JIM DODSON: He's a Son of the Game After All
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"Remember to do the checklist," he instructed. "Pre-shot routine. Good grip, proper stance, correct aim. Everything starts with that. Then pick your target, trust your swing, and pull the trigger."
"OK," the son replied. "Can I have the Volcano brownie sundae for dessert?"
The kid was maybe 7 or 8 years old, wearing a Titleist golf cap, with a face off a corn flakes box. The father caught me staring and smiled. He saw that we had a pair of sweaty teenage golfers at our table. Bryan and Jack had just come from the Little River Farm, where they'd played 18 holes in the hot sun and then horsed around in the swimming pool, enjoying one of the last unstructured summers of their lives.
"It's all about fundamentals, huh?" the father said to me with a knowing smile as we left, as if we were both fathers on a mission.
I smiled back and tried not to see a reflection of myself in his eagerness to produce the next Tiger Woods.
Nearly 1,000 kids between the ages of 6 and 12 are in town this weekend for the largest kids-only golf tournament in the world. In principle it seems like a terrific idea, getting little kids hooked on life's greatest game.
No other sport, after all, provides better opportunities to learn about what makes you tick inside than golf, an ancient game whose painful miscues and occasional moments of brilliance either build character or simply reveal the lack of it.
The organizers of this mother-of-all kid golf events stress that competitive fun is the key objective of their tournament, helping produce a new generation of golf-savvy youngsters who love to play like the big boys.
There's no question this tournament was good for competitive golf and the local economy. I saw several little kids playing warm-up rounds who could indeed be the next Tiger Woods. They hit shots a club champion would be pleased to claim.
But as Bobby Jones once said, there are two kinds of golf -- golf and tournament golf. The two are very different critters. Jones walked away from competitive tournament golf at a relatively young age, relieved to be away from it.
I just hope the golfing prodigies who came to play this week didn't leave having fun off their checklists.
I speak as a father who could easily have gone overboard nudging his only son into the game he dearly loves -- and probably did so on at least a couple of painful occasions.
Because of my job as a golf editor and magazine columnist, Jack (who is named for his great Scottish grandfather and not that Jack) either had the blessing or curse of growing up in some pretty elite circles of the game.
He attended his first U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills the summer he was 5. His favorite moment came when he somersaulted merrily down a knoll of waving fescues and landed at the feet of one Seve Ballesterous. With his sand wedge poised and steam leaking from his ears, the glowering Spaniard wasn't particularly amused, but Jack sure was.
"Hi," he chirped. "Do you like playing golf, too?"
At 9, he accompanied me to the Golf Writers annual dinner at Augusta and got to meet Tiger Woods. For two days we hiked around the Masters soaking up the ambience of golf's finest boutique invitational and capped off the week by having dinner with Arnold Palmer and his wife, Winnie. On the way home, wearing his Tiger-signed Masters cap, Jack informed me that he planned to either become a golf pro like Tiger and Arnold or possibly write adventure stories.
A short time later, he had his first serious golf lessons at Hank Haney's ranch down in Texas while I was researching Ben Hogan's biography. Haney -- who is now Tiger's coach -- informed me he thought Jack had one of the best natural swings he'd ever seen.
"You should put him in junior tournaments," Haney suggested. "That swing of his will only get better with time."
That summer, I drove Jack to play several state junior tournaments. He played well at moments but clearly lacked something many of the other kids had in spades -- the focus and swagger of winners, the mindset of tournament players. I saw a lot of fine swings at those golf tournaments. Unfortunately, I didn't see many smiling parents and kids.
Next, I invited him along as my playing partner on a special father-son golf tour to Scotland I was asked to host. At age 11, the youngest son by far, he played beautifully over a difficult links course. But his favorite moment came, he admitted to me later, when the two of us snuck off like a couple of truants to a pub in St. Andrews and ordered a smelly haggis -- a dish I assured him was made from sheep guts, old Glasgow newspapers, pigeon droppings, ancient Parliamentary wigs, and a pinch of nutmeg.
Let Jack Go
Then something strange happened. My son seemed to lose all interest in playing his old man's favorite game. He stopped watching golf on TV and rarely touched his clubs. Other things suddenly seemed far more important to him -- Harry Potter books, playing ice hockey and snow-skiing with his pals, getting to know girls, writing songs on his guitar.
It began to penetrate my dense skull that Jack had merely been reflecting my passion for the game and trying to please me rather than finding his own way to joy. Looking back 40 years, I remembered how my own old man had merely introduced me to the game here in the Sandhills, showed me a few basics and told me to go have fun chasing the ball wherever it went.
He told me the score was unimportant -- that the friends you make in golf are far more lasting than any tournament you might win.
As I watched Jack's withdrawal from the game, it came to me that perhaps I'd lost or forgotten something pretty important along these lines. After two decades of writing about the professional tournament world, I'd grown weary of egos, hotshot sports agents, players who couldn't find the time to thank volunteers or sign autographs, swing gurus, sports shrinks, and people who seemed to forget this is only a game.
None of this seemed to have anything to do with the simple 400-year-old pleasure of striking a golf ball on a golden afternoon and watching it fly toward a fluttering flag.
So I did something that proved oddly liberating to us both. First I let Jack go -- quit trying to help my son fall in love with golf. Then I moved back to the old Sandhills villages where that very thing had happened to me, hoping somehow to reclaim the simple joy of playing with friends.
As William Blake wrote:
He who binds himself to joy
Does the winged life destroy.
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity's sun rise.
Change of Heart
Two years ago, days before the tryouts, Jack surprised me by announcing out of the blue that he intended to try out for his high school golf team. He hadn't touched a golf club all that summer, hadn't played more than half a dozen rounds in three years. That beautiful golf swing of his was like a fine violin gathering dust in its case.
I told him to have fun but not be too disappointed if he didn't make the squad. Some of the other kids had been playing in junior tournaments for years.
On the strength of his fine swing alone, the son of a gun made the team. His scores were all over the place, but he won a couple of matches. Last year, after a summer of little or no practice, he repeated the performance. This time he won his first five matches in a row. Though I was dying to, I didn't follow one of his matches.
This summer, on a lark, I invited him to play in the National Father-Son Tournament down in Myrtle Beach. My old magazine used to be the title sponsor, and friends who knew us said we would have a great time being golf bums in Myrtle Beach, a place I hadn't been to in almost 30 years.
The reason God invented wives, someone said, is so the rest of the world didn't wind up looking like Myrtle Beach. When I pointed this out to Jack, he laughed and said he definitely wanted to sign up for the tournament.
I picked him up in Boston a few days before the tournament. He was fresh from 10 days of escorting his Scottish grandmother around Norway, and his hands were still blistered from hockey camp. Once again, he hadn't played more than two full rounds of golf in six months.
We spent two days here in the Sandhills playing with Kelly Miller and his son Blair at Mid Pines and Tom Stewart and Jack's longtime pal Bryan at National, having far more laughs than pars. Jack's swing was as fine as ever, but he didn't hit one fairway during his first 36 holes. When we finally set off for the redneck splendors of Myrtle Beach, I advised him not to expect much -- in part because he hadn't played since last autumn, in part because I'm such a poor tournament player.
For three days and nights, we behaved like complete golf bums. We body-surfed in the ocean, stuffed ourselves on horrible fried food, went to movies, checked out bathing beauties, nostalgically cruised the doomed Pavilion area, played several rounds of miniature golf, stayed up way too late, told lots of really bad jokes, and talked about everything from God to girls to golf swings.
The tournament actually seemed slightly irrelevant, but we also played a trio of fine golf courses with three sets of fathers and sons. Two were extremely competitive teams who said little or nothing during our rounds. The third were guys like us -- in it purely for the laughs and time away from their wives.
After Day 1, I was startled to see our team in fourth place in a flight of 20 teams.
Day 2 -- alternate shot format -- proved a disaster. Probably because we were talking so much, horsing around, never quite focused. We tumbled safely back into the pack. On Day 3, however, Jack never missed a fairway and shot 75 on his own ball, his best score ever. Our team was eight under par.
We skipped the big steak luncheon and awards ceremony, choosing to head home to Southern Pines before learning how we finished up in the tournament.
It didn't matter. Frankly, neither of us cared about the outcome. Jack couldn't wait to get home to play golf with his buddy Bryan Stewart, and I unexpectedly had something that probably never would have returned if I hadn't set it free several years ago.
My son of a gun was a son of the game, after all.
Jim Dodson can be reached at email@example.com.
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