Fathers, Sons & Brothers

When the topic of my high school athletic career is raised, certainly never by anyone but me, I don’t gin up some story of teen glory. I don’t pretend I was a scrappy point guard on the basketball team, or a good-glove no-hit cog on the baseball team, or (as if anyone would believe it) that star tailback who led the Caesar Rodney Riders to the state championship in my senior year.

This, though is true: I was an athletic letterwinner in high school. I never missed a practice in four years. When it was time to play, I was there. Always. Every time.

It’s true, yes, that I never actually played. I practiced. I rode the busses. I caddied for the upperclassmen. When I was an upperclassman, I caddied for my buddies on the team. But mostly, for all four years at good ol’ CR, as I tell anyone when the subject comes up (which, again, only me, only just now), I fulfilled my role as the seventh man on our six-man golf team.

Such are my athletic bonafides. Such is my lifelong love/hate, on-again/off-again relationship with the game of golf.

This weekend, for the first time since the spring of ’19, three of my brothers and I will again assault the golf courses at Pawleys Island, South Carolina, in search of some semblance of athletic glory. We’re not on the hunt for holes-in-one; not seriously. We’re not looking for sub-90 rounds, or for that laser beam 275-yard drive. We have no expectation of rolling in any more than one putt, all weekend long, of 25-feet or more. We know we’ll be lucky if that happens.

But, among the four of us, a sub-100 round or two would be nice. Playing a whole 18 with a single sleeve of balls would be unbelievable, for any of us. A couple of birdies over the 90 holes isn’t, I think, too much to ask. A par on that island green at Pawleys Plantation? Or the one at Tradition?

OK. Not getting hurt is always good, too.

We are not particularly golf-talented, any of us. We’ve convinced ourselves, though, that with a little bit of self-control — we call it OMG, or Old Man Golf, which is the maddening way that you see seniors play, plopping it along the fairways in short straight punches and ultimately playing bogey golf (what we’d give for bogey golf!) — we might, actually, break 100 once in a while. We’re hoping it happens before we’re actually Old Men.

Like many weekend players, we show flashes of near-competence. But the random par or birdie (!) is invariably followed by shots that could seemingly be pulled off only by someone who never held a golf club, wouldn’t know a 4-iron from a tire iron, and is missing several appendages and at least one eye.

Frustration, thy name is a par, followed by an 8.

The three original Pawleys pioneers; me, Bob, Jim, in 2013.

My golf upbringing, as I’ve probably mentioned here in the blog before, came at the kindly hand of my dad, who used to shake random numbers of his children awake to let them tromp their way around the cow pasture courses of middle Delaware and eastern Maryland. We’d get to the club before the pro shop opened, tee off into a rising sun, and watch as our worm-burner tee shots threw up rooster tails of dew and as our putts skittered through the wet greens, leaving slug-like tracks to show the breaks.

Dad would slip into the pro shop at the turn to pay our greens fees — not sure where he got the money, considering we always ran a big tab at the general store across the street from our house — then hustle us through the back nine as the course grew more crowded with real golfers. Dad, I suspect, was not much more of a player than I am now. But he enjoyed the simple parts of the game, many of which still elude me; staying in the middle, a short, straight shot, a nice lag putt. He’d smoke as he played, placing his cigarette carefully on the ground as he took his swings, then picking it up and grabbing his pull cart to head down the fairway. We almost always walked. I was always barefoot.

It was a long time ago, but I remember the feel of the thick fairway grass and the tight cushion of a Bermuda green underfoot. That freedom — barefoot in the summer on a well-tended stretch of gently rolling nature — is something I’ve always associated with my childhood, and with golf. If I could pull off going without shoes on a golf course now, I’d do it. In a second. Couldn’t hurt.

Somewhere along the line, golf got frustrating. In high school, I was steady but never a long-hitter or particularly deft around the greens. And when it came time for match play to earn one of the six spots on the team, which we did at the beginning of every season and whenever anyone wanted to challenge someone for a spot, I perpetually choked. Absolutely could not take the pressure. I rarely had the guts to challenge the sixth guy for his spot, either. Instead, I practiced every day. And caddied.

Golf is, as anyone who ever gripped a grip knows, a game where an infinite number of nit-picky adjustments can go wrong. A well-planned shot can end up deep in the woods in a millisecond, in the deep end of someone’s back yard pool or, as happened once with me at Pawleys Plantation, way over the green and into a wedding photo shoot near the clubhouse.

Congratulations! Love the dress. Mind if I play through?

Bad hits happen. Donovan Cup 2019, Pawleys Island.

Stance, swing, grip. Hook, slice, top, chunked. Your hands can be turned a quarter-inch the wrong way, the ball could be an inch too forward in your stance, your knees could be slightly underflexed, you could be a smidgen too close or too far away from the ball, and all golf hell breaks loose. A puff of wind comes along, a bump in the rough, a pine cone falls in just the wrong place, your ball lands on an upslope, or a downslope, or it plugs into wet turf … my god, anything can happen. Anything often does. Last time my brother Charlie played with us — this was at Pawleys Plantation, too — his ball rolled into the nook of a tree just off the fairway. A Keebler elf couldn’t have played it out of there.

Charlie had a bad day. He hasn’t been back since.

Bob teeing it up at Pawleys, circa 2017. (Cargo shorts, circa 1990.)

The challenge of overcoming the utter frustrations of the game is part of the allure of golf. The possibility of a great shot almost always brings golfers back, no matter how hacky the rest of the round is. (And when you take 100+ strokes a round, a few swings invariably will be pretty good.) A nice leisurely stroll on a warm day is great, too.

But the real reason I keep returning to this maddening, sometimes seemingly impossible pastime is the foursome. The people who tee off with you, who joke around, who congratulate you on the good shots, who shake their heads with you at the bad ones. Friends. Family. Brothers. You’re all in it together.

We’ve been golfing in Pawleys for something like 12 years, every year but last one. This year, with Charlie out, younger brother Dave will make his debut. If he seems too good for the three of us who have made every one of the Donovan Cups in Pawleys — that’s me, older brother Bob, and younger brother Jim (^) — we’ll talk in Dave’s backswing, point to his scorecard as obvious fiction, accuse him of blatant cheating, and remind him that we found him in a sewer when he was 2 and that he’s really not a Donovan after all.

If he shoots 105 or 110, we’ll leave him alone. Mostly. Probably. We’ll still accuse him of fudging the card.

But we’ll be together, a rarity in our lives, especially recently. Together on a warm day in South Carolina after a very, very cold year. Four brothers in their 50s and above. We’re a long way from the cow pastures of Maryland and Delaware.

It’s funny, given our upbringing and our shared lack of golf skills, that as far as I know, none of the Donovan golfers’ kids play the game. I took my son Luke, maybe 10 years old at the time, to the driving range once or twice. I think he went a couple times, too, with a college buddy. The challenge evidently didn’t fire him up. He saw golf, not all that inaccurately, as a slow game for older men in garish outfits and too much time and money on their hands.

Plus, it’s hard. Like wearing contact lenses and eating Brussels sprouts, you gotta learn to love golf.

Still, I think occasionally how cool it would be, how circle-closing perfect, to rouse Luke from bed on a weekend morning to take him out on a dew-drenched course somewhere. We could tee off as the sun rises, commiserate on multiple mess-ups, laugh a little, maybe even hit a few good shots. It’d be a father-son thing. It’d be nice.

If he ever reached the point that he was better than me, though — not a high bar, for sure — the golf gloves would have to come off. I’d do all the backswing-coughing, smack-talking, pressure-laying gamesmanship necessary. I’d treat him like a seventh man on a six-man team. I’d do whatever it takes.

That’s part of golf, after all. I should know. I was a letterman in high school.

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