A few days ago, December 2, 2016, would have been my Dad’s 80th birthday (*as far as the Social Security folks knew), and it occurs to me that he never saw me hit a golf ball.
The closest we ever came to sharing a moment on the links was him watching me hit the little orange golf wiffle balls with my brother’s hand-me-down clubs in the front yard after I caught the Tiger-induced golf fever in the spring of 1997 during my senior year of high school.
I played baseball, basketball, and football as a kid, just like my Dad had done when he was a kid. He coached me, either in an official or off-the-field capacity, in each sport at some point or another. When I graduated high school, my competitive athletic career ended, and eventually golf would fill the void that was left.
He was always both innovative and caring in his coaching, channeling more teacher and cheerleader on the field than fiery, to-be-feared General.
For example, as a Little League coach one spring, he had wearable wooden paddles shaped like baseball gloves constructed and handed out to everyone on the team to wear at practice so that we would, as 8, 9, and 10 year-olds, would learn to catch the ball with two hands.
I’m curious how this would have translated had I gotten into golf as a child, because I honestly have no idea whether my father ever swung a golf club in his life.
Not to go all class-warfare on you, Dear Reader, but my Dad grew up dirt poor in small towns and golf wasn’t something “his kind” did, as far as I ever knew.
Then, in high school, he suffered a spinal cord injury that left him partially paralyzed, robbing him of not only the use of his legs but also his fingers.
So, he lost the fine motor skills to even show me the grips with which to hold a golf club before he ever really had a chance to take up the game.
Thus, all of those seasons of him coaching me on the baseball field from the dugout essentially boiled down to him providing me (and the other kids) all they needed to know via verbal communication, which, in retrospect, required an incredible amount of patience.
I guess it was always up to the assistant coaches to actually demonstrate anything that needed to be physically illuminated. But he could teach and coach the games expertly not only because he was smart and an effective communicator, but because he had played and loved the games.
Guys like Mickey Mantle, Bob Gibson, and Eddie Matthews were some of my dad’s sports heroes, which meant that they seemed like Greek gods to me. There were similarly esteemed players from basketball and football too, but golf was just never part of our conversation.
My brother, nine years my elder, took up golf as a kid, periodically competing in local junior tournaments for a while. Considering I was a toddler at the time, I have no idea how that dynamic worked between Dan and Dad worked with respect to golf.
My uncles, aunts, and cousins all played golf, so perhaps Dad left any helpful tips and lessons to the extended family members that could take Dan out onto the golf course in a way that simply wasn’t available to Dad.
This leads me to wondering what our father-son dynamic would have been like had he lived long enough to see me get serious about playing golf. Would he have tried to get involved with pointers and tips?
He was certainly smart enough to have processed the seminal books from Hogan, Nicklaus, and esteemed teachers on the subject to be conversant about the golf swing, but he didn’t have any personal knowledge or experience on which to draw.
In light of this background, being the natural-born narcissist that I am, I wonder what kind of “golf dad” I might be if my son shows an interest in golf.
He already enjoys helping me hit Birdie Balls and chip golf balls in the backyard, though at a week shy of two years old, I suspect he’s just happy to join in on whatever “Daddy” is up to outside.
Like my Dad, I could teach him the basics of football and basketball, and teach him up to the higher intermediate levels of baseball.
But unlike my own father, I could impart to him my own experiences with dangerously amateurish instructions and tips.
As a kid, I never participated seriously in any of the truly individual sports like golf or tennis, so I have no reference point for to strike the balance between wanting to do what I can to help my son to have success and him just enjoying playing a game which requires so much self-starting motivation in order to improve.
My only hope is for The Boy, should he take an interest in golf at an early age is that I could be the kind of coach my Dad was to me.
I was far from perfect in execution and effort, but I don’t remember ever getting my hide chewed out. Instead, any corrective suggestions or instructions were delivered with encouragement and an occasional “good job” or “I’m proud of you.”
Maybe just by putting this train of thoughts into writing I’ll be self-aware enough to make sure my son just has fun, and if he shows serious interest, hand him over to the same qualified teaching professionals that I’ve entrusted with my game.
Mike, my teaching pro, asks his child students a brilliant question when he meets them on the range or for a lesson: “Whose idea was it for you to practice today? Was it your idea or was it Mom’s or Dad’s idea?”
He told me that in all his years of teaching, he’s only had one student that converted from “had to practice” to “want to practice.” The rest eventually burned out or faded away from the game.
As involved as he was in my athletic endeavors, my father was never a helicopter parent, nor did he ever demonstrate any of the abhorrent qualities of a stereotypical “Little League Dad.”
As wonderful as the whole of my experience at Colina Park was in San Diego this summer, I can’t shake the memory of the hyper-critical dads shepherding their kids through the golf course.
The children dressed to the nines in the trendiest golf clothes, sporting the latest and greatest equipment, with their faces completely devoid of any indication of fun or enjoyment.
Sometimes I wonder if me being there to witness it and recognize what was happening wasn’t a signal from someone up above, a little preventive medicine for my son’s future.
Perhaps it was my Dad’s work with children in his professional capacity that allowed him to keep his patience and his perspective when it came to youth sports, particularly my youth sports.
He was a great role model in a lot of respects, not the least of which was his demeanor on the ball field or the court.
And I know he would have loved coaching up his grandson in whatever he ends up having interests in, be they sports or arts or anything else.
We lost Dad 18 years ago and I love him and miss him dearly. Happy Birthday, Dad.
* Growing up, my dad’s birthday was on December 2 as far as I ever knew. Not until after he passed did my mom reveal that my Dad was actually born on December 7, 1936.
Apparently, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor moved our nation into World War II, my grandmother decided that her son was not going to be saddled with having his birthday coincide with such an infamously terrible day.
So intense was the pleading and begging and negotiation that my grandmother was actually able to convince the necessary civil servants that my Dad’s original birth certificate, which said he was born on 12-7-36, was a mistake that the nurse had written down incorrectly, and that his actual birthday was December 2.
It may seem silly and vain by modern standards, but living in California in the 1940’s, this was no small matter. My father had recollections of air raid drills and blackouts after sundown during World War II.