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The Prodigal Golfer

I stood over the thirty-five-footer and committed a classic mistake: I began thinking. The ball sat in the fringe, and the green seemed a bit fluffy. I'd really have to stroke this one. But what I couldn't get out of my head was this: After fourteen holes, I was two under par. That was a first. I was a seven-handicap at the time, and my best round to date had been four over.

I cast a last anxious glance at the cup. "Just save par," I thought. Then I lurched at the ball as if a wasp had dived down my shirt. And the ball took off. "Oh, no," my dad moaned as it sped toward the hole. The ball blew right through a slight break, then wham! It slammed into the back of the cup, sprang into the air and plopped in with an angry clatter. Bird. Three under with three holes left. Here I was on the Santa Rosa Golf & Country Club about fifty miles north of San Francisco, a par seventy-two that I'd first played the day before, and I was contemplating the once-incomprehensible possibility of shooting in the sixties.

That was precisely twenty-seven years ago. I was twenty-three and in graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley. My parents had come to visit from Los Angeles, and my father had phoned a retired war buddy in Santa Rosa, who invited us up for a couple rounds of golf. And yes, I did go on that day to break par for the first (and still only) time. Not only that, but on eighteen I knocked a wedge to within three feet of the cup and dropped the putt for my fifth bird of the day and a dazzling sixty-eight.

My dad pumped my hand, turned to our host, Bob Dodson, and said, "I've never seen him play like that."

"Dad," I answered, still rooted to the spot with a combination of awe and relief, "I never have played like that."

That round represented more than just a personal triumph. Yes, I had finally beaten the unbeatable game. (And I never came close again.) But more important, my dad was there. Like so many Depression-era fathers and baby-boomer sons, he and I hadn't gotten along very well during the social tumult of the 1960s and early '70s, but we had always found peace on the course. So it was perfect that he was there for my best-ever score. And for that, I will never forget that day.

As it turned out, that was our last round together. Soon he developed back problems that kept him from playing, and my wife-to-be, Diane, and I moved to the East Coast for our careers. I rarely found time for golf. In fact, I never saw the Santa Rosa course again—until recently.


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