Fathers, Sons, Golf: What's That All About?

Maple Street Press

The publisher of a new golf collection I've got out called "You're Still Away" was cracking the whip in recent weeks with printers and shippers. "It's a golf book," went the reasoning. "It's got to be out for Father's Day."

It did get out in time, and I had a signing scheduled at a local independent bookstore last Saturday. When I arrived at the Second Story Bookshop I noticed the event was heralded on the chalkboard outside with these words: "Perfect for Father's Day." The typical customer that day was a boy or young man buying a copy "for Dad."

Now, I'll tell you: I published a book about the Red Sox a couple of years ago, and no one told me-not once-that it might make a perfect Father's Day gift, or that it couldn't be sold to Mom, who'd also been a lifelong Bosox nutcase, just like Dad. And surely moms and daughters play golf too; it's not just fathers and sons.

But there is something about golf and the male half of the family that is perceived-at least perceived-as special. I'm not saying this is right, I'm just saying it is. To many men, the words "Father's Day" mean golf, they literally translate as golf.

This is, of course, the week and weekend to think about such things: Fathers, sons, golf and what that whole equation is about. This Sunday is the day when Dad has absolute dispensation to play 36 full, no questions to be asked, no lawns to be mowed. The second 18 is often played with Junior, Junior being the prodigious son, the one who's already walloping the ball 240 yards and will soon be outdriving his old buck, making the old buck far more proud than he is chagrined.

Fathers and sons and golf: It's a deal that's been going down for ages, a tradition of legacy as ancient as the sport itself. Old Tom Morris bequeathed his game to Young Tom Morris, and Young Tom had a younger brother, J.O.F. Morris, who tore up St. Andrews in turn. In Ireland the great Christy O'Connor passed the game down to the pretty good Christy O'Connor. In Japan, though the years, you couldn't swing a pitching wedge without hitting a champion named Ozaki. And have you been watching the yearly father-son challenge lately? How 'bout them Singhs? How 'bout them Langers?

In America, today, there are the famous traditional examples-Jack and Jackie and Gary-and also not-so-famous ones. Arnold Palmer, as we'll see, had a father who taught him the game.

At the top level or U.S. golf these days, the father-son relationship comes at you from all directions, up, down and sideways (sideways being Jay Haas, nephew of Bob Goalby, and J.C. Snead, nephew of Sam). There are the Floyds, Raymond and his two boys, Robert and Ray Jr. In different years Raymond has played the challenge with either of them, the brother caddying. Larry and Drew Nelson are a formidable team, as are Tom and David Kite, Hale and Steve Irwin, Bob and Kevin Tway, David and Dru Love and two large Tour players, Craig and Kevin Stadler.

Tiger Woods was famously mentored by father Earl. Coaching-wise, Jim Furyk is still with dad. Once, when I was at the Tour whistle-stop at Doral in Miami, Furyk, he of a swing that only a father could love, shot a 77 on Thursday. His dad, Mike, caught some of the action on cable. Unable to sleep that night, Jim called Mike at home, which for both is Lancaster, Pa. The two men talked on the horn for an hour, going over what physically and psychically ailed the boy. On Friday, in a gale, Furyk posted the best round of his life, 62, tying the course record. Hanging around outside the press room afterwards, I asked him about the phone call. "Dad told me I wasn't making the right turn," he said casually. Mike Furyk knows his boy from afar. Mike knows Jim as if he lived in his skin.

A few years ago, the Stocktons, Dave and Dave Jr., nearly pulled a family double one Sunday on the old and young Tours-the kid came in second at the PGA stop even as dad was wrapping up a win on the Senior circuit. In 1999 the Duvals actually turned the trick: Bob winning his competition in Florida and then, only an hour or so later, David posting the biggest win of his life at the TPC. He was asked who might be prouder at that moment and David answered, "I think that's a contest I'd win."

Thanks, kid.

And then, of course, among the non-elite there was your dad and you. Or your neighbor Tommy's dad, and him. Or the four score teams that sign up every summer for the pub-links father-son championship.

It's special, this father-son golf thing. It's worth looking into. And I have, a couple of times, when drifting around the course. "I never pressured the boys," Raymond Floyd told me during a pleasant clubhouse chat one day at Doral. "I never pressured them, but I was happy to see them enjoy the game and want to play more of it, because there are some very good things to be had from golf." Maria Floyd, who was sitting next to her husband on the clubhouse couch that day, leaned across and touched her husband's elbow. "Tell Robert about Live-Your-Life-by-the-Rules-of-the-Game," she said.

Raymond's eyes went wide. Maybe not quite so wide as when he was stalking the green jacket in 1976, or spitting into the wind on the back nine at Shinnecock in the '86 Open, but still plenty wide. "Yes!" said Raymond. "Live Your Life by the Rules of the Game. That's what I've always said to my children, if you Live Your Life by the Rules of the Game you will be a better person. You shoot four, you write four. If you have an infraction, you call it. It's a gentleman's game-gentlemanly. Every other sport, you're not policing yourself, and you are taught to take the best of it. Football-try to hold the other guy. Baseball, 'I know I didn't catch it, but I'm gonna pretend I did.'

"Not golf. You're in the woods, it's a moment of truth, just like the many moments of truth you'll have in life. My boys, from as far back as I can remember, they shoot an 8, they take an 8. Live Your Life by the Rules of the Game and you'll be a good citizen."

Robert Floyd was sitting in during this conversation, and he added: "The most important stuff I've learned from Dad I've learned through golf, and it really does become second nature. It's like with languages-if you're fluent, you speak from memory, not translation. The kind of person you make yourself into on the course becomes who you really are."

Can it really be as significant as all that?

Jim Dodson thinks it can be. Dodson wrote a book about his late father called Final Rounds; there's no swing technique in it, but there are other lessons. "Fathers, sons and golf is a powerful subject," said Dodson when I called him a few years ago at his home in Maine. I was wondering about the topic, and thought he might have something to say. He sure did: "I've got four hundred letters under my desk-from CEOs, doctors, all sorts. And they talk about golf as a connection, a nexus for men who can't in other ways reflect upon their relationship with their fathers. On a golf course they can express, sometimes without speaking, what they can't otherwise express.

"These letters-single-spaced, two or three pages-talk about the great relationship they enjoyed. Or they talk about the relationship that they didn't enjoy, and wish they had enjoyed, and now hope to enjoy with their sons, setting things right."

I told Dodson about Floyd's L-Y-L-B-T-R-O-T-G theory. "That's it! The teaching. It's about communication, and also about life lessons," Dodson said. "It's about following a rule and succeeding within those rules. Jung wrote that women teach their children the nurturing instinct, while girls and boys learn from their fathers how to face the exterior world, how to solve problems, how to behave. So you're learning these lessons on the course, and you're by yourself. It's four hours out there-lonely companionship, very existential-and let's say you take ninety shots, so that's 180 seconds of activity. Three minutes. The rest of the time, you're walking and thinking. Soaking in these lessons.

"I am so haunted by what my father taught me on the golf course. I was playing last week-I played awful, shot 89-and I double-bogeyed this hole. On the next tee, the guy I was playing with said 'Go ahead.' I should have hit fourth with the score I'd made, but I hit second because the guy offered. The reason I screwed the drive up was that my father had taught me, 'You always follow the rules.' You see, if you ignore these lessons, it knocks the world off its axis. My dad said, 'If you tell a lie, you'll remember.' I can't recall if he said that about golf, or just said it."

Dodson helped Arnold Palmer with his memoirs; Palmer selected Dodson after reading Final Rounds-he figured this guy knew something about loving a father who could be demanding, even difficult. "Arnold's father was borderline abusive, but Arnold thinks his father absolutely formed him," Dodson told me. "Once, in the State Amateur, Arnold threw his putter over a tree. On the way home his father said quietly, 'If you ever do that again, you'll never play another round of golf in my presence.' Imagine that? The threat of abandonment. Powerful stuff. Arnold never threw another club."

As the Palmer anecdote implies, although golf can be a bond between fathers and sons, it can also be a rickety bridge that needs shoring up. Or a bridge that is, perhaps, so worn that it can't or shouldn't be crossed.

Poet and memoirist Donald Hall, who published a well-remembered collection of sports pieces entitled Fathers Playing Catch With Sons , has never offered so much as a couplet that rhymed pater with putter. "Baseball brought my father and I together, golf pushed us apart," said Hall when I reached him at home in New Hampshire several years ago. "To my father, golf mattered because of what it represented. He was a caddy, then he belonged to the country club. Upward mobility! It was too important to him. Whereas we could play catch and talk about baseball, or go to the Brooklyn Dodgers and talk, I was always nervous that, in golf, I wouldn't be good enough for him."

Many have gone through that. Guy Boros once shot 80 in a college match and felt he had embarrassed his father. "That's ridiculous," thundered Julius, who could really thunder. "Feel bad for yourself if you have to, but not for me." Sometimes easier said than done.

So, you see, there's a lot going on there, with fathers and sons and golf. A lot of working out being done, a lot of working out to do. Golf helps, often. And sometimes it doesn't.

Something to think about this weekend? Maybe. Or maybe not. Maybe just let the guys have their 18. Let them share a soda at the 19th. Let them come home a little late, and let them be sleepy-headed on the way to work and school on Monday. Let Dad have the day (and let his son have part of it). Let him play. Or let him watch Oakmont on the tube. Or let him curl up with a good golf book. (And if you need a recommendation . . . )

Granting dispensation: This, too, is Living Your Life by the Rules of the Game.

Robert Sullivan's new book, You're Still Away, has been published in the nick of time by the Maple Street Press.

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