As with most, I have one birth father. He passed away a month ago, at the age of 79. If we had spent hours together on the fairways, the greens and the practice areas of the golfing world, this would be a far-different remembrance. We didn’t and that is certainly a good thing. I have three other fathers and I’ve played one solitary round of golf with each one. I’ll get to that later, but not too much later, I promise.
My birth father, from whom I take my first and last names, played tennis and counted numbers. He introduced me to his game and I developed well in it. It didn’t grab me as golf did, so I never played it during high school springs. What my father didn’t do was drive me away from his game, as many of us fathers are tempted to do. We don’t mean it, but we succeed at it through jealousy and greed. We are jealous of others that succeeded when we didn’t. We are jealous of other fathers’ daughters and sons, who succeed at “our” game when our own progeny do not. We are greedy and want to bask in the glow of the successes of our offspring. My father took me to a tennis joint where Jimmy Arias, a year or two older than me, played. Arias rose to #5 in the world and made the US Open semis. And my father never pushed. I wish I could say the same about my own self.
My father’s connection to golf ran 100% through me. To the best of my knowledge, he never swung a club. He took me to the practice range, took me to the course (as public jocks know, the practice range and the course were never at the same physical address) and let me steer the golfing ship. He listened to my frequent tales of woe and my occasional recollections of glory. Like that one dusk, back in 1981, when I holed the winning putt in our match with WE, only hearing, never seeing, the ball drop into the rabbit’s hole. Like that one day, back in 2012, when I began the Erie County Amateur, on the course I’d know since infancy, on two of the simplest holes in golf, double-triple. And how I’d found the resolve to heed my own coaching advice and grind it out, and I ground it out to a 76 and a made cut.
My father listened to my stories of coaching high school girl and boy golfers. Of running middle-school golf camps. Of this notion that I would begin a small (8.5 x 11, folded over) golf publication that would morph into a small golf website. He smiled and laughed and applauded and cheered along the way. He knew nothing about the internet, beyond its functional use of supplying information more readily. His cellular phone was never smart and he chewed tablets when he had a headache. His encouraging voice reverberated in my mind’s ear, this word and that phrase. From time to time, a full paragraph of insight.
To those other three fathers for a moment. When I was a teenager, fresh to golf, I played a round with my left-handed, maternal grandfather and my right-handed, paternal one. No political insinuation there, just genetic fact. The rounds were separate. One took place in western New York, the other in south Florida. Both of them were not accomplished players and were more interested, as grandfathers are, with my enthusiasm for the game. Neither became that figure-under-the-tree, the one who offered sage advice at the most critical moments of my development. Those rounds are gone now, reduced to an image or two on a sunny day. My father-in-law, shockingly, doesn’t golf. They say that women marry men who remind them of their father, but mine missed an important touch. One year, my mother-in-law decided it would be a great idea to purchase clubs for my wife’s dad, so that he and I could spend time together on the course. This came on the heels of my holiday present of a set of clubs for my wife, which was hailed as the worst present ever by every member of her family, including her. I never figured that one out.
So off my father-in-law and I went, on what would be our solitary round together. He flailed about and I wasn’t much better. There was no break of light through the clouds, no archetyple shot that miraculously found its target, bonding us forever as golfing soul mates. We eventually began to laugh at our own frustration and missteps and completed the round with a dearth of fanfare. Like my own father, this fourth of the breed has listened over the years as I’ve recalled tales of the golfers I coach, the stories I write, the photos I shoot, with the consideration of a man gifted with more patience than I’ll ever know.
It was a tradition in my growing-up family to meet on Father’s Day at my uncle’s place. We would eat, drink, be merry and watch the final round of the US Open. I think that the last part was for me. There was a year that Jumbo Ozaki played himself into contention and my paternal grandfather, ever sensitive to ethnicity, rejoiced that “Yakka Yakka,” as he interpreted the Japanese golfer’s name, had it going on. Jumbo didn’t win that year, but Yakka Yakka remains with me to this moment.
I watched four of my own children grow. Each was exposed to golf, as my father had done with tennis. Each developed a golf swing that will work for years to come, yet none has taken to the game and its playing grounds as I did. What I suspect I achieved, as my father did, is this: I didn’t drive the four of them away from the game.
I face my first father’s day without my father. I’ve done this twice before, when it came to grandfathers. It wasn’t the same. It cannot be the same for me. I’ll expect to see his face, his glasses, his smile, his belly, as they round the corner into our kitchen, but they won’t. I think back just two or three months during his treatment, when he was thinner and quieter and weaker, yet he smiled that smile and he rolled those eyes to communicate more emotion and meaning than any assemblage of words ever could. I’m looking for a favored, childhood photo of him, my brother and me. If I find it, I’ll post it. If I don’t, imagine his smile, his laughter and his rolling eyes. They will tell the tale.