Fathers and Sons

It's Monday and I'm sitting downstairs, engaged in a futile attempt to read USA Day Before Yesterday, almost the only source for any sort of news outside Ireland, which is where I happen to be at the moment.

Upstairs, my two boys are apparently trying to demolish the house. Not theirs, of course. They do a remarkable job on the house we own in Dallas. The silence is punctuated by the intermittent crashing of a giant Lego tower into an antique sideboard. It could be a scene from a condom commercial. "Here's what happens," the announcer might say, "if you're not careful."

No, the house this miniature wrecking crew is taking down brick by brick belongs to my parents. We've come home for a visit.

The parents of golfers have had their fair share of air time lately, so I thought it would be fun to divulge some details of the dysfunctional duo who were responsible for providing me with safe passage through childhood.

If nothing else, sitting down to write may help me resist the urge to attach Shey, 9, and Rory, 5, to the wall with duct tape. I knew the stuff was bound to have some good use.

I was brought up in Bangor, a town of 46,000 a few miles up the A1 from Belfast, on the east coast of Northern Ireland. I lived with my two sisters -- Helen, the elder, and Deborah, the younger -- in a middle-class environment directed by W.T. (Billy) and Vi Feherty, who have now been married for 44 years. If this marriage is a match, neither has ever been more than one-up.

When I was little, Dad worked for a container freight company based in the Belfast docklands. Every chance I had, I went with him to work and spent many happy hours in the dockside warehouses climbing great mountains of grain sacks, chasing rats, and frightening pigeons.

The dockers were gnarly men with almost unintelligible Belfast accents and there always seemed to be one of them to catch me when I fell, which was often.

Mum served dinner every evening at six and more than occasionally we were a man short when W.T. found himself plugged under the lip of the men's bar at Bangor Golf Club. He had a keen interest in the Irish national pastimes of drinking and storytelling, occasionally finding time for a little golf in between.

At one time, he was as low as a five handicap, a miracle considering his grip resembled two land crabs in mating season. At the top of his backswing, he looked like a man trying to kill a snake in a phone booth.

On one occasion, W.T., after about 11 too many with his derelict pals at the club, dundered in about an hour late for dinner. All three of us sprouts were fed, scrubbed, and ready for bed. Mum was less than amused.

Dad, however, was in an unbearably good mood and hungry enough to eat the wings off a low-flying duck. "Sorry I'm a little late, darling. Is my dinner still warm?"

Without missing a beat, my mom replied, "It should be. It's in the dog!" This is my earliest recollection of the evil Feherty wit.

I suppose it would be inevitable that I would become interested in golf. I used to caddie for my dad and he had a couple of clubs cut down for me so I would get to take a shot amongst his four-ball every now and then.

Some years later, I would reach the pinnacle of my not-even-remotely famous amateur career, when I was chosen for the Bangor grammar school golf team. I also played on the rugby team, but the other players kept bumping into me and taking my ball. So, I stuck to golf.

Dad, then as now, was my biggest fan. There was one minor problem: Every time I spotted him, I dropped a shot. His presence used to drive me berserk and eventually I had to banish him from the vicinity.

He wasn't about to go quietly; he'd watch from afar. He'd use binoculars and, occasionally, wear camouflage. But I'd still know he was there. Such was the sensitivity of my Dad-O-Meter Early Warning System, I could hear him clear his throat from 800 yards.

Thankfully, I grew out of this paterphobia in time to turn pro at 17, playing off a stellar handicap of five. I was in John Smith's geography class, fascinated by the average annual rainfall of Western Samoa, when through the open window the scent of freshly-mown grass shot through my left nostril. Transfixed, I excused myself from class and dropped out.

Later that afternoon, I told my parents that I had quit school and was going to be a professional golfer. They obviously saw something in their son that no one else could because they were the only ones who didn't laugh hysterically.

A few days later, I flew to London to take up an assistant pro's job at the princely wage of £10 per week. It astounds me now when I think of how much they believed in me.

It was the first time I had lived away from home and there were many tearful collect calls in those first few weeks. Three months later, I was home. Being a professional golfer was tougher than I thought, especially with no mommy. So, I took a job closer to home -- for less money.

I struggled the first few years, but my parents' undying faith and the occasional few pounds here and there kept me solvent enough until I actually became a pretty good golfer.

Now, when I pick my way through the Lego wreckage in my sons' room late at night to steal a last kiss from their tousled little boy heads, I smell that little boy smell and wonder if they will ever know how much I love them.

They already have the scars and ugly memories of a divorce. I was never so unfortunate. I was never frightened or alone; my parents made certain of that. By writing this piece, I am saying things to my mom and dad that I can't say any other way. Tears would prevent these words from ever emerging from a mouth that is more inclined to half-witticisms than heartfelt emotion.

A lot of people say these kinds of things at funerals. I don't want to wait that long. Dad says he's not sure whether he wants to be pickled or cremated. I tell him he's already pickled and a cremation would cause an explosion liable to kill all the mourners.

Every time I clear my throat, I hear him. I am turning into my father and there is no one I would rather be.

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