THE DYING LIGHT

THE DYING LIGHT

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

The Dying Light

I line up the six-foot putt. All is quiet, save for a few people talking quietly in the distance. Slowly, I take the putter back and stroke the ball. For a split-second, the ball rolls toward the hole, then slides decidedly off to the right, like a car exiting a freeway long before its destination.

“Maybe you’d like to try something else, ” says the young salesman, watching from beside the artificial-turf putting green.

For an instant, our eyes meet. I am standing in one of the West Coast’s largest golf shops, and a young man twenty-five years my junior is telling me—behind his veneer of entrepreneurial etiquette—that I cannot putt.

After thirty-two years of golf frustration, it’s time, I’ve decided, to face the reality that I can no longer blame my ineptness on my irons or woods. Instead, I’ve decided to blame it on my putter. So here I am shopping for a new one. After nine years, I am kissing my Northwestern Tour model good-bye for a younger, sleeker model.

I feel so cheap; alas, I am a desperate man. At forty-five, my golf game is going through a midlife crisis. And so emerges a belief, a hope, a desperate clinging to the idea that I can somehow buy my way back to respectability.

Long a believer that the swing, not the equipment, makes the golfer, I’ve scoffed at friends who plunk down hundreds of dollars to find “new and improved” clubs to help them once again hit the drives of their youth. I’ve chided them for seeing some pro win a tournament, then rushing out to buy the replica of the putter he used; after Jack Nicklaus’s stunning Masters win in 1986, who can forget that rush on putters whose heads were roughly the size of bricks? The golfer makes the club, I’ve long insisted—not the other way around.

But in recent years, my game has gone so far south that even my putter talks with a twang. Blame it on a schedule where golf now makes only a rare guest appearance. After months of not playing, I usually prepare for a round like I prepare for a yearly dental checkup: by flossing the night before—i.e., hitting a bucket of balls—and hoping I can fool the hygienist. Of course, it never works—in the dental chair or on the golf course.

Blame it on a number of other excuses; the bottom line is that some sales kid who didn’t even start shaving until after the invention of the Big Bertha driver is now trying to help save my golf game.

I look up at the kid with one of those don’t-you-think-I know-what-I-need looks on my face, then put my pride on a leash. “Sure, let’s try something else.”

“If you’d like, you can go out on our real putting green and test them, ” says the young salesman.

The kid is nice—he’s only trying to help, after all—but something about this situation just doesn’t seem right. I take three putters, a couple of balls, and start walking toward the outdoor putting green.

“Uh, I’ll need you to leave your driver’s license, ” he says.

“I’ll only be, like, two hundred feet away, ” I say.

“Store policy.”

You gotta be kidding. What’s he think I’m going to do—take three putters and a couple of Titleists and hop the first plane to Mexico?

“Seriously?” I say, thinking that my slight balking will probably waive the mandate.

“Sorry.”

I look at the young man incredulously and say the only thing that’s left to say.

“But I’m your father. Doesn’t that count for something?”

“Sorry, store policy.”

I pull out my driver’s license and hand it to the kid who I once taught to drive. The kid I once taught to play golf. The kid who I haven’t beaten on a golf course since he was a sophomore in high school.

I love this kid. I’m proud that, at age twenty, he’s found himself a job that he likes and is good at. I think it’s wonderful that he has developed into a near-scratch golfer who has shot 69, won back-to-back men’s club championships, and posted an 84 at night, using a glow-in-the-dark ball.

But deep inside I have this tiny dream: to beat him just one last time, at anything: golf, home-run derby, or h-o-r-s-e on the backyard hoop. Like Nicklaus coming back to win the Masters at age forty-seven, I’d like one last hurrah to remind the world I’m still around.

It’s not a vindictive thing at all. It’s just a little pride thing. Not a chest-beating thing, but Pride Lite. Father-son pride. It’s wanting to be the hero one last time. It’s wanting to still be considered significant, like when you give your son a bit of advice about life itself and he tries it and it works and you think: I’m still needed. I still matter.

And one more thing: Weird as this may sound, fathers want their son’s approval. In Ryan’s journal, I wrote this about the first time we played golf together as a team. He was sixteen:

Going to the 18th, the two teams were all even. I nailed a 152-yard 7-iron to within two feet of the cup, sunk the putt for birdie and we won! But I was so nervous standing over that putt, more nervous than you’ll ever know. (Until now.) Why? Because I wanted so badly to prove to you that I wasn’t just this hacker of a dad. That I could pull through. That I could produce under pressure. Because I want you to be the same kind of guy, whether the venue is golf, marriage, work, whatever. I want you to pull through when you need to. Withstand the pressure.

“Do you wanna try one of these putters?” he asks, snapping me back to reality. “This is like the putter you bought me when I beat you for the first time.”

I remember the day. He was fifteen. I shot 88. He shot 86. Though I’d done all I could to prevent it, I was glad he’d won, proud to have been outdueled by my own son. I wrote a mock newspaper article—“Ryan stuns Dad for first win!”—and made good on a promise to buy him the putter of his choice.

Since then, it’s been his show. I’ve watched proudly from the edges of the fairway and learned what it must be like for a kid to grow up with high-achieving parents, because whenever I play now, people expect me to be good because Ryan is. And I’m not.

Not long after Ryan won his second men’s club championship at a Eugene public course, I teed up my opening drive at the same place and promptly hit it out of bounds. It was like Einstein’s father flunking Algebra I.

“So, ” said the starter, “you’re Ryan Welch’s father, huh?” As if he really wanted to say, “So much for that axiom about the acorn not falling far from the tree, huh?”

For the most part, I’ve accepted this role reversal. Twice now, Ryan has had me caddie for him in tournaments that brought together all the winners of club championships from around the state. And I’ve considered it one of the highest honors a father could be accorded: to be able to carry on my back the clubs of a son I used to carry in my arms.

But deep down, the instinct quietly gnaws at me to prove myself—to nobody else but myself.

Bob Welch

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