torn up my scorecard, once again becoming a glowering teenager, asincapable of recovering an iota of maturity as I was of making a simple bogey.And as I did when I was a kid, I took to blaming my father. (When he playedbadly he never took it out on me. Why should he? I wasn't his father. I hadn'tintroduced him to the game.)
There wassomething intensely satisfying about regressing into that brat. After age fiveyou're not supposed to indulge those childish feelings. Problem is, thefeelings remain long past childhood, and sooner or later, in one way oranother, they're going to come out. For me they've always come out on the golfcourse. I've never for a second felt I must play well to earn my father's love.I have felt, though, that golf is the language we share for expressing thisfeeling, and so when I play badly, as I often do with him, I feel maddeninglyinarticulate. Willfully inarticulate. When I suck, I'm afraid it's becausethere's a part of me that wants to suck, that is determined to suck, proving. .. . That's simply it, I have no idea what it proves. All I know is that my golfis, inescapably, just like me--flawed.
Finally, aftercrossing the country from the Firth of Lorn to the Firth of Forth, we arrivedat St. Andrews, but without a guaranteed tee time. The people who had arrangedour trip assured me that in mid-October we were certain of getting on the OldCourse through the less expensive lottery system, but when we checked into ourhotel we were given a sealed white envelope. The desk clerk handed it to uswith the solemnity of a juror returning a verdict.
Denied, it said.We hadn't been chosen in the lottery.
"I'msorry," the girl said, "but there are other courses."
We staggered toour room, feeling the full force of the judgment. The golfing gods had taken agood look at us these last six days, and they'd found us--or me,anyway--unworthy. The verdict didn't seem unjust.
My father sat onhis bed, back against the headboard, in a catatonic stupor, as he had duringhis depression. "I didn't think I'd be this disappointed," he finallysaid.
"Yeah, it's apunch in the stomach," I said. But I wasn't thinking about myself. Fiveyears ago, on my parents' only trip together to Europe, my mom had given my dadpermission to take the train from Edinburgh to St. Andrews, leaving her for theday. He didn't have his clubs. He simply wanted to see the Old Course. It washis Sistine Chapel. But to see and even walk a course is not to experience it.You need to play it, and as he sat there taking in the bad news, I imagine hewas thinking that in all likelihood he never would.
Our only chancewas if there was a cancellation or a no-show, so the next day we woke wellbefore sunrise, expecting to be the first ones at the starter's hut. Weweren't. Despite a driving rain and howling winds, more than a dozen othersad-sack supplicants were already waiting in the dark--waiting in vain, thebrusque starter said. Nevertheless, we gave him our names. "This is whatit's going to be like getting into heaven," I told my dad. "There'sgoing to be some surly Scottish bouncer standing there at the gates."
"In akilt," my dad said.
"And we won'tbe able to understand a word he's saying."
The horribleweather was our only solace. If you're not going to play the most famous coursein golf, you want to not play in miserable conditions. We'd almost resignedourselves to playing one of the other five courses inSt.¬†Andrews--supposedly, a couple of them were even better--but in the endcouldn't do it. We'd wait all day in the rain if we had to, in weather so badthat we were told even the caddies wouldn't work in it.
Maybe that lastfact is what saved us. Maybe, for a lot of golfers, the pilgrimage to the OldCourse isn't complete without a caddie. All I can say is that one doesn'tquestion the tender mercies of a Scottish starter.
"Ye two,"this guy said to us an hour later, ignoring the others in line. "If yedaena hurry, ye'll miss ye'r chance. Y'er up."
"Us?" weboth said.
"Now whom deye think I'm talkin' to?"
"We're good togo!"
Love cleanses allsins, supposedly, and at about the 7th hole, which plays to a pretty strand ofEden Estuary, I had the distinct feeling that St. Andrews had forgiven me mine.We had been sent off with two singles: Whitney, an American lawyer, and Burt, abig Swede with a small bladder who stopped to pee in the gorse on every hole,marking his territory.
When you play withstrangers, insincerity usually abounds. "Ah, you were robbed," you say,when what you really mean is, "You're hopeless!" Today, however, thebonhomie was genuine. We pulled for one another like teammates. Burt's bogeysfelt as triumphant as Whitney's birdies. Something magical happened thatafternoon on the Old Course. St. Andrews is the ecclesiastical center ofScotland, and following a ruling dating from the 16th century, the townprohibits golf on the Sabbath. The prohibition flies in the face of everythingspiritual. Golfers aren't merely searching for pars and birdies, they'researching for a kind of religious experience. Those who don't play golf, whothink it the snooty pastime of the idle rich, might think it absurd, all theselawyers and doctors and dentists and accountants yearning for grace andtranscendence. But that really is what we golfers are doing, every one of us.Each hole is a search for that indefinable "it," and when on a longbirdie putt the ball falls into the cup after a run of double bogeys or worse,you feel as if you've finally found that elusive something separating us fromour better selves.
Anyway, that's howI felt. My peevish muttering ceased. As if I'd come upon a ball I'd given upfor lost, I suddenly found my sense of humor. I was having fun. We all were.The rain had stopped, the wind had abated. After missing makeable putts allweek, I finally started draining them on the back nine. "You're hitting 'emlike a pro," Whitney said. And it was true. I was, weirdly, not simplyholding the slippery greens on approach shots but also getting my ball to backup sometimes. On the 316-yard par-4 12th, with the wind at my back, I drove thegreen with a one-iron and tapped in for eagle, my first ever.
"What is[golf] but the comin' together of our separate parts?" says one of ShivasIrons's companions in Michael Murphy's Golf in the Kingdom. My separate partshad long been just that: estranged, at odds. I loved golf and I loved beingwith my dad, but since those golden weekends of childhood, these two sets offeelings had been at sixes and sevens. They didn't need to be, which is what myfather had told me.
He played onlyO.K. The bunkers were his undoing. Yet he was as giddy as I was. I'd like tothink he sensed that the way I was playing--happily, gratefully, lovingly--wasan expression of how I'd always felt about him. The 39 I shot on the back nineseemed evidence of those feelings. Not that I really needed numerical proof.Long before we'd finished, I already knew that I had played the best round ofmy life, regardless of the score.
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Then something happened. Sometime when I was in highschool MY FATHER LOST INTEREST IN GOLF, IN ME, IN EVERYTHING. On weekends he'dsit there all day, watching TV.
Our only chance was if there was a cancellation or ano-show, so the next day we woke well before sunrise, expecting to be the FIRSTONES AT THE STARTER'S HUT. WE WEREN'T.
My peevish muttering ceased. As if I'd come upon a ballI'd given up for lost, I SUDDENLY FOUND MY SENSE OF HUMOR. I was having fun. Weall were. The rain had stopped, the wind had abated.