At work, I often hear horror stories about hyperzealous golf parents who drive their kids crazy or out of golf or both. So I've taken the opposite tack with introducing golf to my eldest son, Ricky, who will be 7 next month. Every couple of weeks during the summer, I've taken Ricky to chip and putt, or to play the nine-hole par-3 course at Westchester Country Club, where I'm a member. Ricky enjoyed our casual outings, but he wasn't gung-ho about golf like I was as a tyke.
Everything changed last month. I heard about a junior tournament on Westchester's par-3. The event would be played on three consecutive Saturdays, and it was open to players of all abilities, including beginners like Ricky. I asked Ricky if he wanted to play. "Yeah!" he exclaimed. "What's the prize? Do I get money?"
On the afternoon of the first round, Ricky was bursting with energy, and I was thrilled watching him tote his little blue bag to the first tee. All of the other kids had teed off, so I became a playing marker for Ricky. "Remember, we're playing by the rules, so you keep hitting until the ball goes into the hole," I said.
Ricky shrugged his shoulders. "Of course, I want to know what I shoot," he said.
I teed up a ball for Ricky and silently backed away. A few years ago, I co-wrote a youth golf book with Rudy Duran, Tiger Woods's childhood coach, and one of Rudy's key tactics with kids is to teach very little technique. Considering how well Rudy's method worked with Tiger, I only told Ricky to whap (Rudy's favorite word) the ball as hard as possible.
Well, Ricky whapped his three-wood and the ball blooped up and flew about 10 yards. "Yes!" Ricky shouted. "That was awesome." He skipped to his ball, but the next few swings were whiffs. Ricky was unfazed and earnestly kept swinging. Soon he was on the green, and after four putts he'd finished his first hole in a competition. He made a 21.
Ricky's enthusiasm increased with every hole. Following Rudy's advice, I always let Ricky decide what club to hit, even when he'd chip with a three-wood. As the round progressed, Ricky kept improving. The ninth and final hole, a 110-yarder, was his best he made a five. Ricky shot 95, and while giving his scorecard to a clerk in the pro shop, Ricky eagerly asked, "Is there prize money?"
The clerk smiled. "No, I think it's a trophy," he said.
Driving home, I asked Ricky why he suddenly liked golf so much. "The winner of that PGA Tour thing we watched got a check for like one million dollars. I want that," Ricky said.
The next two Saturdays, Ricky woke up early and couldn't wait to play. He shot 91 in the second round, and he improved mightily in the final with a 79. Clearly, Ricky now had the golf bug, but it wasn't until a couple of weeks after the par-3 event that I realized the depth of his newfound zeal.
Every day, Ricky began asking to watch the PGA Tour on TV. He and my wife watched the final round of the PGA Championship, and as soon as it ended Ricky left a message on my office voicemail, because I was working. "Hi Dad," Ricky said. "Did Dustin Johnson, before the playoff, do you think it was a grounder? Was it a bunker? And if it was, did he ground the club? Please call and let us know."
I listen to that message almost every day, and every time I hear it I have a big smile. My son, like I am, is now a golf nut.