We are on the seventh hole of Grand View Lodge’s Pines Golf Course in the north woods of Minnesota in early summer, my father and I. The day is perfect, the sky blue, the air clean and crisp as a fine chardonnay.
The seventh hole is 150 yards from the back tees, all carry over a lake. Beyond the slate-black surface of the water, a small, undulating, bowl-shaped green warms in the afternoon sun.
I tee off first from the blues and hit a lofting eight iron that hangs in the denim sky for the longest time before finally droppingwith a satisfying ‘thunk’ onto the soft grass on the back of the green, thirty feet from the pin. I try my best not to look too pleased.
My father approaches the white tees– ten yards closer– with a seven wood. His yellow windbreaker stretches tightly across his broad shoulders, but a great stiffness displays itself, too, as he takes a cursory practice swipe. Over the years, arthritis has narrowed the range of my father’s swing, eclipsing its power. I have trouble imagining him as the star running back on his high school football team back in Brooklyn, in the days when the Dodgers still played nearby. But he’s got a scrapbook to prove it, and it became a sort of continuous joke in our family that every girl I ever brought home had, with my surreptitious encouragement, asked to see the yellowed clippings that he’s still so proud of after more than half a century– and that I am proud of, too.
My father maneuvers the heel of the club between his strong hands and plants his feet. He is not playing well today, but seems happy just to be out here beneath the fragrant pines.
He draws the club back slowly, with great precision, but as he beings his downswing his left shoulder drops too much and he begins to back away from the ball even as his club head advances to meet it. I recognize that he’s about to knock this shot into the water. I anticipate the splash, his mild expletive, the way my dad will smile grimly and shrug his shoulders, as if he’d inadvertently burped at the table.
Of course, I watch anyway. I listen to the ping of metal wood against ball and see the low-trajectory shot barely skim above the surface of the water like a hydroplane, like a bomber on a low strafing mission, like a crop duster nearly dragging its wheels in the corn, before eventually, somehow, curling onto the green and breaking toward the hole. It wasn’t pretty, but he’s knocked it fifteen feet from the flag stick, half as close as my ball. He grins so completely– as if he’d meant to hit this particular shot– that his whole face reddens and expands, and I think he might dance a jig right there on the tee box. But he just bows instead, doffing the novelty hat that always embarrasses me– it is white, the visor splattered with greenish blobs of plastic meant to represent bird droppings, and emblazoned with the words: I HATE SEA GULLS.
To anyone who happens to see us today, we must appear simply as a father and son out enjoying a round of golf together, cheering each other’s good shots, ruing the bad ones. Earlier, when I mishit a long iron on the second hole, my dad whispered, “Keep your head down,” as fathers have whispered to their sons for centuries, whether or not lifting heads had anything to do with why the sons’ shots went awry. This is a piece of advice– like saying “Be careful” when they hand over the car keys– that human evolution has genetically imprinted upon paternal DNA.
But Beyond this obvious fairway view of a father and son sharing a leisurely pastime, of acting out our respective roles in an ancient ritual, far more is going on amid the pines and wildflowers on this summery Midwestern day. Something else is occurring between us that demonstrates how much deeper and wider the game of golf extends.
Many men of my generation share a common disappointment that our fathers were always, and continue to be, unreachable; while their advice (if they provided any) regarding power tools and mutual funds sometimes proves helpful, when it comes to relationships, illness, or any other more emotional subject, the men who helped raise us often have nothing to say. Perhaps, burdened with traditional and now outmoded views of the family– that a father must simply work hard and provide for his family’s material comforts– our dads failed to recognize that what we really needed from them was so much simpler: an hour to toss a ball back and forth in the yard, an opportunity (even one disguised by the ritual of sport) to stand around and talk. That we craved at least a glimpse of what they were like on the inside, beyond their beard stubble, the scents of tobacco and cologne, and the crisp twenties from their wallets. That we wished only to know what they were thinking and feeling, to hear that the were scared sometimes, or felt pain, or worried about making it in the world. To see the vulnerability that, when my generation became men, we realized must have been there in our dads all along. To receive the wisdom of their age and experience and even their mistakes, to hear about their triumphs and regrets, rather than always watching them act strong and remain silent in the face of responsibility, suffering, even death. To have a mentor whom we could emulate as we grew toward manhood and developed as individuals.
In other ages and societies, a boy became a man by participating in some sort of ancient ritual: You prepared for your first hunt, or received a tattoo, or read from the Talmud. In many cases, all of the older mine in the tribe– grandfathers and uncles as well as fathers– took an active part in passing something along to you. Today not only do we lack formal rites of passage, but our fathers often fail to pass on anything at all besides a feeling of emptiness– a legacy of longing and anger and loss, of unfulfilled expectation for something we didn’t even know how to ask for and which they didn’t know how to give.
Today, being a man can mean something very different: It often calls for strength, but also requires being strong enough to express occasional weakness or doubt. It encompasses a broader base of experiences, including sensitivity and emotion. Having discovered how much richer manhood can be and having seen beyond the narrow view adopted by previous generations, many of the men I’ve grown up with hunger for what we missed. Finding nothing to emulate, we may instead rebel against who our fathers are, and become individuals that way.
Knowing, suddenly, what is possible between people, many of us wish we’d had a different kind of relationship with our fathers. If we’re honest enough to admit we still crave this, and lucky enough still to have the opportunity, many of us seek to change that relationship based on what we’ve learned, on who we’ve become. We want our fathers now to be– and to have been– different. But when they simply behave as they always have, in the only way they know how to behave, we become disappointed and frustrated anew. Finally recognizing what’s possible between fathers and sons, we resent our dads for living and relating to us according to worn old patterns. We grow angry that they’re not capable of (or maybe don’t desire) the broader and richer lives we want for ourselves.
In fact, without even recognizing it as such, many men seek to change their relationships with their fathers much earlier. Ever since my dad really taught me to play golf at age twelve, I’ve competed against him relentlessly. But for many years, no matter how much my own game progressed, I always lost to my father. He’d play ten strokes better than his handicap against me, and I’d always slice a coupe of drives OB trying to impress him with my distance and so score ten strokes higher than usual. His psychological edge seemed unassailable. Our contests were largely unspoken, and there was never any animosity, but one measure of our relationship was that I wanted to break through the barrier that prevented me from beating him. I wanted to pass him by on my way to some great accomplishment; that is what growing up means to a young man. Perhaps, too, I sought to change our relationship so as to become my father’s friend, his equal, by besting him at the game he first taught me to play.
Some things about this particular trip to Minnesota hint at such changes. We’re visiting Grand View Lodge, for example, because I’m on assignment for one of the golf magazines I write for, and I’ve invited my father along as my guest. We’re playing on my turf, so to speak; my life has arranged this outing, and I’m the one signing for the room. I know it must please my father, who has been mildly obsessed with golf for his entire life, that not only have I embraced the game but I also earn a good part of my living from it. I think he is amazed every time he seems my byline on magazine stories about golf courses in places as far-flung as Nepal and Oregon, Arizona and Cote d’Ivoire. The very love the the game that took me to all those places, and to this one, is a gift from him– one of the very few things we really share, that he managed to offer and I managed to accept.
Before it occured to me to invite my dad along on this particular trip, I’d been thinking about a man nicknamed Gumby, whom I met while researching a magazine story on handicapped scuba divers down in the Caribbean a few years back. When he was in high school, Gumby had been a scratch golfer, with aspirations to take a shot at the tour. He’d just received a golf scholarship to college, and was beginning to envision his life around the game he loved so much. When I met him some twenty-five years later, you could still detect a certain lanky confidence– that kind of cocky good humor common to tour players– in the way Gumby moved in his wheelchair.
The world had changed for him in every way when, at age eighteen, he had been left paraplegic by a car accident. The accident took away, among many other more important things, his ability to play golf.
As we sat at a bar looking out over the turquoise waters off Bonaire, Gumby told me that what he missed most was not the lost opportunity to become a player, not the dreamed-of future, not the possibility of competition, big money, or an applauding gallery; it was the simple act of golfing with his dad. They had never been close, Gumby said, and golf had been the one thing they shared. Since his accident, since they stopped playing together, he and his father hadn’t managed to get along very well any more.
Like so many fathers and sons, my dad and I couldn’t be much more different from each other. He went into his father’s business; stayed in the New York area, where he was raised; had two children whose Little League games he always attended (though the coaches barely ever played me); put my brother and me through college; and paid off the thirty-year mortgage on his first home.
I am still singe at age thirty-four; have never held a real job in my life; move from city to city with apparent casualness; and run away to other places whenever I get the chance.
My dad is traditional, conservative, dependable; I question everything and make few commitments. We have virtually nothing in common except golf, and our differences are obvious even in the way we approach the game.
For my father, golf is something to distract him for a few hours each Sunday, a way to get outside with his friends in the fresh salt air that blows off the wetlands surrounding his club on Long Island. He plays the same golf course week after week after week– another measure of his steady, solid character. Several times each season, he’ll glean a tip from one of the golf magazines I write for, saying that he got his new chipping style from Chi Chi– as if they were old pals.
My game is wildly erratic. I’ll play four holes in a row at one under par and then rack up a pair of quadruple bogeys because it takes me three shots to get off the tee or out of the sand. For me, the game itself isn’t nearly as important as where it takes me– both physically and philosophically. I love the transcendent potential, which is something my father probably wouldn’t consciously understand. I love the way you can play golf in the most remote surroundings, yet it’s still the same game it would be on the bright, manicured fairways of the toniest country club. I love the levels beyond the fairway that my dad would probably admit had never occurred to him.
My dad, in essence, is the fairway. I am like the wild grass that begins at its edges and moves off into deeper rough.
Still, the game has room for many visions, and I used to imagine that playing together would provide an opportunity for my dad and me to get to know each other, and that it might somehow provide the catalyst for the change in our relationship that I’ve always hoped for. I imagined that, driving between holes in a golf cart, he would impart some kind of wisdom to me, that we’d express our tightly guarded emotions and nobody but the game would know.
Nothing quite so obvious has happened– which isn’t to say that nothing’s happened at all.
In recent years, as I’ve begun playing a little more seriously and my dad has slowed down from his arthritis and a couple of rounds of minor surgery, the balance of power has finally shifted. As much as he still struggles to improve, my father is losing his grip on the game. When we play together a few times a year now, I usually beat him by eight or ten strokes.
My dad still loves golf as much as anyone I’ve ever met, and it saddens me to realize that he will probably never get much better at it than he is now, at age seventy, and that maybe he’ll never be as good as he’s dreamed was possible over nearly four decades of play. Of course, he never mentions any of this, but I’m learning to intuit some of the things I wish he’d talk about.
He is proud when I beat him– if I’ve played well– and makes a kind of ceremony out of paying me the two or three dollars I’ve won. He may brag about my long drives to the other men in his Sunday foursome. At dinner, he’ll tell my mother about one or another of the shots I hit, and she’ll smile indulgently, perhaps marveling at this strange thing between men.
An early step in evolving as a man simply involves realizing how rich a relationship can be, and being brave enough to want that richness. Many men accomplish this when they fall in love, are grateful for what they’ve found, and don’t choose to look back. Others of us are determined and naive and maybe stupid enough still to want more from our fathers now that we’re capable of something more.
At the same time, some men also recognize that what’s excitingly possible in our own lives may not be so for our fathers, and at this point an entirely deeper level of evolution can occur. By accepting our fathers with all their limitations, and what they want and are capable of, we can cause anger and disappointment and regret to fall away so that for the first time we see our dads differently– truly, beyond subjectivism, for the men they really are. And in so doing– in moving beyond rebellion and seeing beyond subjectivism to the simple, realistic, and transcendent Zenness of the relationship– we more fully become our individualistic selves.
Ultimately, the responsibility for changing our relationships with our fathers lies purely within ourselves. Many of us– regardless of our efforts– will never have the fathers we want; possibly no man ever really does. So we can spend our lives in anger and resentment even if our dads are guilty of nothing more than being themselves. We can also fail to see how, in their own subtle and possibly limited ways, our fathers express love differently than we might want them to, but manage to express it all the same. We can also fail to offer it back to them in a way they’ll understand.
When our fathers talk to us about power tools and mutual funds, real estate and fishing, carpentry and golf, we can choose to see this as evidence of their failure to relate to us directly on an emotional level, but we can also choose to see it as their way of expressing a love they might not have the capacity to share in any other way or to talk about. In many families, these are the rituals that connect sons with their fathers, and dads with their sons– men who without such rituals, such koans of fatherhood, would have even less in common.
As we ride in the golf cart in silence from the tee box up to the seventh green at Grand View Lodge, I think about my father’s round so far today. He’s collected a small pile of double bogeys already. He topped a fairway iron on the third hole, knocked his drive on number four into the woods, and flubbed a pitch shot just short of the sixth green (Chi Chi’s fault, I thought to myself). Of course, he’s hit some good ones, too, and I wonder if there is any greater pleasure in the world than what my dad feels when he punches out an admirable drive or chips in from thirty yards away– especially if he needed the shot to win the hole. In fact, those are some of the few times when he can’t control and suppress his emotions and I really know what he feels.
We walk onto the putting surface, where both our white golf balls stand out against the fluorescent color of the green. Sometimes it is a perfect world and there’s simply nothing to say, nothing else, even, to want.
I’m actually nervous when my father steps up to stalk the line of his putt. For a moment, as he stands over his shiny X-out, I see him clearly, without the aura of illusion that sons so often reserve for their dads. I see him as a gentle, generous, loving father, a man who has never really let himself feel very much, who passionately wants to do things the right way, the good way, who wants to be closer to people, and to me, but just doesn’t know how.
Someday my dad will not be out here with me. Someday I won’t even be able to call him from a scrubby, unknown golf course out in the strange universe– as I’ve done from Texas and Idaho and Thailand– to tell him I just sunk my first eagle, or broke my own personal best, and to hear his pride in me. But even then, even when I’m alone in the world in a way that all men must eventually be alone in the world– without a father– he’ll know when I’ve played well, because my dad will always be someplace inside of my swing.
On the fairway, we play that very traditional Scottish game called golf. Simultaneously, beyond that fairway, we share something unspoken– a love for this game that in all its mythical beauty helps us to communicate a love for each other.
When he finally sets his stance and strokes the ball, I will it to break and fall into the cup the same way he must have willed me toward a smooth natural swing at the driving range twenty years ago. It surprises me to realize that I am rooting for my father to play his very best.
I’m hoping that he makes ten birdies.
I’m hoping that he kicks my butt.