Final Rounds: A Father, A Son, The Golf Journey Of A Lifetime
By James Dodson
It's said a great calm descends on you when you begin a long journey.
The road ahead stretches so far, you can think only of what is happening now. The thing was, I didn't have a clue what was really happening at that moment. My father was supposed to be dying, but he didn't appear to be dying, and the idea that he would soon vanish from my life-the worst fear of my childhood-seemed utterly incomprehensible, almost laughable. Opti the Mystic was so alive, so constant, still so there despite the direst verdict of medical science. And what's more, we were streaming through a cold black ocean of air, drinking scotch, and getting our digs in as always, finally bound together for the Road Hole. Was it the beginning of a trip, I wondered, or the end of a journey?
As I stood in line for the bathroom, arms braced against the bulkhead, gently swaying with the plane, I stared out a porthole window thinking about that Road Hole birdie and told myself not to put too much expectation on this trip. Opti would have stressed the importance of staying in the moment and not worrying about the outcome.
But living in the moment had always been so difficult for me. So much of my life was spent worrying about things that were going to happen in the future, racing to make plane connections or conduct interviews or make approaching deadlines. Reporters live in the land of tomorrow. So do fathers and gardeners. I was all three. On our hill in Maine, I'd cleared almost two acres of land by hand, propelled by a single vision of how glorious my vast yard and gardens would someday look. Sometimes I worried about the kinds of boys Maggie would bring home or how Jack might fare on his college boards. These events were only ten or twelve years in the future.
Through the porthole, I found myself gazing at a star.
The unexpected brilliance of it made me think of my own childhood. Every story my father read my brother and me as children seemed to have two things: a moral and a guiding star. There were legends of Indian warriors crossing wildernesses in search of their destinies, Greek myths of seafaring sons in search of their fathers. Columbus on the prow of the Santa Maria. Sojourning man pursued undiscovered worlds by contemplating the stars and the ancient Greeks, for one, believed that men's souls were composed of the same elements as stars. Plato believed a man who lived his life well on earth went to reside happily on a star afterward. He said the soul was pure memory.
Nothing, said Balzac, is insignificant. For me at least, the reason for, if not the soul of, this trip was almost entirely bound up in the memory of hearing about St. Andrews and the Road Hole for the first time.
It was a balmy evening in the 1960s, and my father and I were headed up the eighteenth fairway at Green Valley. A small plane flew overhead. Dad looked up and smiled. "Look at that," he said, with obvious pleasure. "An old J-3 trainer. I flew one just like that before the war."
As we watched, the plane's engine suddenly stopped; the ship seemed to hover dangerously on die evening's air currents, and then the engine refired. "He's practicing stalls at sunset. I used to do the same thing. It's amazing how well you can see everything from up there at this hour. Saint-Exupery said the airplane revealed the true face of the earth to man."
I looked at him. "You flew an airplane?"
"Sure. Didn't I tell you?"
No, he hadn't. I'd never heard of a saint called Exupéry, either.
That evening a box of old letters and photos came down from the attic. I was surprised to learn my parents had lived another life before my brother Dickie and I were born. Dad had been a pilot, and Mom had won the Miss Western Maryland pageant. They lived on Schley Street in Cumberland, Maryland. Dad wrote an aviation column for the paper, sold advertising space, and flew on weekends. He loved to fly his old Cessna low along river valleys, following the seams of the earth, and he once frightened my mother so badly on a trip down the New River Valley, she refused to fly with him again. She drew the line when he volunteered to fly a plane through a flaming wall at a Jaycee airshow. "I told your father it was that plane or me," she said, sliding him a meaningful look. "For a while," he added with a wink, "it was a toss-up."
Not really, or course. There were all these black-and-white photos from that time. They were both so young, carefree, aping for the camera at the rail of a tramp steamer out of Baltimore harbor or posing in the deep snow outside a handsome white house in a suburb of Chicago-just the kind of cozy little place, my mother explained, where they hoped to raise a family of their own someday. She thought Dad looked like the movie actor Alan Ladd in his tech sergeant's uniform. There were other pictures of him from the wan posing with a bunch of grinning GIs around a big-breasted sculpture of a woman fashioned from the muddy snow outside a Quonset hut in England; sitting astride a white horse at the edge of a forest in France; taking a swing with a golf club on a barren piece of ground with the broken rooflines and church spires of an almost medieval-looking town rising up in the distance. The town turned out to be St. Andrews. The picture went into a frame that sat on my bedroom dresser for years. I used to lie on my bed and gaze at it and think: I'm going there someday.
For me, everything seemed to happen that year in the mid-1960s. The Beatles came to America, and I got my first guitar, a Silvertone from Sears. I also got a new set of Northwestern golf clubs for Christmas and a book called Education of a Golfer by Sam Snead.
My aunt Polly Tracy lived on the seventeenth hole at Sedgefield Country Club, where the Greater Greensboro Open was played every spring. That April, in 1965, we all went out to the tournament for the first time. Aunt Polly really wasn't my aunt. She was the wife of my father's friend, Bob Tracy. They worked together in advertising and were planning to open their own ad agency soon. The Tracy's had a house full of noisy kids-Mimi, Pain, Bobby, Teddy, Paula - people always coming and going, kids carrying on, and meals being served. Mimi's boyfriends were always pulling up in sports cars. Bobby was a golf star on his high school team. Pam had actually drunk house paint and had her stomach pumped out! Teddy was the first girl I ever kissed. Paula was just the tag-along kid.
I wanted to see Sam Snead because he was my father's golf hero. I also wanted to get him to autograph my copy of Education of a Golfer. On Saturday afternoon, my father and I followed Snead in the third round. Two months shy of fifty-three, the Slammer was on or near the lead, and the excitement was palpably building in the gallery. I hugged my book and waited for my chance.
We followed him to the eighteenth hole, where the crowds grew very large. I remember laying the book down on a concession table to climb up on a radio broadcast tower to try and see better. My father and I had gotten separated. When I climbed back down, the book was gone. I couldn't believe it. I watched Snead head off, and then I walked back down the fairway toward Aunt Polly's house, furious with myself and blinking back tears.
The next morning, another copy of the hook was lying on the breakfast table. "Try and hold on to this one for a while, will you, Bo?" was all my father had to say about the matter, glancing at me over the Sunday funnies.
We drove out to Sedgefield again and watched Snead make history. By winning Greensboro, he became the oldest man in history to capture a regular PGA title. The problem was, his triumph made even getting dose impossible. Snead was surrounded by jubilant fans and disappeared into the Sedgefield Inn before I could reach him. My father told me we would get the autograph "next year."