22 Foot Putt

 

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It is the quiet on a golf course that captivates me. It is the sound of a swinging club and the small smack of the ball. It is the smell of mowed grass and often honeysuckle on the breeze. It is pausing to watch some nearby bird, or to admire the slope of a fairway down to the right toward a pond or some woods. It is the sound of the ball falling into the cup which seals the emotional deal that keeps us going back out there.  

I started playing golf when I was about nine and my father and brother took up the sport. I naturally tagged along and we spent many days over the years teeing up at Timber Point Country Club on the South Shore of Long Island, then the courses around Virginia Beach. At home, we watched golf on weekends, and through the years that sport kept us connected. My brother and I play together when we can when we are in the same state, and my son and I have played consistently since he was a toddler. He, my father and I played together very often throughout the nineties and beyond.  Golf is a family sport, and more often than not it is about fathers and sons, it is the common ground we otherwise might not be able to find.

This week is one of my favorite times of the year; the Masters tournament begins. I think of my father, and I can still hear his quiet sigh of disappointment when someone misses a small putt. He would like watching this year in particular with Tiger being back in the game. He would be rooting for Tiger, especially if the odds were against him. He would love to see him come back to the top after so many years of struggle.

We didn’t have a lot in common, Dad and me. To be clear, we got along very well, and over the years we spent many evenings talking about different television shows we watched or how work was going for me. But beyond that we didn’t have much to say. Part of it was Dad was always a quiet man, and I was always on the go anyway. Oh, we never argued; it wasn’t like that. In fact we were very close; just not very much alike. I simply had different interests, different paths altogether. I was in the arts and Dad was a stockbroker; he was brilliant at history and an avid reader, and I, well, I wasn’t. However, he did feed my flames for some favorite aspects of life; travel and adventure through the books he bought me; sports through his passion for following everything from baseball and football to golf. He even followed tennis for a while when I was involved during my teens.

Once—and, yes, once is a lot in this case—Dad hit a hole-in-one on the 15th at Broad Bay in Virginia Beach many years ago, and while I was not there, I can visualize every part of that stroke in my mind from the oft times he repeated the story; and well he should have. For a man who loved being on the course, to hit a hole-in-one is a highlight in life. I loved when he talked about it, the way his face lit up.

But golf was the come-together activity. On the course we didn’t really talk about anything but being on the course and what club we used and how I might have “picked my head up” or how my putt “came up short.” But we were together, the two of us, or more often the three of us, early on my brother and in later years my son. It was the ultimate bonding—we didn’t have to talk at all, yet we connected completely. Sometimes when I’m on the course, if I don’t pick my head up I hit a better shot, but I also can imagine I’m ten-years-old standing on the par three on the Great South Bay, knowing I’ll never make it over the small patch of water to the green. Other times I’m on the third hole at Bow Creek in Virginia Beach knowing no matter how hard I try to avoid it, I’m going to hit the damn tree right in the middle of the fairway. The memories on a golf course are thick for fathers and sons. They are of laughter, and of learning to overcome inevitable disappointment. The lessons are laid out like long putts, and we pass them along like old clubs.

One of those lessons went like this: When I was in my late teens Dad and I played nine and an elderly man, an excellent player, joined us. This man was hitting the green on every drive. At some point I clipped a short shot right into the water and slammed my club into the bag. Looking back I’m sure I was embarrassing my father, though being as young as I was I doubted I noticed or cared. Then the man came to me and said, “Can I give you some advice?”

I sighed. “Sure.”

“You’re not good enough to get mad.” I looked at him, a bit surprised at his blunt comment. “Do you practice every day? Do you have new clubs and have you taken lessons? If so, then maybe you’d have earned the right to get disgusted. Otherwise, you’re just wasting energy.”

Cue the sound of angels singing. It was like a light went on, like something obvious which had been foggy suddenly became clear. I relaxed and from then on I played better, had a better time, laughed more, and enjoyed the time with my father so much more. Then I found that lesson translating into life; I became better at understanding those things in life from which I could claim better results and those things I simply had no right to comment about, complain about, do anything about except to try harder.

The summer before my dad passed away he, my son and I stopped at his old country club, Broad Bay, just to use their putting green. It had been awhile since he had the physical stability and presence of mind to commit to a round of golf, so going to the green was a good compromise and he was thrilled. He showed Michael again how to hold the putter, said hello to some golfers who recognized him and stopped to say hello, and smiled the entire time. He putt a few balls and then stood steady as a pro above a putt and let it go for twenty-two feet on a slight bank downhill to the left, and it sank in the hole, that familiar sound echoing in our hearts.

That was his last golf shot. It is strange how you never know when that last shot will be.

Watching the masters is a tradition I’ll always cherish, though sometimes I’m not sure if it is a pleasure or a heartache. All I can do is to keep playing. Michael and I will head out this week; and the next time I see my brother I hope we play. When my close friend Jonmark comes to town we’ll rip up some fairway to be sure. And in every case, Dad will be out there with me, telling me to keep my head down. 

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