So I grew up, if not loving golf, then watching it. But I never felt the urge to play. Our high school didn’t have a girls’ team; for girls, there was one spring sport: track. I ran hurdles. Seriously.
Sometime around age 30, however, I decided I wanted to learn to play, and I knew whom I wanted as my teacher. My dad was a pretty good player and had taught a lot of local kids over the years — why not me? So I casually mentioned that maybe we could hit some balls on my next visit.
So when my vacation rolled around, I flew to Kansas City, rented a car, drove the four hours to Lincoln, Kan., and promptly fell asleep — I was still working nights then — while waiting for my parents to get home from work. When I awoke, there was a new set of clubs in a baby blue bag next to my bed, and my dad was standing there, grinning. Apparently we were going to hit some balls right away.
Our nine-hole, sand-green course had no driving range, so we went to the ninth tee, a decent hill that made even the weakest shot look okay. I smacked a few balls while he gently critiqued what we will kindly refer to as my swing. Then off we went to hole No. 1, where my dad stuck a dollar in a little metal box, grabbed a scorecard, and taught me to play golf.
My first round wasn’t too bad — I shot a 54 — and he was pretty pleased. So was I. I had no idea of what I’d been missing. We rode around in his cart, shooting the breeze, looking at the various wildlife and having a grand old time. Occasionally I had to scale a barbed-wire fence in search of a ball that strayed into the cattle pastures that bordered the course on three sides, but the club thoughtfully provided little wooden ladders — three steps up, three steps down — to help. If your ball landed on a cow patty, well, that was your problem.
Because it was my first time, my dad also took charge of raking the greens, and taught me how to enter and exit the sand to leave the least amount of mess. When I finally played on actual greens for the first time, all my putts — even the gimmes — went about 40 feet until I adjusted to the lack of drag.
I’m never going to be a great golfer, and since I had my shoulder rebuilt last summer, I haven’t even mustered the courage to swing a club. I’m scared to death my club won’t go back, and even more scared that it will — and stay there. That probably won’t happen, but after a torn biceps, rotator cuff and labrum, I think I have a right to be nervous.
I hate the phrase “if only,” if only because I find myself using it more often as I get older. If only I had let my dad teach me when I was in high school, or earlier. I wouldn’t have ended up on the LPGA Tour, but I could have spent more time with my dad.
We did the usual father-daughter things. He taught me to play poker and say things like, “It’s better to squelch the belch and bear the pain than belch the belch and bear the shame.” We watched pro wrestling — I was a Handsome Harley Race fan — and baseball and football. I helped him lay flooring and stain his antique desk and paint the house. (Once he grabbed me by the back of my overalls and dangled me over the peak of the roof on the second story of the house, so I could paint that upper corner and save him a trip up the ladder. That was my Sistine Chapel, in that I lived to tell about it.)
My interest in sports, to a large degree, was spurred by his. I also tried to be the son he never had — you see, he met me as a spoiled 6-year-old and still chose to be my dad. I thought it was the least I could do.
But golf should have been part of the equation a lot earlier.
Over the years, I’ve tried to get my dad a few special golf treats: an autographed drawing of Arnold Palmer, a round with some friends at Oakland Hills in Michigan, a round with me at DuPont Country Club in Delaware, and tickets to the final round of the 1997 U.S. Open, which happened to be Father’s Day.
Friday, my dad arrives for another visit, and we’ll attend the final two rounds, including, once again, Father’s Day. We’ll walk the course together, and because he needs at least one knee replacement (and probably two), I got a couple of those little portable seats. Or we’ll pick a good spot in the shade and just sit and watch the field go by and talk about things, probably nothing important.
I wish I had the nerve to get him to take me back on a golf course again, to see where my swing stands now, after surgery and a decade of rust. I don’t know how much more time he has to teach me, or how much time I have to learn.
We don’t need the manicured beauty of Congressional; maybe on my next visit to Kansas, we can go back to the sand greens and cow patties and start again. I’d like that. I think my dad would like that, too.