Fathers, sons and the game that binds us

Fathers, sons and the game that binds us

Steven Godich at Pinehurst No. 2.
Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated

You can’t get the scene out of your head. It’s been 15 years, but it seems like it was only yesterday that you watched Payne Stewart hole that 18-footer to win his second U.S. Open. But it’s not the celebratory first pump you keep coming back to. No, what you remember most is what Stewart did immediately after the most rewarding victory of his career. Cupping Phil Mickelson’s face in his hands in the middle of the 18th green at Pinehurst No. 2, Stewart looked his playing partner squarely in the eye and uttered seven chilling words.

“There’s nothing better than being a father!”

Now you are making your first trip to Pinehurst, and, not surprisingly, there are reminders of Stewart everywhere: the bronze statue behind the 18th green, the display near the practice area honoring him as the winner of the 2014 Bob Jones Award, the oversized posters in the USGA’s mammoth merchandise tent. It’s not your first Open—you broke your maiden in 1991 at Hazeltine, where Stewart beat Scott Simpson in an 18-hole playoff—but this one is special. You’ve got your 19-year-old son in tow. He’s working too, slumming as a photo runner for Sports Illustrated.

You’re excited that Steven seems to be getting the golf bug. Your father introduced you to the game at an early age, and you’ll never forget your first tournament together. You are 13 when you attend the 1970 Byron Nelson Classic. Rain delays necessitate a 36-hole Sunday finale, and Dad surprises you with the news that morning. You slip on your metal spikes and watch Arnie duel Jack in the final group, with John Schroeder serving as the third wheel. You’re a proud member of Arnie’s Army, yet you can’t understand why some in the gallery are being so ugly to Nicklaus, one middle-aged man mumbling “Fat Jack” while he was making a double-bogey at the 4th hole in the afternoon round. Dad tries to explain, but you still can’t make sense of it.

You’re heartbroken when Jack beats Arnie on the first hole of sudden death, stuffing a short iron to kick-in distance. Even then, you plead to stay, holding out hope for a miracle. Dad doesn’t much care. He’s a Julius Boros guy, but that’s beside the point. He always liked to beat the traffic.

The Nelson becomes your can’t-miss event. You make eye contact with Arnie a couple of years later in the Pavilion, the party tent at Preston Trail Golf Club. You watch Tom Watson fall short in a bid for a fourpeat, losing in a playoff to Bruce Lietzke in 1981. Four years later, Stewart’s the story at TPC Las Colinas. Needing a bogey at the last to win in his adopted hometown, Stewart blades his chip shot over the green, makes double and loses to Bob Eastwood on the first hole of sudden death. Again, it’s not the golf shots you remember most. Rather, it’s the image of Payne winding through a field of weeds and wildflowers, holding hands with his wife, Tracey, their backs to the camera. It’s a tournament he wanted to win so badly for his father, Bill, who had died of bone cancer two months earlier, at the age of 64.

Sixty-four, everyone knows, is far too young, and so is 75. That’s the age at which your father died eight years later. You were born the same year as Payne (1957 was a very good year for golfers: Seve, Faldo, Langer, O’Meara and Lopez), yet while you’re grateful you had 11 more years to spend with the man, you feel cheated. You honor Dad the only way you know how, by naming your son after him. Your wife endorses the suggestion without hesitation, which speaks to the kind of man your father was. It is eerie when Steven arrives two weeks early, one year and one day after his namesake died.

Bill Stewart didn’t live long enough to meet his grandchildren either. Chelsea and Aaron are grown now, but Father’s Day doesn’t get any easier. Forty-two. You can’t imagine. Their father won once on Father’s Day (and also the day after). It has been that way since 1965—crowning the U.S. Open champion on Father’s Day—and it is one of the charms of our national championship. When you think about it, the U.S. Open should own Father’s Day. Because in what other sport can one generation compete against another on a level playing field? Fathers and grandfathers playing with their children and grandchildren. The galleries and the grandstands at No. 2 are packed with grandfathers and fathers who are soaking it all in with their children and grandchildren. You get chills on Tuesday when you watch an older gentleman stop a player you don’t recognize and ask, “Can I get you to sign this flag for my grandson here?” What you’d give for your son to have a moment like that.

Steven is running around the grounds, from photographer to photographer, picking up digital cards and dropping off cameras and radio transmitters and bottles of water. He is growing up before your very eyes. You are excited to have him along. It is a week you will always cherish. He laughs when you ask for a map at the rental-car exit in Charlotte. You put up with the drivel he calls music, but you overrule him on the choice of lunch spots, opting for a barbecue haunt with a smoker out front that is, well, smoking. The dinner conversations aren’t just about sports anymore.

Still, there’s plenty of discussion about golf. During one work break, he explores the practice area inside the ropes with you. At the end of his lunch break on Wednesday, he sticks his head into Rory McIlroy’s press conference. At dinner that night, he asks for your Open favorites, then mentions that Webb Simpson won the 2007 Southern Amateur at Pinehurst. You’re impressed. He reminds you that he wants to start playing golf again. You can’t wait to walk 18-hole rounds together. Competitive person you are, you look forward to beating his brains in, just to remind him who the boss is. You can’t wait for the day he beats your brains in.

The Thursday wakeup call comes at 5:15, but he doesn’t complain. The money, after all, is good, but you can tell the experience is even better. He texts you at 7:36, saying, “One thing I forget was rain gear.” It’s not raining, but it gives you pause. Then you wonder if he’s angling for the Payne Stewart rain-vest knockoff he spotted in the merchandise tent the previous day. You laugh. At 9:11, he texts, “Phil just hit a beauty on the 14th.” That night in the media center, he looks over your shoulder as you edit the story about the first round for Golf.com. Checking in with his mother over the phone, he downplays the fun he’s having. You know differently, and you tell her as much. Analyzing Martin Kaymer’s six-shot lead after 36 holes, he says, “Nobody else has figured out the golf course.” He predicts that Rickie Fowler will make a move on moving day. He’s got the golf bug.

For the first time ever, he isn’t around to celebrate Father’s Day with you. Work necessitates your Saturday night return home. Work keeps him in Pinehurst on Sunday. You’re O.K. with that. In fact, you’re thrilled. He’ll hear the roars through the loblolly pines on No. 2. There will be a flurry of texts. You’ll be taking it all in on TV. NBC will run and rerun the scene from 1999. Some might be tired of it, but not you.

Because there’s nothing better than being a father.