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Father-Son Golf

In 1986, when I was fifty, I became a father for the sixth time. I thought that was pretty old to start out again on the often-tortuous road of fatherhood, but I knew plenty of other men, some a good deal more advanced in years, in the same position. Still, I could see problems down the road. As Francis himself got older, I wondered, what would we be able to do together in the way of sports—which I personally regard as a key bonding element in the complex father-son relationship. With my other children, I had skied, played tennis and volleyball, even gotten on a horse—activities in which keeping up physically is literally a significant object of the exercise.

A decade and a half later, I can respond to my midlife doubt with a resounding and happy one-word answer: golf. Thanks to the great Scots game, I can go out and spend three to four hours mano a mano with my son and not have the kind of time that would cause Freud to murmur in his grave, "See, what'd I tell you about fathers and sons!" The kind of time I never had playing with my own father, who, when I reached the age of fifteen and could begin to play golf with a modicum of skill and emotional stability, was himself twenty years younger than I am now. For Pop, the point of our playing together was for him to win. Looking back through the lens of myself, I can't blame him. Even as a man gets into midlife, he's still competing with the world (sons included); at sixty-five, you see things differently. And it could have been worse: He could have been one of those fathers who wants the son to be the Hogan he could never be.

I guess Francis was about five when I first took him out on the course. I'd had a few old clubs cut way, way down, and he'd clamber down from the cart—the steering of which, from my lap, was his principal interest—and have a bash. At that age, he was too young to appreciate the first half of P. G. Wodehouse's immortal dictum, "A woman is only a woman, but a hefty drive is a slosh," but he could certainly dig the latter.

And so he grew. We played together when we could. A few holes, seldom more, which was about what he could manage emotionally. In 1995, when the Open returned to Shinnecock, he had his first real golfing thrill. A fellow member brought Tiger Woods, then still an amateur, and his dad to the National, which is our home course. Francis and I followed him around, and my son got to shake his idol's hand. It couldn't have been long after that Francis made his first legitimate par, and sometime in the year or two that followed his first legitimate birdie. By then, kiddie clubs had given way to kids clubs, and he'd had a couple of lessons. I wasn't pushing him. I wanted him to love the game the way I do—for the pleasure and companionship it provides, the kinds of subtle skills it helps develop, not to mention certain small and large lessons about life and luck. He wasn't a prodigy, but I felt he could become a good player, certainly good enough to derive a full measure of enjoyment from the game.

By last year, now fourteen, with full-size sticks in his bag, he could really paste it. Of course, in the manner of young players, a 260-yard drive was often followed by a three-yard five-iron, followed by several approach shots of varying lengths, followed by a 260-yard putt. Now and then, after an unforced error, steam could be discerned coming out of his ears, which was no doubt responsible for deafening him to my reassurances that flops and foozles were all part of the learning curve. I reminded him that there wasn't a pond at the National or a tree at Cypress (where I played my adolescent golf) into which I hadn't hurled a club, ball or other implement in younger and more fiery days. It didn't seem to bring him much comfort.

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