No Longer Closed on Open Sunday

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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. 

The “brilliant” plan I ultimately devised didn’t immediately produce the enthusiasm I intended it to — his initial reaction reminded me of Dustin Hoffman’s dad in The Graduate, when he says, “Ben, this whole idea sounds pretty half-baked!” This isn’t really surprising given that my big idea was to hitchhike across the country with my golf clubs — from my new home in Santa Monica, Calif., to our family home in Connecticut — to play as many courses along the way as possible, and when there weren’t any courses nearby, to play along the roadsides and beaches and backcountry — through the Southwest desert, Rocky Mountains, Great Plains, Great Lakes, and New England coast. I was going to create a blog for the trip, dedicate it to my dad, and raise money to fight pancreatic cancer and call it, naturally, Golf My Way Home. It was basically a condensed, three-month version of the last twenty years of my life. Which was the point exactly. 

Thankfully, my Mom immediately saw straight to the heart of it. She realized that I needed to do this as much for myself as for my dad and she persuaded him to pretend to like the idea even if he really didn’t know what to think of it. So in the middle of June, a week before Father’s Day, I hit a parting shot off the beach in Santa Monica and caught my first ride right there off the Pacific Coast highway. I chronicled the journey in real time — posted regular videos, pictures and written descriptions of all the places I visited, courses I played and people who picked me up. And it was these people, my caddies, who provided the real magic of the trip. They often drove me well out of their way to leave me in the ideal places to catch my next ride. They donated money for the cause and invited me to stay in their homes and play golf at their courses. One of them gave me a ride across Colorado in his airplane and another across part of Lake Michigan in his boat. A pair of rafters took me down a class five river in Quebec. All the while with my golf bag in tow. 

By summer’s end, when I’d pulled the whole thing off — hitchhiked 6,211 miles, caught 127 rides, played 37 golf courses and raised $20,000 to help fight pancreatic cancer — I saw a look in my dad’s eyes I hadn’t seen in a long, long time: admiration. Even if he couldn’t completely relate to my un-tethered existence, he admired my passion and guts and perseverance and,  as his strength and mobility were limited, admired more than anything the freedom to just walk out the door and live life to its fullest. The trip blew some fresh air into the scary, sterile world of constant healthcare and it was a hell of a conversation starter once I got home, leading, as winter rolled around, to many long afternoons sharing stories by the fire. 

It’s been four years since my dad passed away and Father’s Day is still bittersweet because I wish we’d opened up to each other a lot sooner. But I am grateful for the time we had together at the end and now when I watch the U.S. Open I am reminded of Golf My Way Home. I laugh when I think of my dad shaking his head in disbelief at it all, flashing a grudging smile of respect that said, “How did I produce this crazy kid?” But when the final round coverage inevitably cuts to one of those nostalgic, father-son video tributes, I still can’t help but wonder … what if my dad had played golf, too?

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