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Passing the Torch

In the camera’s view screen is my nephew, Patch—my sister Joan’s son—posed in mock astonishment beside a sign that says Crapo Hill Solid Waste Recycling Plant. At fifteen, he is built like a fully extended ball retriever and his once-red hair has darkened to brown. We are stopped down the street from the Titleist factory in New Bedford, Massachusetts—a.k.a. Ball Plant II—killing a few minutes before our scheduled tour.

The public is prohibited from entering Ball Plant II, but we’re not the public. We are Patrick Kelley, junior golfer and would-be Needham High varsity player (“Even if he could just make alternate,” Joan whispers in the kitchen, beseechingly) and his string-pulling golf-journalist uncle.

Yes, I have spent my life in the game, but I came in through a side entrance. My father didn’t play, so my initial connection was all based on work and wages. I started in the caddie yard at Needham Golf Club, outside Boston, then toiled in the bag room and the pro shop and then …Well, did you ever have a period of your life unfold so quickly you are left unable to grasp its meaning?That’s what happened to me with the all-important childhood/youth/early-adulthood/middle-age period—which, let me say, has really whizzed by. The only theme holding it all together is golf.

Naturally I tried to pass my love of the game on to my own kids—not that I was pushing them, mind—but for whatever reason it failed to take. So when my sister asked me to give Patch, who was really showing a passion for golf, an immersion course in its complexities, I happily agreed. There was something in it for my ego, an opportunity to validate my life’s path. And all the better if a blood relation could be shown some VIP treatment—more legitimacy for me. Trunk full of clubs and hearts full of optimism, he and I hit the road on a June morning for a solid week of golf behind the scenes.

The Harmon Golf and Fitness Club in Rockland, Massachusetts, an innovative learning and practice center founded by Butch Harmon and his PGA-pro brothers, was our first stop. There Patch saw his first indoor-outdoor hitting bays, his first pro fitting rig and his first motion-capture system: a club-mounted sensor and an electrode-peppered vest that transposes your swing into graphic software. Along with that visual flood of information there were digital readouts of how well or poorly Patch was coiling his torso, shifting his weight, putting the club on path and generating power. Although his expressions of appreciation were confined to the limited lexicon of his age group (“Cool.” “Awesome.”), he seemed totally engaged with the process. Tom Cavicchi, perhaps the most sought-after golf instructor in New England, gave his blessing, saying Patch “will do some damage once he gets a little meat on his bones.”

Next stop was the Titleist factory (free boxes of Pro Vs when we turned in our safety goggles!), and from there we drove to Newport Country Club to watch a practice round of the U.S. Women’s Open, where Patch got Michelle Wie to sign his cap and listened politely as I conversed with a couple of LPGA players I am pals with. We also walked half the golf course and peeked inside the TaylorMade mobile equipment center.

That night, we headed across the Connecticut border to Foxwoods Resort Casino, where we were upgraded to a deluxe tower room and scheduled for a morning of lessons at the Lake of Isles Golf Academy. This was the second super-tech golf-improvement stop on our tour, with one-on-one swing diagnosis from the director of instruction, a young Australian by the name of Derek Hooper. The guest room they gave us was huge and felt newly renovated, with a long view of uninterrupted woodland. Patch did a seat-drop on the far bed and said something to the effect that this was the greatest hotel room he had ever seen and if his life ended right then it would all have been worth it.

On the other bed, sifting through notes and expense receipts, I thought about Patch’s gangly swing and what chance he’d have at golf tryouts come September. When I was his age, golf was a foreign country to me—I just wanted citizenship, and I was certainly never good enough to make any school team. Joan had been surprised that her son was suddenly so into the game. For the modern parent, this can mean your kid had just found another possible source of disappointment. Which is why it pays to be an uncle sometimes.

The next day we visited the William F. Connell Golf House & Museum, headquarters of the Francis Ouimet Scholarship Fund and the PGA Tour’s Deutsche Bank Championship. Patch shook hands with Bob Donovan, who heads up the Ouimet Fund, and got shown around the exhibits, which are beautifully displayed in a compact space. Later we sat in a conference room with Eric Baldwin, director of the Deutsche Bank event, who gave Patch an inside view on how Tour events are run. “Maybe he can go into golf administration,” Joan later theorized.

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