21: Dad’s Magic Clubs

21: Dad’s Magic Clubs

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tales of Golf and Sport

Dad’s Magic Clubs

My father died last month. He was eighty-six, in poor health, and his passing was not unexpected. His funeral was marked by an outpouring of affection and accolades. If novenas, Masses and prayers mean anything, then Dad is already a consultant to St. Peter. Ironically, this outpouring of adoration was not fully appreciated by his children.

My father was a medical doctor, and by all accounts, a good one. His specialty was bringing babies into the world, and he loved it. He came from a generation that believed that the doctor an expectant mother saw throughout her pregnancy was the one who should be there at the birth. Many a seashore excursion, vacation or special occasion was delayed, curtailed or postponed because Mrs. So-and-so’s baby was due at any moment.

I was always amazed by how many parents named their sons Joseph, after my father. Patients loved him. He had a way of making each individual feel like the most important person in the world. He was also a man of the people outside the office and hospital. His Irish heritage, of which he was immensely proud, his love of poetry and his sense of humor made him a sought-after speaker for public and private affairs. In short, he was a charming man. Unfortunately, his children believed that wherever he parked his car each night was the same place he parked his charm.

Dad was a strict and demanding parent. He was the oldest of five in hard economic times, and his childhood was purposeful, tough and short. In turn, he expected his children to think and act like adults. Our dinner table was not always a happy place.

Having said that, it was my father who introduced me to golf. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, sports to a male teen meant baseball, football and basketball. I did not know another teenager who played golf. My friend, Frank Costello, and I were recruited to caddie for Dad and his friends. The bags were heavy, the pay pitiful, and we were expected to find balls in places where no golf ball—much less human—should go. Frank and I soon discovered it was good sense to have something else planned for Wednesdays and Saturdays.

As a caddie, I learned about the quality of golf scores. I knew that anybody who could regularly break 100 was a good golfer. And if they could score in the 80s, they were great golfers. It never dawned on me that an amateur could shoot in the 70s.

Then my father joined a golf club—Upper Montclair Country Club, a quality 27-hole layout a dozen miles west of New York City. We had a family membership, and I was encouraged to play. I did so only as an activity of last resort. I usually played by myself and only nine holes. I rarely broke 50 and only did so with the help of mulligans, generous gimmes and a few should-have-beens.

Playing with my father made Latin seem easy. From him, I learned almost nothing about how to play golf, but everything about the game of golf. My first lesson was in the proper pace of golf. Slow play was sinful. To this day,

I am uncomfortable when groups behind us have to wait, even when we are not at fault.

A golfer never steps to the tee without at least two balls in his pocket. If you need to hit a second ball, it is bad manners to make everyone wait while you return to your bag. Dad was a stickler for preparation. Have enough tees and know where your ball marker is. He would be appalled at the condition of my sons’ golf shoes. His were always clean and shining. I suspect, at age sixty-three, I am one of the few left who regularly take polish and brush to their golf shoes.

He disdained practice swings, and his view on winter rules was simple: They are for cheats. Through the years I have played with generals, admirals and politicians, many of whom can give great speeches on honor, duty and country but think nothing of moving the ball all over the course.

Dad was scrupulous about the accuracy of his scores. In later years, when he knew his memory was failing, he would ask his fellow golfers to help him keep track. To Dad, the difference between a seven and an eight was important. I learned that some of the most boring people in the world are those who have to relive every shot after the round. Dad said, “What was done was done, and since most golfers dwell on their bad shots, who cares?”

Dad always had a bet, if only a modest one, but to him competition and survival were synonymous. All of this I learned about golf long before I could play it.

After graduating from college, I went off to a career in the Air Force. Early on, I caught the golf bug, and thanks to Uncle Sam, I had the opportunity to play around the world and throughout the United States. Thanks to Dad, there was never a doubt about how to play the game. As my handicap drifted in the low teens, I put into practice every one of my father’s rules of golf. During those years, I rarely played with Dad. Until my last assignment, we were never closer than one thousand miles, and often our trips home to New Jersey were not compatible with golf weather.

At thirty-eight, I gave up golf for nine years. My wife and I were blessed with seven healthy, active children, and their many activities left little room for golf. When, on his own, my oldest son Michael took up the game, I was lured to golf again. This time the bug hit hard. In 1984, I bought my first semi-custom-fit clubs—Ping woods and Ping Eye Two irons, the blue dot model. New clubs, a back operation and the resultant compact swing brought new vigor to my game and handicap. It also brought a return to playing golf with my father.

Residing in Virginia, I was able to make regular trips north to New Jersey. Dad was now in his mid-seventies and his golf game weak. In his prime, he was thrilled to break 100 and broke 90 only once in his life. But his zest for the game never diminished. We always played for a bet, but his 36 handicap drew a surplus of strokes and he always won. And despite the quality of my handicap, by now a 5, I never played Upper Montclair at my best. Losing to my father I accepted, but Upper Montclair was something else. No matter how well I played, I could not break 80. Shooting 80 or 81 was easy, but I could not get through the barrier.

In late summer of 1991, I headed north to play what turned out to be my last rounds at UMCC. On that glorious weekend I shot 76 and 74. I was pleased beyond measure, but what surprised me the most was the great pleasure my father took in my accomplishment. At age eighty, he made more of a to-do about it than I ever could.

For me, that weekend was the culmination of a forty-year golf odyssey—from a disinterested teenager to a competent amateur golfer. Shortly thereafter, my father fully retired from his medical practice and moved to Hilton Head, South Carolina. We played a number of times at his Moss Creek course, but because of his declining health, we could never relive the magic of that day at Upper Montclair. Through the years, I have come to realize that my father had an appreciation and love for golf that few ever realize.

To him, golf was not just playing eighteen holes; it was the whole experience: the preparation, the wager, the good holes and the bad, the occasional par, the traditional cold potato soup and beer afterward, the discussion of world events, the hot shower and clean clothes. All were integral parts of a golf day, with each segment to be enjoyed to its fullest. The score was important, but only briefly and a small part of the picture.

After that weekend in 1991, my game continued to improve. By late 1992, I was taking myself seriously. Modest success in several one-day senior events led me to believe my golden years would be spent collecting golf prizes.

And then I got greedy. Deciding that my 5 handicap needed to be further lowered, I fell prey to modern technology. Never mind that with my trusty Pings I was playing the best golf of my fifty-eight years. I needed to do better. I gave my clubs to my son John, who is now playing the best golf of his life.

Technology has done wonders for me. Five years and five sets of clubs left me with a 14 handicap and a mechanical hack of a swing.

And then my father died. After the funeral, I remained in Hilton Head for a few days to help Dad’s wife settle his affairs. Our mother had died suddenly many years ago, and we had come to love Dad’s second wife, Louise, dearly. She offered the love and care that few men receive once in a lifetime, much less twice.

One of my tasks was to do something with Dad’s golf equipment. He had a garage full of odds and ends, unopened catalog-company packages containing “magic” putters and wedges. At age eighty-five, Dad was still looking for that par-saving club. All of those were given to junior golf, with one exception: Dad’s final and little-used set of irons were Ping Eye Twos, the blue dot model.

I took them back to Virginia, having no idea what I would do with them. Shortly after my return, I participated in a local three-day tournament. My play was indifferent, and I failed to make the third-day cut.

During the ensuing week, discouraged with golf, I played with my father’s clubs. What happened was mystical. In an eleven-day period I shot 76, 75, 73, 75, 74 and 75. Conventional wisdom says there is no way an honest 14 handicap can play that kind of golf. The next few rounds were not as impressive, but there is no doubt my game has taken an amazing turn. My handicap is plunging, and my swing is easier and more fluid than it has been in years.

Golf is fun again. Why? I only have a clue. For his entire life, my father was considered the consummate charmer. In his lifetime, I received little of that charm. In his clubs, he gave me my share.

~John Keating
Chicken Soup for the Golfer’s Soul

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