When Golf Isn’t About Golf.
It was spring 2010, my 18 year old son, my 79 year old Dad and my 52 year old self went to Hilton Head Island to play a little golf, watch Aaron play tennis, eat a little seafood. Hang out. Sometimes, a golf trip becomes more than just a golf trip.
I watch my father sleep. 5’3” these days, a small grey and wrinkled ball lying on his side, upper bridge on the bedstand, lying on his side, I see his mottled scalp through the remains of his hair. I see myself. I see my future.
I watch my son sleep. 5’9” today, taller tomorrow, stocky body poking out from under a too short T-shirt, headphones and laptop on the floor, shaggy, always needs a trim brown hair hanging in his face. I see myself. I see my future.
Late that night, I drag from bed to bath to pee and back to bed. I stand in the doorway of the hotel room bath and stare at the two beds. Watching my father breathe, I see my childhood again. Watching my father breathe, I see my future. I am a child playing catch, seated at the table doing homework, and now my knees ache, my hip gets sore. I am aging.
Watching my son gently snore, I am healed. Chasing tennis balls and soccer balls again, his present is my past and I am 18 once more, not thrice removed from that. My knees are young, my aches are gone and I see him drive a golf ball further than I ever could, and hammer forehands that I cannot catch, never, and I am back in the present, standing in hotel room watching my son and father sleep, my past, present & future all at once.
Aaron plays, as Bobby Jones once said about a young Jack Nicklaus, a game of golf with which I am not familiar. He has the suppleness of youth, an upper body and spine so flexible that he can carry his hands far beyond his head at the top of his backswing. He balances perfectly and precariously at the very top, hands high and deep, wrists cocked. His weight shifts, slowly at first, from his bent right leg onto the left, and then it all explodes at once. His hips, torso, hands; muscles trained by thousands of hours of whipping into and over tennis balls, recognize the rotation, and one’s eyes lose the ability to focus.
You do see things — a blur of color from his shirt and shorts, a flash of white from his glove, but mainly, you hear things; a whipping of driver shaft, the slight ping as polyurethane and titanium merge for 0.005th of a second, followed instantly by the report from a 0.30–30 rifle cartridge as the ball explodes off the clubface, a slight grunt as he exhales, and then the whoosh of a high velocity exhaust fan as the ball takes flight.
We stand there, my father and I, and watch the ball climb into the distance, higher than the 100 year old pines lining the fairway, delighted with the view. We turn and look at each other, then back at the ball, still hanging in the air. It falls to the ground, bounces 20 yards up, then ten, five, and rolls past the white stake marking “100 yards to the green” on this 415 yard hole — an 18 year old man-boy who, for the moment, has just conquered one of the hardest feats in sport, the ball lying high and shiny with the morning dew, 320 yards from its launch point.
We both shrug. We smile. “Damnnn,” I say. Dad beams. He once could do that. Dad is still smiling; the joy of seeing his eldest grandson with the torch he picked up from his father, the joy of remembrance — the feeling of athletic perfection once held in his gloved hand.
“Good shot, Aaron,” he says.
Aaron is unsuccessful at suppressing a smile.
Mort’s turn. Dad holds his driver exactly as I remember from those days when I was allowed to tag along with his game for a few holes. The driver’s in his left hand, a dapper walking stick when he was 40, a useful walking stick at 79. His tee, as always, is between his middle and ring fingers, Titleist held in his palm. His hip seems fine.
He reaches the tee box. Dad holds the club by its head and places the top of the club shaft carefully on the turf. He sets firmly his left foot on the grass. Now a stable tripod, Mort gently bends his left knee and lets his body pivot forward onto the good hip. His right leg, graceful as dancer’s, swings up and back. Dad places ball and tee as one into the ground. His right leg swings back down onto the grass. He flexes his right leg a touch, pauses, and steps back from the ball, gripping his club and staring down the fairway. My father must see two targets. One is from 1971, 280 yards away. The other is the target today, 170 yards away.
“Stand close,” I say. Even at 79, in his mind, he’s 39, with his young man’s athletic flexibility. Dad nods, and sticks out his lower lip, just like he did when he was 39. He re-grips, shrugs his shoulders in relaxation a few times, and takes a pair of ¾ length practice swings.
As Mort approaches the ball, he carefully places the club in perfect alignment behind the ball. The right foot is placed parallel to the clubface, a shoulder’s width from the left foot. He rocks back on his heels, alternately raising first his left toes, then the right, until his balance is complete. Dad shrugs his shoulders again as he exhales. We watch his hands drop and press forward several inches in preparation.
The club comes back. Smoothly, his hands travel a wide arc until they are just over waist high, the wrist cock still there. His hips turn, the torso turns and his weight is balanced smoothly over both legs. There is a pause at the top of the swing. Dad’s weight shifts onto the left leg. This swing I can follow with my eyes. The club is pulled down, the wrists still cocked.
At the last second, I lose sight. His right forearm is an unfocused blur as it crosses over his left. The crack of his wrists snaps the club through the ball. Do the legs go first? I could follow the club as Dad’s legs started the club in motion, but even at 79, his Popeye forearms accelerate the club head faster than my middle-aged myopic eyes can track.
His grunt comes sooner than Aaron’s. The ball pops, more a .22 caliber than .30-.30, off the driver face. It doesn’t make it to the tree tops. It has been struck dead straight. The club face, aligned perfectly during address, stayed true to its path throughout the swing. Aaron and I watch it float out, bright and shiny against the pine foliage, as it settles onto the grass. It rolls another fifteen, twenty yards, coming to rest 175 yards down the fairway.
“Great shot, Mort,” says Aaron.
The clubs go back into the bags. We drive off, 18 holes to go.