I have a confession. I love golf.
Not just playing it – which I’ve done for more than 35 years – but also watching it on television.
Which is not to say I haven’t fallen asleep on occasion watching golf on TV. I mean really, how could you not, with the way the announcers often lower their voices (In case you didn’t know, they do this because they’re following the players on the course).
I don’t fall asleep during the majors, though. Too many good players on the course. Where did this devotion – to what many people have a hard time referring to as a sport – come from?
That’s an easy answer. My father.
How It All Began
My earliest memories of spending time with my father are the times that he brought my brother and me with him to the driving range at Eisenhower Park in East Meadow, N.Y. on Long Island, not far from where I grew up in Rockville Centre.
My dad was a natural golf talent. Despite the long hours he would put in at work and his relative lack of practice time, he would routinely shoot in the low to mid-80’s when he played on the weekends. Much like the legend of the Dalai Lama from “Caddyshack,” my dad was a big hitter, too. He routinely won the longest drive contest at the celebrity golf tournaments he got invited to for his job.
He was an extraordinarily humble man, but the golf course was the best place to see the rare event of him puffing out his chest a little. One of my favorite things he did at the driving range was tee one up, grab his driver (or 1-wood, back then) and then address his ball.
He would say, “Hello, Ball.” They promptly follow it with, “Goodbye, Ball” and effortlessly crank it over the Eisenhower Park driving range fence 250 yards away. That seeming lack of required effort extended into how he passed down his knowledge and love of the game to my brother and me. I actually don’t remember him teaching me how to structure my grip or how to swing, although I’m sure he did.
I do remember watching golf with him as a kid. Almost literally at his knee – because he would sit on the couch and I would sit on the floor next to his legs – I grew up watching Palmer, Nicklaus, Player, Rodriguez, Trevino, Ballesteros, Watson, Norman, and Stewart (my all-time favorite golfer, R.I.P.) competing against each other week to week. And because I literally wanted to BE my father throughout my childhood, I always watched golf with him. And although I didn’t know it, watching the best players on the planet was the “classroom” portion of my golf education. All thanks to my dad.
My Relationship with Golf
My own relationship with the game has been a healthy mix of good and bad. I would get frustrated when I was a kid (and even into early adulthood) that I couldn’t play as well as my father. I’ve tossed clubs (although not since I started paying for my own clubs), thrown balls in the water/woods, and even rage quit and sat out from finishing individual holes in a round.
On balance, though, I’ve had many fonder memories on the golf course than moments I’d rather have back. It’s not even close.
Like so many other golfers I have known through the years, I always seemed to have those handful of shots that made me feel good and brought me back again. What also always brought me back was never passing up an opportunity to play with my father. The prospect of earning a “Nice shot, Kev” out of him always made all the difference.
The game has also opened doors to some amazing experiences. From my time in the Navy, I’ve gotten to play in Antigua, Spain, Malta, and even at night under the spotlights in Bahrain. Playing has helped me build my longest friendships. Indeed, I have played at least one round, and in most cases several rounds, with every single one of the friends with whom I keep in touch.
How Golf Opened the Door to Family Vacations
It was one of those friendships that led me to my first volunteer experience at a major professional championship. Back in late 2007, Chris H., a shipmate from the Navy and a frequent playing partner of mine rang me up. He was stationed in San Diego, California at the time. He and his wife had applied for and been accepted to volunteer positions for the 2008 U.S. Open to be held at Torrey Pines Golf Club in La Jolla, near San Diego. He thought I might want to join him. Duh! Absolutely. The process for application couldn’t have been easier. I filled out an online form with the USGA and waited.
Sure enough, I soon got an e-mail saying that I had been accepted! So, we made a family vacation out of it. My wife & girls accompanied me out to California and we visited with my brother and his family while I worked the tournament. It was an amazing experience. Chris, his wife, and I ended up being greenside and less than 30 yards away when Tiger Woods holed out for birdie on the 17th hole during the third round. Little did we know that tournament would end up being Tiger’s last major victory (thus far).
After that experience, I was hooked. I next applied for the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Golf Club near Monterey, California. The wife applied along with me. We ended up being assigned as Marshals on the second hole. I was one of those guys you see on TV with their hands raised saying, “Quiet, please.” Heck, my wife ended up getting ON television during one of the first two rounds because she was standing on a direct line between where Tiger Woods’ tee shot landed and the hole location. We turned it into a second honeymoon. We spent a couple of our off days visiting San Francisco and the surrounding area. It was truly one of the best trips I’ve ever taken. The next one was close to home and gave me the opportunity to rope in two of my most treasured golf partners: my brother and my dad.
Golfing With My Dad Comes Full Circle
The 2011 U.S. Open was being held at Congressional Country Club, located just outside Washington, DC. Given that I live about 25 miles south of DC, this was the perfect opportunity to get my brother and father to join me in working at a U.S. Open. I applied on their behalf as well as my own, and we were accepted with assignments as Marshals for the 9th Hole. It certainly didn’t hurt that I could fill in the spot marked “Previous Tournament Experience” with my work at Torrey Pines and Pebble Beach.
We had a great time. One of the most surreal moments was when we got to high-five/fist bump with Marc Turnesa, who had qualified for the Open that year. Marc was my brother’s age and he had grown up three houses down from us in Rockville Centre. The odds of him qualifying and the three of us getting selected to work at that tournament had to have been pretty astronomical. Yet, there we were. I’ll never forget that. Being able to share that experience with my brother, and especially my dad, was incredibly satisfying. After all, I probably wouldn’t have been there at all except for my dad.
Little did I know that my time with my dad at the U.S. Open would be one of the last highlights of our golfing relationship.
Just around three years later, my father was experiencing abdominal pain. Being the stoic Irish American he was, for months he refused to even consult a physician. It took me basically dragging him to the Emergency Room before he would get himself a diagnosis.
What his exams revealed was our worst nightmare: Stage IV abdominal cancer.
He started chemotherapy, consulted with experts on surgical options, and fought with the determination I always knew he had. Throughout his illness, I tried as best I could to support him and my mom. I tried to force him to think about what his wishes were for his memorial so that we could make plans for him. I called as often as I could so that I could talk with him and squeeze every moment with him that I could. We even convinced him to join us on a Disney Cruise in February 2015 so he could see what all of us were always raving about. By then, he was very thin and could walk only a few steps at a time. My daughter Audrey was his designated “driver” as he navigated the ship in the wheelchair we had arranged for him. We drove back from Florida “caravan”-style with my wife driving our car with my Mom and me driving my parents’ car with my dad. He slept a lot, so we didn’t get to talk much, but we just enjoyed being together.
We stopped in North Carolina where our paths diverged. I got back into our car and my mom got back in with my father. We said goodbye and I told him that I loved him. Less than a month later, I was back in my parents’ Southport, North Carolina home after receiving word from my mom that he was slipping away. Less than a day after I arrived, my father passed away peacefully in his own bed by the window outside of which was the third tee of The Players Club at St. James Plantation. He was 70.
Golf, and Life, Without My Father
I didn’t give it a lot of thought at the time but, my father’s death and the surroundings in which it occurred ended up affecting my relationship with the game. His retirement home was surrounded by a golf course. I already mentioned the 3rd tee virtually in his backyard. The 1st green was basically across the street from his front door. On more than one occasion, we found golf balls on his front lawn, the result of players whose club selection talents could use some work.
It was in that home that I started to process the fact that he was gone.
Not only had I lost my trusted advisor and mentor, but also the embodiment of golf in my life. Thinking about golf, much less watching it or playing it, became a painful reminder of his loss. In my grief, I could have easily given up the game and very likely was on that path. Little did I know that my wife, Jennifer, who had also experienced her introduction to the game through my father, would be the one that eventually set me straight.
I turned 40 in 2016. Probably for the last 10-15 years, I would often say to my wife, “For my 40th birthday, I’d like to fill in the blank.” Some of these ideas were ridiculous (I told her I wanted a pinball machine), but others were more realistic. I probably couldn’t name more than two or three of them right now, even though I was the one who said it.
Meanwhile, my wife could probably rattle off all of my birthday wishes. It’s one of her many talents and often makes the gifts she gives so special. The one limitation she had for this particular birthday was that she was half a world away on a year-long Navy Reserve deployment in east Africa. But my wife being who she is, that didn’t really limit her very much. So, in secret, conspiring with the rest of my immediate family, as well as one of my aforementioned golfing partners, she planned. When my birthday came I was told by my girls and our au pair at the time, Carmen, that I had a special surprise from Jen: She was paying to send me, along with my Torrey Pines compatriot Chris, for a golfing trip to the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL.
Now, for those of you who aren’t huge golf fans, this was amazing.
It is the course that hosts The Players Championship every PGA Tour season. It had always been #1 on my list of courses that I wanted to play and could actually get on (Believe it or not, I’m not close friends with any members of Augusta National Golf Club). Its Par 3, 17th Hole with its island green is one of, if not, THE most famous holes in all of golf. I should have been jumping out of my shoes at this news.
The truth is that part of me was dreading the trip.
My Love For Golf Returns
By the time of my trip to Sawgrass, I hadn’t picked up a golf club, much less swung one, since before my father’s death. I had real concerns that I was going to chunk, slice, skull, block, and shank my way around my dream course. Luckily, my package included an early morning “warm-up” video lesson with the head PGA professional of the club along with a club fitting session to determine the ideal clubs for me.
Those two events resulted in my hitting more than 200 golf balls before I ever set foot on one of the two courses at the TPC. The fact that the schedule of events laid out like that makes me believe that someone was looking down on me. After finishing a round with my buddy Chris on the Dye Course, I decided that I HAD to have the clubs from my fitting. I hit them so well, I knew that I needed them in my bag. The fact that my wife ended up swallowing my spending more than $1500+ on golf clubs baffles me to this day.
I think she understood that the purchase was part of my healing.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to use the clubs on the Stadium Course (where the professionals play The Players Championship) the next day. It would be a couple weeks before they were delivered to my house. Nonetheless, when I played The Stadium Course the next day, it was every bit the special experience I had been dreaming about since I first picked up a club. The only way it could possibly have been better was if my dad could have played it with me. I know he was watching though, and I’m sure he was shaking his head as I overcooked my “power fade” tee shot on the island 17th and it landed in the water to the right of the green.
When I got back from my trip, I could tell that my attitude toward the game had changed. I was excited to get my new clubs. I bought a new bag for them. I even invested in some special golf shoes. They were custom-made by Foot Joy and would be a way for my father to be with me every time I teed up a ball. They displayed the colors of our favorite NFL team, the Washington Redskins (another “burden” handed down from my DC-born father), and would have a folded American flag towards the heel. The flag represented not only my father’s and my shared service in uniform, but also the folded flag that was presented to my mother when my father was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. They’re perfect and I’m sure that my father would have wanted a pair of his own.
The only piece missing from this journey was a return to the U.S. Open. I decided to apply for the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills Golf Course in Erin, Wisconsin. I tried to find a wingman to volunteer with me, but it just didn’t work out. That may have been serendipitous. I ended up having a lot of time there on my own. I walked the course, went sightseeing in nearby Milwaukee, and caught a Brewers game with my buddy Mike who joined me there for the weekend.
The most surprising thing about the experience though, was the logo for the tournament.
I mentioned my family’s Irish heritage earlier. Who could have known or predicted that my return to volunteering at the U.S. Open would coincide with a shamrock being the tournament’s logo that year? Experiencing the U.S. Open again, while rocking the shamrock, was the last piece I needed to make me realize that my father would have wanted me to keep golf in my life. My memories of him and playing golf with him come right back to me when I play. When I make a long putt and I can hear him yelling, “One time!” from another part of the green. And yes, even when I drain a shot right into the water hazard.
For those interested in applying to be a volunteer at future U.S.G.A. championships, visit: http://www.usga.org/content/usga/home-page/championships/2019/us-open/be-a-part-of-it–volunteer-for-the-2019-u-s–open-.html
For more on TPC Sawgrass, visit: https://tpc.com/sawgrass/