JIM DODSON: How Golf Changed Two Lives
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This is a story about the redemptive power of love -- and an unexpected golf swing that changed two lives.
When Veronica Karaman was 5, her father John took her to the golf course with him outside Pittsburgh and placed a putter in her hand.
"He showed me how to grip the putter and gave me a couple of balls, and then he pretty much left me there while he played his Saturday game," she says. "I putted for hours, making up games. I remember being on the putting green and he would walk by at the turn and wave but he never came over to putt with me. I think my own journey in golf started with me simply wanting to earn his affection and approval. I knew my father loved me, but he never just came out and said it."
Little Veronica putted herself to a national pee wee putting contest and 10 years later still found herself wishing to be closer to her father's world.
One Christmas, she woke to find a new set of Hogan irons under the Christmas tree.
"I knew they were from my dad, because my mom thought golf was a silly game," she says. "I was so happy I convinced him to drive us out to his golf club, and we played nine holes. There was still snow on the ground, but I was never happier. I thought this was the beginning of a great relationship with my dad. I was sure we would have years together playing golf."
Instead, within months, John Karaman came home from the auto repair shop he owned feeling dizzy. A short time later he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Six months later, the cancer had metastasized to his brain and he passed away. Veronica was just 15.
"My mother and brother Mike and I were devastated," she remembers. "My mom and I loved each other, but were never close. She was from a generation that survived the Great Depression and believed in the value of hard work, not playing games. So she worked and I studied and played golf, both of us feeling the deep loss of my dad. Inside, I began to feel so cheated and alone."
Perhaps because of this, Veronica became such an accomplished junior golfer that she was invited to play on the boys' golf team in high school. She also found a summer job working at legendary Oakmont Country Club and became her class valedictorian, and eventually Duke University offered her a scholarship in 1977. During her four years in Durham, she had a fine amateur career, winning several big invitational tournaments.
But something was always missing. A three-letter word that begins and ends with "d."
"During the summer breaks of my college years, I always came down to Pinehurst and stayed at the Pine Crest Inn," Veronica says. "And Mr. Barrett, the owner -- whom I called Mr. B -- became like my surrogate father, the dad I'd missed having. I always stayed in room 212. I would play the area golf courses by day, and Mr. B and I would have these long, soulful conversations by night. There was always a fun and lively crowd at the Pine Crest. You never knew who would turn up there."
The Pine Crest Epiphany
One summer night during her junior year, even God showed up at the Pine Crest.
"Despite my outward success, I was still so empty and alone, still missing my dad," Veronica says. "I remember praying hard that night and just telling God I needed to know there was more to life than golf. And because I didn't have a dad, I told God I needed him to be my father. In the morning, crazy as this sounds, I woke feeling such happiness and joy. I flew downstairs and grabbed Mr. B and said, "Mr. B, Mr. B, I've just -- overcome!"
She laughs at this memory. "He must have thought I was on drugs," she says. "I couldn't bring myself to say I'd been saved. The joy was so real. I might well be the only person who ever got saved at the Pine Crest Inn."
Not long afterward, Veronica completed her management science degree at Duke, found a job teaching golf and working in the shop for Buck Adams at the Country Club of North Carolina, and set her sights on making the women's golf tour and playing in the U.S. Women's Open.
She found a sponsor and made it to the mini-tour for a while but returned to graduate school to earn a pair of master's degrees in communications and biblical studies.
'All Came Together'
In 1988, unable to let her golf dreams go, she went back on the Futures Tour and played a year before coming down with chronic fatigue syndrome. Months of difficult physical rehabilitation followed. With no money and no sponsor, she gave herself one last shot at her dream of playing in a U.S. Open and made it to the big tent by qualifying as co-medalist in Dallas.
"I had no money, no caddy, and no place to stay at the tournament site in Michigan," Veronica says. "But it all suddenly came together as if I was meant to be there. A friend called offering to pay for my hotel, a tour caddy phoned out of the blue offering to carry my bag, and I even got to play a practice round with Nancy Lopez."
On Day 2 of the championship, toiling somewhere near the back of the field, obviously going to miss the cut, she had another life-changing experience.
"I knew I wasn't going to make the cut," she says. "On the last hole, though, I had a difficult 70-foot putt to break 80. I somehow made the putt and started to cry, and the gallery gave me a wonderful ovation. My mom was there, and I remember suddenly feeling free and liberated. It suddenly hit me that all these years I'd been focusing on making good scores and missing what is most important about golf -- the great relationships it brings you.
"The trophy I really needed to win was standing in front of me all along: my mom."
Mom's New Lease on Life
Back in Virginia Beach, where she worked as a life and academic coach and helped open the Kingsmill Resort's Golf Academy, Veronica nurtured the hope of getting her game in good enough shape to qualify for the Open at Pine Needles in 2001. She grew worried about her mom, Mildred.
"She was living with my brother Mike and in Fayetteville and had just turned 85 and lost her own brother about that time," Veronica says. "She was lonely and sad and had basically given up the will to live. We'd never had an emotional connection, but I knew I had to do something, so I brought her to live with me."
One day, she even took her mother to the driving range.
"Frankly, it was out of pure frustration," she says. "Nothing I could say or do would get through to her. So I put her in the car and brought her with me to the golf course. I put an eight-iron in her hand, showed her a proper grip and stance, and showed her how to swing a golf club. I don't know what I expected."
Her mom pegged the ball 100 yards down the fairway.
"I couldn't believe what I was seeing," says Veronica. "She'd never played a round of golf in her life. I took her to the first tee, and she hit a three-wood 150 yards to the heart of the fairway. We soon played nine holes at Pine Needles, and it was like that the whole way around. She turned out to be a great putter, too -- an absolute natural at playing the game."
All these years, Veronica had believed her gift and passion for golf had come from her late father. Suddenly she realized it may have come from her little hard-working mom.
Most important of all, she couldn't believe the life and determination she suddenly saw in her mother's eyes.
"She was like a brand new person out there, eyes lit up and full of fire," Veronica says. "I remember she scuffed a shot at one point and got furious with herself -- like a player who has been playing for years. It was the most marvelous time I'd had on a golf course in years."
Because she reached out to her mother, Veronica says, both their lives were unexpectedly transformed.
"I'd spent the first 40 years of my life focusing entirely on the performance end of the game and finally began to free myself from that trap," she says. "But it took this breakthrough with my mom to show me how the most important relationships can thrive through this game."
The two began regularly playing nine holes and having putting contests.
"She even insisted at one point on walking and carrying her clubs," Veronica says. "I let her do this on the four-hole loop at Pine Needles. She came home from the golf course, put up her feet, and asked for a cold beer. She was suddenly like golfers everywhere!"
Several weeks ago, when her mother turned 90, Veronica filmed Mildred putting at the Pinehurst Resort.
"Mom," she asked her, "what would you say is the secret to golf at 90?"
Mildred Karaman smiled. "Hard work and a few bottles of cold beer every now and then," she said.
'Never Too Late'
Mildred is back living in Fayetteville now, and her daughter Veronica recently relocated to the Sandhills to begin an innovative family practice in which she hopes to incorporate teaching the game and broader life skills. Her goal is to find a local resort that would welcome this holistic approach to the game.
"What's clear to me from my own experience," says Veronica, "is that it's never too late to reach out and begin again and open a wonderful new world of family communication. My dream now is to develop a family-enrichment program that involves all generations through golf."
On Oct. 28, at the Pine Needles Resort where this life-changing event first took place, Veronica and her golf-loving mom will host the first-ever "Grandma Open," a four-hole competition and skills challenge aimed at bringing the generations together.
"My hope is that people who love golf will bring out their children and their parents and even their grandparents for two hours of discovering each other the way Mom and I did," says Veronica. "There will be a few prizes, but the real trophy isn't anything you can put on a shelf. It's what you may take away in your heart.
"The greatest treasure I've had in life is walking down the fairway with my mom and feeling my dad smile from above."
Entry forms for the Grandma Open are available at Robert's Golf. For further information, contact Veronica Karaman at CoachForeyou@aol.com
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