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No Longer Closed on Open Sunday

Father’s Day has always been a bittersweet holiday for me, falling as it does every year on the same Sunday as the final round of the U.S. Open, because golf, which is such a huge part of my life, was nonexistent in my dad’s. The Open TV coverage — loaded with nostalgic father-son anecdotes and sepia-toned video tributes to late and famous fathers — has evoked in me an equal measure of lumps in my throat, dismissive grunts and, especially after my father passed away, daydreamed what ifs.

It would’ve been one thing if I was just a weekend golfer, but I was a career caddie — I spent more than 20 years walking fairways from dawn till dusk. I worked at clubs and resorts across the country, starting in my hometown of Fairfield, Connecticut and moving on to greats like Shinnecock Hills in the Hamptons and Bandon Dunes Golf Resort on the Southern Oregon Coast and a dozen places in between — even a summer abroad at the Old Course in St Andrews, Scotland. And I caddied for countless fathers and sons, took note of all of their ritual interactions - the new father teaching his still-worshipful young son the proper grip and swing, the middle-aged father attempting to offer his teenage son unsolicited advice, the aging father walking side-by-side with his adult son, inquiring about the details of career and family, or just walking in silence, enjoying being together now that his son’s increasingly busy life has made these occasions rarer.

In my dad’s defense, when I was younger he did his best to relate to my golf obsession. He cut out golf articles he came across in the newspapers or magazines, leaving them on the kitchen counter or mailing them to me wherever I happened to be living at the time. He gave me, as all my relatives did, every conceivable golf-themed gift for Christmas and my birthday, which were, appropriately, eighteen days apart, burying me in a massive pile of chocolate golf balls, stuffed animal head covers, gimmicky equipment organizers and swing aids, golf-quote-adorned coffee mugs and paperweights, and any and every book that had the word golf in the title, subtitle, or synopsis. 

He even tried, in his own way, to take part in my game from time to time, like when I caught him sneaking behind me at one of my high school matches, hoping to remain unnoticed for fear that he would accidentally commit a rule violation or breach of etiquette or just make me nervous. But this completely backfired when one of my opponents finally asked, “Who is that dude lurking behind the trees?” I had no choice but to yell, “Dad, we see you!” 

I always seemed to play well when he was around, hitting my drives and iron shots a little more crisply, rattling my putts off the back of the cup and pumping my fists in the air when they dropped. And I could tell this made him proud because I often saw him smiling, craning his neck to follow my ball in the air or standing on his tip-toes to watch a putt if he was below the edge of the green. But, for whatever reason, his interest was never enough for him to take up the game, so I soldiered on alone. I spent most of my formative years playing on the on the empty 1980’s, pre-Tiger era links with my beagle Lumpus as my only regular partner. And as there was rarely anyone else on the course, I often played cross country golf, from the tee on one hole to the green on another. I scoured the reeds and muddy banks along the edge of the ponds for balls and when winter fell, I bounced my shots across the ice and played with orange balls in the snow.

Yes, I enjoyed the more traditional, social aspects of the game, too - I competed on teams and in tournaments for years and made and sustained many friendships on the links - but it was the romantic, solitary side of golf that enchanted me most and inspired the wanderlust that kept me caddying long after all of my friends had “grown up” and gotten “real jobs” — resulting in a winding, seemingly directionless path that ultimately dumbfounded and disappointed my father. He would certainly have understood and supported the pursuit of what he considered a legitimate golf career — a teaching professional or club manager job, say — but continuing to caddie just to be able to play alone on weekday evenings and during quiet offseason days at the world’s finest courses and to travel for months between jobs, playing along the backcountry trails and deserted beaches, where I hiked, surfed and camped — that was simply beyond his comprehension.

Of course, it all made sense to me. I felt deeply inspired by my travels and experiences, by the many beautiful places I explored and played golf and lived. But the tangible value, dare I say meaningfulness, of birdies and bold landscapes and solitude is not easy to articulate - more of a “you had to be there” thing. It was easy for me to see how rootless and escapist my life appeared from my dad’s perspective, and I suffered sporadic bouts of self-doubt and criticism, my own inner voice doing an uncanny imitation of my father’s that became unnervingly louder after he got sick. 

When he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, essentially given two years to live, I suddenly, desperately wanted to reach out to my dad, connect with him and gain his approval. I even vowed to quit caddying and get a real job. I moved to the big city, Los Angeles, to try to do something more with my writing than just the occasional freelancing gig. But when I was honest with myself I realized, given the likelihood of how little time we had left together, it was probably too late to perform a complete about-face. And, rather than reinvent myself, I was really hoping to find something meaningful to do in the present, something that would enable me to share with my dad the spirit and spontaneity of the life I’d been living all along. 

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John Dunn is a writer whose work has appeared in a number of magazines, including The Golfer and Travel + Leisure Golf. He lives in Connecticut. His memoir Loopers (Crown) went on sale in May. 

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