We can’t help what we love, and my father was helplessly in love with golf. As a kid, he commuted for many Depression-era summers from the mean streets of NYC to caddy at a Long Island golf club. He worked for tips and always angled for the bags of visiting pros and celebrities. Fifty years later, he’d still kvetch about Ray Bolger tipping him a lousy dime.
By working the links all summer and talking to the club pros, he developed a reverence for the game and its history. He played a round every chance he got and tried to incorporate the game into every aspect of his life. When his boss told him to weed the huge lawn in front of the clubhouse, he did it swinging a seven iron. Every day, he’d sneak on the course after sunset and diligently work on his short game.
But as big as he dreamed and as hard as he tried, he was never an exceptional player. So, having carefully studied the game’s best players for decades, he was determined to make me one.
He naturally assumed that’s what his teenaged son wanted too. But as much as I liked being with him, I’ve always loathed golf, and it showed in the abysmal quality of my play. Of all our misadventures on the links, one still haunts my most terrifying recurring nightmare.
For the thousandth time, I stood forlornly over the ball in the baking Texas sun as dad began his tireless litany, “Head down, eye on the ball, left arm straight, hips loose as a goose (then he’d shimmy like Mae West), backswing low and slow, swing through the ball.” It was like driving a car while reading the owner’s manual and resulted in a herky-jerky swing that produced a ball flight consistent only in its absolute unpredictability.
I was just about to hit my drive, when I noticed a course employee had stopped his maintenance cart on the path a hundred yards ahead of us. I waved him on, but he motioned for me to hit away. My father told me to go ahead, there was no way I’d hit him.
Like a dimpled laser beam, the ball’s homicidal trajectory varied nary an inch in any direction. The worker dove headfirst from the cart like Pete Rose sliding into second, There was a deafening clang as the ball whacked the metal fender inches from where he’d been sitting. He shot to his feet, screaming curses and gesturing obscenely at me.
I’d fallen to my knees as I watched the horror unfolding before my eyes. Dad stared down at me in wide-mouthed wonder. I slowly collected myself and said softly from my knees, “If I’d tried to hit him, it wouldn’t have gone anywhere near him.” My father, astonishment still on his face, nodded in stunned agreement with the absolute truth of what I’d just said.
Cynics say that parents who push children in the direction of their own broken dreams are trying to live through their kids. The truth is we want our kids’ lives to be perfect. And those childhood dreams of playing centerfield for the Yankees, dancing on Broadway, or playing on the PGA tour are still our ideal of perfection. So, push them we do. I ruined tennis for both my kids by doing just that.
And then one December day, my fifteen-year-old son, Matt, announced he was going to try out for his high school golf team despite the fact that he’d never played a round of golf in his life. I went into full- parent-freak-out mode and bought him a caution-tape yellow, specially weighted, training golf club I’d found on the web. When I proudly gave it to him Christmas morning, he glowered at me like I’d just handed him a new algebra book.
The next day, I excitedly dragged Matt to a driving range. As he stood forlornly over the ball gripping the ridiculous yellow club, I heard myself, as if from a far distance, reciting, “Head down, eye on the ball, left arm straight, hips loose as a goose (then I shimmied like Shakira), backswing low and….”
I stared out at the horizon for a few seconds, told Matt I wasn’t feeling well, and was drawn slowly back to the car where I sat and reminisced with the merry Spirit of my father as we contentedly watched Matt flail happily away at the whole bucket of balls using my old clubs.