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Down East With Dad And Donald Ross

Golf literature overflows with tales of fathers and sons, kinship both actual and symbolic, wherein wisdom is passed down the generations via the game, and ties are deepened. Experience tells me that not all such relations are so neat.

Despite oft-stated requests to be left to my own devices, or words to that effect, my father, Stanley, generally starts in with his maddeningly idiosyncratic tips right after an errant tee ball on number one ("Try curling your toes--it's working for me!"). Nor do our personalities play cart golf: His capacity for operatic joy and anguish ("How could that putt break that way?Impossible!") is endless, whereas I am the dour realist ("It just does, okay?").

Fifteen years ago, Dad lost most of the hearing in his left ear when he was struck by a golf ball--his own. His pulled approach shot from the rough boomeranged off a round support stake holding up a sapling. The stake was ten feet in front of him and maybe two inches in diameter. Dad laughs whenever he tells that story ("I could stand there the rest of my life and never do it again! What a shot!"). For those of us forever being told to enunciate more clearly, the story has a somewhat darker cast, the symbolism redolent of Greek tragedy.

So this is why I sit to his right on the twin-engine plane taking us from Long Island to Portland, Maine.

En route from the Portland airport, we miss the turn into the recently minted Dunegrass Golf Club, whose tiny sign might as well be camouflaged. The place portends much Yankee modesty: a human-scale clubhouse rather than a château, reasonable green fees and a booze-free beverage cart. Here, golf feels pleasingly like recreation and not reve-nue generation.

Dunegrass's opening tee, however, fairly trumpets. The elevated view down the length of the straightaway 547-yard par five provides a voluptuous start, well matched to the idyllic day. We are paired with an affable husband-and-wife team, natives, and a good thing--Dad has to behave himself, more or less, and I can't sulk.

We both make routine pars, an auspicious and much-needed start. (My toes stay straight.) I card two pars and a birdie the first four holes before returning to bogey form, and Dad, still a seven-handicap at age sixty-six, breaks eighty. But he throws away my note-filled scorecard, provoking a healthy serving of guilt ("I'm writing an article, for godsake!"). That is later, however; the round goes swimmingly. Dunegrass is a fine opener, picturesque and varied, penal but not venomous. Only after making the rounds of Maine, however, does one see that, with this course's open greens, manageable length, broad shoulders and gentle soul, it is in many ways the child of its predecessors. And, my father would have me point out, it's in trophy-wife shape ("Not a blade of crabgrass!"). That night, we visit Portland's waterfront district, a lively mix of cobblestone charm and college bars. At bustling Fore Street--named for its address, not golf--Dad does his usual bit of asking the waitress her name, whichhe knows drives me nuts. Then he tells her I'm not feeling well (I'm not) and asks about the blandest items on the menu, and I feel like a jerk for being annoyed at having to raise my voice so much. Then he puts a dollop of butter and four shakes of salt on his bread--despite the angioplasty a few years back, he eats like a teenager--and I get annoyed all over again.

In 1920, Donald Ross remodeled and expanded cape Neddick Country Club, near Ogunquit, to eighteen holes. The back nine was abandoned during World War II, and only last summer did the course return to its full measure. The new layout, open to nonmembers after Labor Day, contains a mix of old Ross holes and new ones added by Brian Silva, an avid student of the master's work. Because of an outing, we can only play the back nine, but this proves enough to get a sense of the place.

Not surprising given the course's recent makeover, its condition is spotty but in a likable way--lived in, alive. To distinguish between Ross's and Silva's work here would take an eye for architecture keener than mine, but the antecedent's hand is immediately evident: A mound some twenty yards short of the tenth green gives the illusion that the characteristically small putting surface is much closer than it is. Dad proves unimpressed by such touches ("What's the point?"). And so a theme is born: The father is the modernist, wants the problem clearly presented; the son is the classicist, likes the quirkiness.

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