My Dad, Golf and Earl Woods

Philly SportsfanContributor IJuly 2, 2009

MUNICH, GERMANY - JUNE 25:  A player ball swims in water laying on the fairway during the first round of The BMW International Open Golf at The Munich North Eichenried Golf Club on June 25, 2009, in Munich, Germany.  (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)

Sometimes you see something that just moves you—plain and simple your heart shutters, you close your eyes and an indescribable sensation takes over your being. Sports, in a variety of capacities, have always been the most frequent indicators of such feelings. During my old playing days as a high-schooler I experienced my fair share of exuberant triumphs and sadistic lows, fist-clenching wins and gut-wrenching losses. As I aged, and sports took a backseat to work, money, and other adult-like activities, those moments faded into near-extinction, and, as a result, a part of me disappeared into lost-abandonment.

I switched majors, transferred schools, tried to find myself—all the while I knew I was just chasing that lost feeling. For three years I lived in a world without that feeling, without the rapid beating of the heart, without the tingling under your skin, void of the goose bumps—I was in a difficult and transitional phase, a funk, and I had no idea how to escape it.

            Then one day, without warning, a miracle showed up in the form of 12 iron clad sticks—looking back on it some months later, I thought, timing wise, it might have been some divine being sending a message from heaven, but I really don’t know too much about that. Either way, I took those iron sticks, went out to a field with grass as green as Gumby’s skin, and beat the living hell out of some little, white, spotted balls. Although I landed in one too many sand traps, frequently became unwelcomed an neighbor to some small fish and frogs and spent more time in the woods then even a log splitter would enjoy, some fog cleared inside of me that day.

             It seems like a crazy, unpremeditated entrance into the golf universe, but, like most instances throughout my life, my dad laid out the path for me— doing everything short of laying down a red carpet from my house to the first tee. After years of battling off his advances, he finally persuaded me to give golf a shot (no pun intended). He gave me my first set of clubs, tee’d the ball up nice and high and told me to swing easy—I obliged, and the rest is history.

I always hated golf—the patience it took, the goofy outfits, the old people, the walking, but something changed that year. Maybe I was in such a low place that I was willing to throw my whims aside for the chance of feeling anything closely related to normal, “if only for a short while” (sorry I couldn’t resist using a good Shawshank Redemption quote), or maybe I was looking for a way to connect to people again. Regardless of motive, I found exactly what I was looking for—par, bogie or double, I found that feeling again, and with it, a part of me, that I feared was lost forever, emerged from darkness.

            The summer of that year, which I can honestly say was the most tumultuous year of my life to date, I played golf with my old man close to four times a week. I would come home from work, meet my dad at the house and we would head out to McCall Golf Club in Philadelphia and play until the lack of sun forced us to retreat. I think I learned more that summer than I had from 13 years of public education.

Don’t get me wrong, I received the best education a person could ask for—I attended one of the best public high schools in the country and moved on to learn what it meant to be party of the Nittany Lion family, among other things, from some of the best professors at Penn State, but what I learned that summer can’t be measured by calculus formulas or statistics programs. What I learned that summer has never been studied by historians or scientists, nor has it been the priority of engineers or politicians—what I learned that summer was about family and true love. Before I can continue with the intriget parts of that summer, I really have to backtrack and talk about some of things that past me by as a child that, today, I can’t believe I didn’t cherish.

My dad grew up in a larger-than-average, Irish family in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. His old man, my grandfather, worked as an accountant for the majority of his adulthood, and taught as a professor at Villanova University in his later years. He was one of those guys that works tirelessly for his family, sacrificing all worldly desires for the good of his breathan—as you’ll see later, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. My grandmother had a full-time job in her own regard—taking care of nine children is an occupation I don’t desire or envy. They lived pretty comfortably for a family of 11, mostly thanks to the non-stop work of my grandfather and the nurture and care illuminated by my grandmother. But being a child hidden in a clan of 8 brothers and sisters must have been difficult on my dad. From what he’s mentioned, which isn’t much, he came and went as he pleased, took care of himself and found his way out of trouble when he was unfortunate enough to get caught—I’ve always had this image of 9 little kids fighting each other to the death for the last piece of bread at the dinner table, but if there’s any truth behind that picture, I can’t say for sure.

My dad climbed his way through the Catholic school system, as most Irish Americans did during the 40’s and 50’s, ultimately receiving his diploma from Monsignor Bonner High School in 1965. He made his old man proud and enrolled in Notre Dame University the following year—his parents helped him pack a large trunk with all of his belongings, which I’m sure didn’t amount to anything resembling superfluous abundance, and that was it, he was on his own. He road the rails, mooched rides or, much to the contrary of his demands to never hitch-hike, stuck his thumb out and waved down cars all along roads from Philadelphia to South Bend, Indiana. He was on his own--no parents to drive him in lush vehicles, no birthday cards with 20 dollar bills tucked inside the fold, no care packages full of sweets and home-made cookies.

My dad must have loved his time at Notre Dame, the pride and passion he still holds for that school, those people and, most importantly, the football team still shines as brightly today as I can ever remember, but, I imagine, he holds some repressed memories from his years at Notre Dame. In 1966, with the Vietnam War emerging as the prime international issue in American life, my father found himself out of the draft’s grasp and under the security blanket of a college education. One of his two brothers, however, was dismissed from school, and drafted into service and, ultimately, deployed to Vietnam in May of 1967—my dad’s sophomore year of college. During my sophomore year of college I was worried about girls, grades and guzzling beer. (In no particular order) My dad’s sophomore year was spent worrying about his brother dodging bullets and bombs in some foreign land that neither he, nor his brother knew absolutely anything about.
            Regardless, his brother came back from the war in September of 1967, and my dad had to hitchhike home for the funeral a week or two later. That’s really all I’m going to say about that.

I can only imagine how tough those years were for him, being away from his family, his home and, on top of that, having to deal with the loss of a brother. But, like everything else in his life, my dad got through it. He graduated from Notre Dame in 1969, married my mom, the fireworks flew and a couple years later they were living together in Upper Darby.

Let me continue by saying that I don’t want it to seem like my dad doesn’t love my mom. They had 3 boys together, raised them over a 35-year period and rarely had little time for themselves—that alone illustrates just how much love they have maintained for one another over the years. They never fought, at least not about anything serious, and they, after 39 years of marriage, continue to make one another laugh each and every day. With that said, my dad loves golf more than anyone has ever loved anything in the history of mankind. The word love is thrown around like a “hot potato” these days (again sorry for the euphemism), but when I say my old man loves golf, I mean the mushy, can’t live, can’t eat, can’t sleep, can’t walk or talk without you kind of love—the man just flat out loves the game.

I’ve never seen my dad desire, want, or ask for anything, but when my mom surprised him with lavish golf clubs for his 50th birthday his face lit up like Clark Griswald’s grill when he finally got those ornate Christmas lights working in “Christmas Vacation”—except his clubs didn’t stop working 10 minutes later. He went outside, at 10 pm, swinging those things like a kid on the monkey bars, and, if my memory isn’t faulting me, didn’t stop until the sun came up the next morning (I’ve tended to exaggerate things a tad bit). Either way, you could have told my dad that night that Santa Claus delivered those clubs for him and he would have believed you—he was in his own world of happiness.

The only other time I have seen my dad so euphoric was when my mom handed him an envelope for his birthday, some years later, that had our family’s joint gift hidden inside. When he opened the card and found a membership McCall Golf Club, a course nestled across the street from our neighborhood, his eyes widened and his jaw nearly dropped out of his chin. I’ve never seen my old man cry, so I can’t be sure, but if I can imagine what he might look like while on the brink of tears, that moment is probably as close to it as I’ll ever know. And that moment is also where this whole thing picks up—every free hour of almost every day, even though there wasn’t many for him, was spent on that golf course. He got to know the people, he got to know course, but, most important to him, he got to better familiarize himself with the game he so deeply loved.

            Of course he played with other members, and he sure didn’t mind going out there by himself—hell, he jumped all over the course, playing holes in scattered order just so he could get as many in as possible before losing daylight, but I think it sort of bothered him that out of his three boys, only one played golf, and very sporadically at that. It’s pretty amazing to me how, when I first started playing, it was almost like we were on the same page—we didn’t have to say a word on the golf course, but we were still communicating through our play. If one of us hit a shaky shot, we sort of would just look at one another like, “Just hit the be Jesus out of the next one.” It was one of those weird ESP-type things. (My mom calls it ESPN)

After some time of playing pretty consistently with my old man, someone sent me a YouTube video of an old Nike golf commercial that highlighted Tiger Woods and was voiced over by Tiger’s late father, Earl—and, to go all the way back to the beginning of this story, if that’s what you want to call it, this is one of those moments when you just stop in your place and world sits still for a second or two--The hair stood up on my arms and the back of my neck and I lost my ability to speak. The commercial ran through years of Tiger and Earl, on the golf course together—Tiger young and impressionable, Earl fatherly and strong. When I first saw that commercial, I couldn’t help but think of my dad and me out on the course—the sun coming down and thoughts of little birdies flying through our heads. And then the commercial wrapped up and I thought the commercial had done some injustice. Earl Wood’s utters the words, “I said, Tiger, ‘I promise you, you’ll never meet another person as mentally tough as you, in your entire life.’ And he hasn’t, and he never will.” I don’t disagree with that statement in the slightest—I’m a huge Tiger Woods fan and I think if he puts his mind to winning, you’d be better off just getting out of his way, but it really made me think about my dad. A kid who spent his childhood looking out of himself so that his brothers and sisters could spend more time with their parents, an adolescent who hitch-hiked from Upper Darby, Pennsylvania to South Bend, Indiana more times than I’d like to know, and a man who lost a brother to war, raised three boys and wanted very little for himself, aside from the occasional round of golf. If I made my own commercial it would end with the phrase, “When I think of my dad, I’ve never meet another person as mentally tough as him, and I never will”.