Fathers & sons: why golf is the special father’s day present that just keeps giving – Essay
In an era in which the family unit is being kidnapped by forces ranging from the 60-hour work week to the PlayStation, it is the golfer who still has the greatest capacity to celebrate Father’s Day.
“In America, more than anywhere else I go, I see parents and children growing farther apart,” says Gary Player, who has seen the world during a 50-year pro career. “The father and mother both work, the kids are everywhere, so that by the time everyone is finally home there’s no chance for quality time. It’s making the country a colder, less personal place.”
Golfers, of course, aren’t immune to strained relationships. But because the game spans more space, time and circumstance than any other, its loyalists often believe it can be applied to save the bonds that tie–if not more.
“I’ve always said people at odds with each other should play golf together,” says Hale Irwin. “It’s the nature of the game that they’ll walk away closer.”
But most of all there is the elemental way in which golf can bond father and son as well as any endeavor we know.
“When you’re out on the course with the person in the world you have the most influence on–your son–you’re each watching the other handle the success and disappointment and unfairness and good luck of the game,” says Earl Woods. “You’re letting your son find his way, and at the same time he sees that you’re vulnerable, that you aren’t perfect, that you have feelings and emotions that are human. He learns that even when a man does the best he can, he makes mistakes, and that it’s all right. Everything is stripped away on the golf course, and you get closer. I felt that way with Tiger, every time we played.”
Then there is the intriguing curiosity of the father-son dynamic in the shaping of champions. When we consider Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, it’s logical to draw a connection between the close, encouraging relationship each had with his father and the indestructible self-esteem that serves them so well in the clutch. Conversely, it’s natural to wonder if the hard-to-please fathers of Arnold Palmer and Greg Norman triggered the macho styles that cost the sons as many majors as they won. But if a strong and encouraging male figure is so important, what then to make of the ironclad Ben Hogan, who was 9 when his father committed suicide and never had children of his own, or the equally resolute Lee Trevino, who never knew his father at all?
Earl Woods’ words provide clarity for the way my father, Jim, and I established a lifelong connection through the game. Today, whether at one of the bastions of golf I’ve been fortunate to visit with him while on a writing assignment or with his group at the muny in Concord, Calif., that he has played nearly every weekend since 1963, golf has been the salve in our relationship.
The best times of all have come in the father-son events. When we were lucky enough to win one, my overriding memory is of my dad’s knack for the key shot, for invariably holding me up when I got shaky, for providing a psychological safety net that allowed me to play better than I would have on my own.
But my best memories come from a few wrenching losses we suffered together when I was a teenager. During and afterward, there were never recriminations, only empathy for the disappointment we knew the other felt. Somehow, the losses brought out our best selves. It may sound overly dramatic, but it was after those times that I truly knew I could always count on my father, regardless of success or failure. My guess is that for a son, there is no better feeling.
These days when I show up at a tournament site with my 73-year-old father in tow, he is universally well-received by my peers. I realize that regardless of our not inconsiderable foibles, it resonates with people to see a father and son together. When he’s not there, people ask me, “How’s your dad?” On more than one occasion, I’ve had a friend whose father has passed away say to me, “Do you know how lucky you are to be able to spend time with him? Don’t ever take it for granted.”
Since our most recent trip, last December, I’m less likely to. The Office Depot Father/Son Challenge in the Bahamas is the best tournament in professional golf–at least by the measure of improving the relationships of its participants.
For a week each year that culminates in 36 holes of competition, some 20 major champions, ranging in age from 45-year-old Bernhard Langer to the 67-year-old Player, drop their tournament-hardened playing personas and unabashedly unabashedly get all soft and gooey. With the chance to include their sons in the very arena that too often prevented them from taking a substantive role in their childhoods, the pros look ready to break into a group rendition of the “My Boy Bill” number from “Carousel.” Even more telling than the effusive verbal encouragement is expressive body language, including arms flung over young shoulders, bear hugs, and even kisses (for five-time champion Raymond Floyd and sons, on the mouth).
“It’s quite astonishing,” says Player, who each year plays with son Wayne, 41. “I see plays with son Wayne, 41. “I see most of these fathers all year. Depending on the week, a few might be happy, and some are never happy. At this event, they are all happy, every round, every day.”
The event’s paterfamilias, Alastair Johnston of International Management Group, had the idea come to him while sitting in the locker room at a senior tournament in 1994 after overhearing Dave Stockton eagerly calling the PGA Tour to see how his son Dave Jr. was doing. Aware of how much regret many players felt for lost time with their children, Johnston created a second-season event. A scramble format has kept inevitable ability differences among sons from becoming too glaring, and it cuts the less competitively hardened offspring some slack.
Since the inaugural tournament in 1995 the event has gained boutique status among the players, and it appears primed for field expansion. This year, Johnston has prospective first-timers Nick Faldo, Mark O’Meara and Vijay Singh clamoring to get in. And he is making the first exception to the father-son requirement, allowing Palmer to play for the first time, with Arnold’s 15-year-old grandson, Sam Saunders.
“It was one of those rare ideas that was instantly accepted by everyone,” says Johnston. “It’s the one event I never, ever have to put any pressure on any guy to play. They call me. My battle is to keep the feel intimate.”
The tournament works for anyone who finds fathers and sons intriguing, especially as the demands of the modern world make traditional family relationships harder to maintain.
Visually, it’s an entertaining exhibit of genetics. Kevin Stadler has brick-house dimensions and an imposing goatee; Stefan Langer has a steely gaze that looks out from a mien of eerie serenity. Eric Weiskopf strides regally; Rick Trevino has the jaunty mannerisms, commanding voice and flawless timing of a stand-up comic. John Miller Jr. has the squarest of jaws, Wayne Player–in all black–the tautly stored energy of a cat burglar, Steve Irwin, the classic mesomorphic build of a threesport man.
I remember asking Raymond Floyd how important it is to him to play golf with his sons, and he replied, “Nothing makes me happier than when one or both of them call and say, ‘Hey, Dad, let’s play.’ No matter what, I find a way to make that happen. Those opportunities are precious to me.” Three months later, I would find out that at the time of our conversation, Floyd had just scheduled an operation to have a cancerous cancerous tumor removed from his prostate.
I also learned how indefatigable the pull toward a father can be, and how golf can be a pipeline. When Myatt Green was 2 years old, his father and mother divorced. While his dad, Hubert, moved to Florida and played the tour full time, Myatt lived with his mother and maternal grandparents in Southern California. When Myatt reached school age he would visit his father for a week in Florida, go to see him play at the Los Angeles Open and occasionally talk to him on the phone.
“Even though I hardly saw him, I never felt abandoned by my dad,” says Myatt, now 27. “My grandfather taught me how to play a little golf, but all through college I played other sports, especially baseball. Then after I graduated with a degree in business, I just got this need to get the feel of who my dad was. So I decided on the golf business for a career. It sounds kind of drastic, but I just knew I wanted to know my father. Simple as that.”
While still in school, Myatt was teeing it up in the 1998 Father/Son Challenge, his first golf competition ever. “I was nervous, and I could tell my dad was nervous for me,” he remembers. “He didn’t say anything, but I can read him. It just told me he loved me. I had an amazing time. The best times of my life have been playing in that tournament.”
Says Hubert: “Not many fathers and sons get to go through something this intense together. When you come out of it, you’re closer.”
The younger Green is now an assistant pro at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi, Utah, with a plan of someday being a head professional. He and his father speak more than ever. “We talk golf, which is the way we reveal ourselves,” Myatt says. “As I figure him out, I’m figuring out who I am. And it feels right.”
From a golf standpoint, it’s fun to watch the scramble format at the Father/Son. With the limber-backed sons hitting first for most of the teams, several fathers don’t even bother to hit a drive if their boy catches a good one. At 6-feet-4, Myatt Green towers over Hubert. “I know if I could play the tour from where my son hits his drives,” Hubert says, “I’d be a very wealthy man.”
For those intrigued by how father-son history shapes champions, it’s interesting to observe the give and take between the venerated fathers and their ambitious offspring.
“I wish what we have inside us that made us winners was all about heredity,” says Larry Nelson, who played with his son Drew, a 26-year-old aspiring pro. “But it’s not.”
Adds Tom Watson, who played with son Michael, 20: “You can tell your son a lot of things about the game, and it can help, but certain things, like the will to win, you just have to demonstrate and hope it connects to something inside.”
Many a pro recalls trying to accomplish something for a dad. “My father was somewhat of a golfer,” Irwin says. “At the 1984 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, he was dying of prostate cancer. I got in the lead, and I tried to give him one last thrill [leading through three rounds before falling back]. I built that up to a mountain that maybe I couldn’t climb. I loved my father. I loved him dearly. Still think of him all the time.” Rick Lee Trevino, at 40 the oldest of his father’s five children, has turned to golf and also toward his father.
Rick has been the director of golf at Orange Beach (Ala.) Golf Center while finding time to play in mini-tour events. “I’m a good teacher, but I’d love to be on the Champions Tour when I’m 50,” says Rick, a powerful player and gifted shotmaker. “I believe I’ve got the game. I’ve got my dad’s genes.”
Three years old when his parents divorced, Rick would often go on tour with his father during summers off from grade school, but “mostly he just wasn’t there for me, or for the kids from his second marriage. He’s told me he’s sorry. You know, it’s OK. There’s nothing to hurt, nothing to regret. I came out OK. I learned to be a better father to my kids because of what happened. We all learned our lessons.
“The way I look at it, when my dad was younger, it just wasn’t his time to have a family,” Rick says. “For a man to have a full life, he has to have two things in his life. He has to make his mark. Lee did that with golf. Then he has to feel the love of a close family. My dad is doing that now. Not just with his new family but with all his kids. And I’m part of that family now.”
Says Lee: “You know, every night I’m home, when it’s bedtime, I lie down next to each of my two young kids until they’re asleep. Those moments, I didn’t have enough of those with my other kids. I can’t bring that time back, but they’re full-grown men and women now, and I love them, and we’re friends.”
While Rick Trevino could be excused for being bitter, his warm feelings for his father come out when he describes his golf. After characterizing teaming with his father in the Bahamas as “just a fun, what-the-hell week,” Rick betrays his passion and pride when describing his father’s game.
“I’ll tell you, its something to play with him–although he’s intimidating,” Rick says. “Usually in a group of people I kind of take over, because I’m a real extrovert, but I get kind of passive when I’m around him. He’s just a giant in the game. At the tournament I watch all those guys–Nicklaus, Watson, Floyd–they just don’t have the same sound hitting the ball that Lee has. You watch that man stand there, 63 years old and running his mouth, and you see those hips go through and the ball kind of just glides off the club and just flows through the air. His swing is so flawless, it’s like he can’t miss the ball.
“One year at Colonial, Lee sees this guy in the gallery wearing one of those businessman hats, and he recognizes him and goes over and says, ‘Mr. Hogan, what are you doing?’ Hogan says, ‘I’m watching you hit this golf ball. You’re the best ball-striker I’ve ever seen.’ That’s Dad.”
As much as Earl Woods is identified with the total commitment of time and effort he devoted to Tiger in his second marriage, Earl’s first marriage was marked by prolonged separations from his three children and finally divorce.
“I can understand the regret and the lost contact,” he says. “Because of my military assignments I just wasn’t there for my first family. I remember coming back from one tour of Vietnam, and my daughter answered the door and wondered who I was.
“But you know, it’s not too late to reconnect,” Earl says. “With these old tour players, that father-and-son tournament is the right thing. Golf is a great way to just be with your son. And there is nothing better in life than a relationship where you can just be with him and he can just be with you. Just be.”
Good advice on Father’s Day. Or any other day.
Jesper & Phoenix Parnevik
Jesper: “I’m not sure I would want my son to become a professional golfer. Because I’ve been successful, I don’t know if he would appreciate how much work it takes.”
Steve & Hale Irwin
Hale: “When he gets inside the ropes, he can see that there’s something going on that maybe he wasn’t fully aware of. And that it’s not so easy.”
Seve & Javier Ballesteros
Seve: “Sometimes the best advice for me to give my son is nothing. I try to let him discover the game. I love playing with him. I love that he enjoys it. And he has helped me renew my love for the game.”
Tom & Tom Kite Sr.
Tom Jr.: I am he, and he is me.”
Bob & David Duval
Bob: “David has a gift. I was very careful not to change what he did naturally.” David: “I grew up with golf. I was very fortunate.”
David & James Leadbetter
David: “James’ favorite expression to me when we’re playing is, ‘Hey, Dad, zip it.’ In other words, ‘Just let me hit it.’ It’s a challenge teaching your son. Sometimes Dad saying things doesn’t take as much as someone else saying things. James actually takes lessons from someone else at our academy.”
Bernhard & Stefan Langer
Bernhard: “When we played a practice round, I put down all the yardages and details. He looks at me and says, ‘You always do it like this?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ I could tell he realized this was harder than he thought.”
Craig & Kevin Stadler
Craig: “I’m so proud of Kevin. He carried me when we won the Father and Son. And I can’t say I ain’t heavy.”
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