Family Affair

This story originally appeared in Links Magazine in 2001.

I’ve always been fond of both adventure travel and golf, and I recently had the opportunity to combine the two– by undertaking an adventurous golf trip with my girlfriend Renee and my parents.  What could be more fraught with danger than risking twelve hours in the car with Mom and Dad?

It happened like this: Renee and I decided to spend last Thanksgiving with my folks in Florida.  To help defer trip costs, I landed an assignment to visit and write about the new Ocean Hammock Golf Club, in Palm Coast.  The course was so new management assured me I’d be the first person to ever play the spacious Jack Nicklaus oceanside design, which would open officially two weeks after my visit.  Not even Jack had golfed the completed layout.  I smelled course record!

It also happens that my father has played golf nearly his entire life; it’s his most intense passion.  When I was growing up, the game provided his sole diversion from a six-day work week.   It’s also one of few interests we share.  I figured taking my Dad along to Ocean Hammock might give him a small thrill.  For the past several months, he’d been recovering from cancer surgery that involved removing part of his hip bone, and he’d been making slow progress.  Mom reported that even after a few weeks, he could barely maneuver his walker to the front yard, where he likes to hold court in his bathrobe, smoking and greeting the neighbors.

Before the surgery (his third in recent years), Dad’s doctor promised him he’d eventually be able to play golf again.  I suspected that golf was driving his recovery.  Each Sunday when we spoke on the phone, he’d boast about the five ghost swings he’d executed in the living room, or tell me that he’d picked up and gripped an actual club.  I hoped that setting a deadline by which he would need to actually hit full shots might speed his convalescence.  If he wasn’t up to it, I told him, I’d hit all the long shots and he could chip and putt– a sort of modified father/son scramble.

In putting together this golf game, and inviting Mom and Renee along, I had an ulterior motive, as well: to draw my parents and my girlfriend together in a way that might bond them.  Although Mom has never even ventured a practice swing, I figured she could drive one of the carts, and maybe provide some color commentary if anyone happened to hit a good shot.

When I first pitched this particular story to my editor at Links, he feared a syrupy, over-dramatic tale of love and reconciliation with altogether too much potential for hugging.  He suggested that everything didn’t necessarily have to work out smoothly.  I knew he was rooting for at least a minor blow-up, if not a full-on festival of family dysfunction.

Which I thought about during the six-hour drive from Delray Beach to Palm Coast, as my Dad read aloud every road sign we flew past.

“Look, honey.  Stuckeys,” he said thirty two times.

“Look, honey.  $1.99 super value meal,” he repeated every twelve miles.

For her part, after asking several times when and where we wanted to eat, Mom forced us to have lunch at The Cracker Barrel “no earlier than 12:30” but, it turned out, no later than 12:30, either

*                           *                           *

The stellar staff at Ocean Hammock Golf Club currently top my list of people whom I wish lottery jackpots upon, and they are all welcome at my own door at any time.  Under the sensitive oversight of Head Pro Chuck Kandt, they treated us like visiting dignitaries in spite of the pressure of having to open a new golf course in two weeks.  They welcomed us with sparkling rental clubs, sleeves of balls, logoed shirts, boxed lunches, and that rarest of all things at golf courses today: genuine hospitality.  I believed they were actually glad to see us.  My parents– who’d not really witnessed me “at work” before– were impressed.

Following our warm reception, two O.H. staff members escorted us to the practice range, where four perfect pyramids of golf balls glistened on the untouched grass.  Twenty minutes later we all stood nervously on the number one tee as the marshal finished his orientation and invited us to let fly the first official shots on this virgin course.  I stepped up and absolutely RIPPED a high fade far down the center of the fairway.  Renee, who only golfs occasionally, and only occasionally well, unwrapped her long, lovely and often dazzlingly inaccurate swing to punch a respectable line drive out into the green expanse.

I’d played enough golf with my Dad to know that he would swing hard and clumsily, stepping away from the ball at the same time that he tried to kill it dead, and thereby stub an embarrassing dribbler to the end of the tee box.  I held another ball in my pocket, ready to proffer the requisite mulligan.

But Dad teed off with a three-iron and modeled the best swing I’d seen him make in two decades, following through to a perfect finish position and only looking up in time to see the result land and bounce in the center of the fairway 160 yards out.  Mom smiled, no doubt assuming he always executed shots like this.

Out on the fairway, Dad nutted another long iron to just short of the elevated green, pitched close to the pin, and made the first par ever recorded on Ocean Hammock.  He hadn’t performed this well since the Carter administration.  After being unable to get out on the course for so long, Dad had come to play.

We went on in this way, hitting some fine shots and a few not worth describing.  After several frustrating holes swinging her ladies’ rental set, Renee switched to my clubs and suddenly adopted a new golf personality.  She tied my bogey 4 on the 146-yard fourth hole, which amused her to no end.  We laughed a lot, and nearly melted into a group hug several times.  Who knew that hanging with loved ones could be this much fun?

Not to disappoint my editor, there was tension, too.  I spent much of the day managing these golfers who lost themselves in the scenery, in the wonder of balls and grass and palms dancing in the wind; at one point a foursome of tortoises asked if they could maybe play through.  Additionally, I had to explain the 90-degree cart rule to my Dad at least one time for each degree.  And throughout the round, he continually exclaimed “Nice shot!” even when I sliced a drive into the tullies, topped an approach into a bunker, or bladed a chip over the green.  He wanted them to be nice shots; what could I say?  Renee, on the other hand, couldn’t seem to remember that the higher the number on the club, the shorter the distance it hit the ball.  Mom, for her part, at first refused to drive the cart altogether; when she relented, she still wouldn’t take it out onto the fairways, which was necessary to minimize dad’s walk to his ball.  Mom was also skeptical of that ninety-degree thing.

On the seventh hole, a reef of thunderclouds gathered off shore, threatening a storm of biblical proportions.  Lightning cleaved the sky, sliding closer all the time.  I willed it away, prayed that the weather would not ruin this rare opportunity.  But on the eighth hole, where the gray ocean suddenly popped into view as we walked up to the green, the marshal asked us to come inside.  It rained like it only can in the tropics– hard enough to drive nails– as we ate lunch huddled in the makeshift clubhouse.  Then, twenty minutes later, the sky lightened; we’d been granted a reprieve.

On the back nine, I recognized that we were in a race to finish before dark and I herded my family along like a sheep dog nipping at the animals to keep them moving when they wished only to graze.  On the last two holes, as we squinted to see our drives against the darkening sky I thought: we’ll never make it.  My family won’t simultaneously hold the men’s, women’s, and senior course records, if only for a day.

But somehow we chipped up to the eighteenth green as nightfall slurped the final light off the ocean.  Back at the clubhouse, the staff greeted us like Odysseus returned home after his long journey.

We scored no holes-in-one that day.  We staged no dramatic scenes of connection or reconciliation– but there were no shouting matches either.  We exhibited no kissy-faced earnestness.  We played golf steadily and sometimes quietly and occasionally well.  We switched cart partners every six holes so everyone had a chance to ride with everyone else.  We were simply a family playing golf in the afternoon, hoping to finish before the rains came again or darkness fell.

My Dad shot 103 with the help of some slightly creative scorekeeping.  Who’s really to say that a 75-year-old man recovering from surgery and playing his first full round of golf in months shouldn’t be allowed to re-tee whenever he damned well feels like it?  Which is why I advocate an amendment to the rules of golf: a mulligan for every radiation treatment undergone with quiet dignity.  A conceded putt for each painful step from walker to walking again.

After our round, Dad admitted that in a half-century of golfing, this was the best experience he’d ever enjoyed.  He talks about it still.

For me it was equally as good.  For an entire afternoon of sunbreaks and thunderstorms, swaying palms and sunken putts, I traveled through a beautiful place with only my parents and the woman I love.  We created some stories that we’ll continue to tell for years to come.  And I watched my aging father unobtrusively and without comment or complaint, set the Ocean Hammock senior course record and simultaneously kick cancer’s ass.  I have never been more proud.

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