DADDY TEES OFF

DADDY TEES OFF

From Chicken Soup for the Golfer's Soul The Second Round

Daddy Tees Off

All children find chaos congenial.

George F. Will

If James Joyce was right about our errors being portals of discovery, then a miniature golf course—the Poconos Putt-o-Rama—was the door to Saint Basil’s Cathedral. I made a honey of a mistake there, and on the 11th hole (dogleg left, up a ramp, through an alligator to an elevated plywood green) I made one major discovery about children.

It was Rebecca’s sixth birthday. The plan was to simulate the PGA championship: cake and juice and miniature golf for everybody. According to the log at Putt-o-Rama, my wife Jody paid green fees for eighteen.

Even before we teed off, there were bad omens. The kids battled over who would play with what color ball. Brenda complained that green didn’t match her shorts. Julian hated yellow.

Sensing chaos, I jumped into the breach with parental authority. “Rule number one: Any dispute over the color of your golf ball, ” I said, choosing order over good cheer, “will result in immediate disqualification.”

I looked over at Sean, who had Joey in a chokehold with the midget putter.

“Rule number two, ” I went on, “no player shall at any time hold his club against the trachea of another player.”

“What’s a traker?” Brendan asked.

“It’s my neck, ” Joey gasped.

“Close enough, ” I said.

While the kids were choosing clubs, Jeffrey claimed to have won the world miniature golf championship. His twin brother, Mark, in an attempt to publicly humiliate his clone, shouted, “He’s never even played miniature golf before.”

Nice, I thought, very nice.

“Shut up, Mark. I have too played golf.”

“Oh, yeah? When?”

“Uh, uh . . . I . . . I . . . , ” Jeffrey stammered, paralyzed by the fact that he and the Grand Inquisitor not only had identical DNA packages but identical life histories. “I played once when you were asleep.”

My heart broke for the little liar.

But before I could even say anything in his defense, Jeff lunged past me and stabbed his brother in the belly with the business end of his putter. When I stepped between them, I took a club head in the kneecap.

I should have enjoyed it more; it was the high point of my day.

On the tee at No. 1, the first foursome argued about who should tee it up first. I gaily suggested the birthday girl should have the honor and then we go in birthday order. Mark said that was unfair to kids born nine minutes after their stupid-head brother. He teed up his ball in protest. Another boy—Brian, I think—kicked it into a wishing well on the 9th fairway.

I wrapped five or six of the kids in a big old Daddy hug—or was it a threatening headlock?—and gave a quick little speech about how if there were sportsmanship we would all have a wonderful time. Absent cooperation, I went on, our memories of Becky’s birthday would be full of recrimination.

“Rule number three, ” I had to announce a few minutes later, “no player shall help another player count his shots.”

“Eleven . . . twelve . . . , ” said Jill in gleeful play-by-play on Beth’s first dozen strokes.

“Three, ” Beth chirruped as her ball clunked into the hole.

There was mayhem in the air.

I did a quick count of the children. Came up one short.

“Jody, give me a count, will ya?” I yelled through the clamor to Mom.

“I make us minus one, ” she shouted back, apparently unconcerned since both of the kids to whom she had given birth were accounted for.

I grew frantic. There’s nothing I hate more than having to tell a parent I lost a child somewhere on the front nine. “Lock the front gate, ” I shouted to the kid in charge.

“Hey, I don’t do security, pal, ” he replied. “I do lessons.”

I grabbed a perfectly calm little girl—Wendy, I later learned her name was—by her shoulders and said with panic in my voice, “We’ve got to find somebody.”

“Who?” she asked.

“I don’t know. Who’s missing?” I answered.

“I think Jonathan’s in the windmill, ” she said, clearly worried I was exactly the type of man her parents had warned her never to talk to.

I raced across to the windmill and found a little boy cowering inside. He was holding a rather large hunk of devil’s food, which appeared to have been ripped from the birthday cake we had left in the pro shop “for later.”

“Are you with the Becky O’Neill party?” I asked.

“Yes, ” he confessed, trying to hide the fistfuls of cake behind his back.

By the 5th hole everybody was hitting golf balls simultaneously. Orange and blue and green golf balls were whirring around Putt-o-Rama, like mesons in a particle accelerator. Becky’s friend Jessica hit a shot that would have done Tom Kite proud—a low boring liner that ricocheted off Sneezy’s foot into Josh’s chin.

“Hey, mister, there’s a liability ceiling of ten grand, ” said the teenage manager.

By the 10th hole, kids were actually dueling with their putters. There was dental work in the air.

The kids were no longer playing golf but some variation of hockey, pushing their balls toward the hole, a la Gretzky swooping the puck across the neutral zone. Every one of them claimed to have a hole-in-one on every hole. Believe it or not, when we got to the 11th hole—the seven-yard dogleg left through the alligator—things got worse.

Brendan, who was—may God hold him in the hollow of his hand—the only child still actually striking his ball, rolled a handsome putt up the ramp and cleanly into the alligator’s throat. It did not, however, come out the other side.

“Becky’s Dad, ” he said sweetly, “my ball got stucked.” He actually appeared to think I could help him, that maybe a grown-up knew something a six-year-old didn’t. I loved him for that.

I got on my hands and knees and peered down the reptile gullet into darkness. There was no light at the end of this tunnel. But I could see Brendan’s ball stuck near the papier-mâché reptile larynx.

I stretched out on my stomach across the fairway and reached down the gator’s throat. The ball, needless to say, was just out of my reach.

I stretched still more.

I grazed the ball with my fingertips, tried to poke it out the other side. No luck. I strained. I could feel the ball’s dimples.

“Can you get it, Becky’s Dad?” asked the only child in the world I cared about at all.

“Almost, Brendan . . . , ” I croaked.

“Fore, ” I heard from behind the castle.

Brendan turned at the sound.

A golf ball whizzed past his knee.

And hit my temple with a fleshy clomp.

“Aaarrrgggghhhhh . . . , ” I opined, rolling over on my stomach, in the process twisting my arm in the alligator’s throat. When I tried to pull it free, I couldn’t budge.

“Brendan, ” I said with fake calm in the manner of Timmy telling Lassie to go get help, “go find Becky’s Mommy.” I cast a fearful sidelong glance at the tiny foursome up ahead. They could sense weakness. If they knew I was helpless, they’d pounce.

Mark looked back at me, prone and pinned. He smiled a carnivorous smile. He said something to his brother, who turned to look at me but then decided to whack his brother with his putter again. I remember the sound of cast iron against anklebone.

The last thing I remember clearly is Jody arriving at my side. I remember resting my head in her lap.

What was the lesson I learned? Actually, I learned two lessons—one practical, one philosophical.

The practical parent lesson was never to give eighteen six-year-olds clubs, projectiles and large doses of sugar at the same time.

The philosophical lesson was that children are the opposite of golf. Golf is a liturgy of etiquette and manners. Golf is manicured, refined and disciplined. Golf is self-control. Children are none of those things. Children are—what’s the word?—wild.

“In wildness is the preservation of the world, ” wrote Thoreau. He never wrote a word about minigolf.

Hugh O’Neill

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