Happy Father’s Day: Play on through Dad
My dad is gone now, but every year on the anniversary of his death, I go out by myself and play nine holes of golf on a northern golf course reminiscent of the mosquito-infested cow pasture back home where I learned the game.
I may be alone, but my father is with me for every shot and every hole I play that day.
He is commiserating with my bad shots, praising the good ones, telling me the stories of his life and giving practical advice on finances, home repairs, the meaning of life and whether or not 100 compression Titleists are a good idea in chilly conditions.
If he’s in a really good mood, he will go through a shot-by-shot recollection of the 77 he fired at Whirlpool while handicapped by a broken three wood and a loose left wheel on his ancient pull cart. As usual, I am suitably impressed and it launches me into a rendition of the time I carded a 71 at Pen Lakes with a sore back and a mediocre performance by the third-string putter I had in my bag on that fateful day. The other two putters had failed so miserably in the previous two weeks that they had been relegated to a bin in the cold room where dozens of other treacherous clubs went to serve their penance.
I have countless memories of my father but many of the most poignant ones revolve around the time we spent together on the golf course.
Puchalski golf history began on the aforementioned cow pasture that in recent years has come to resemble a golf course. Every year, my father would purchase a family membership that would allow myself and my four siblings to play for free. He also served as membership chairman for more than 20 years at the club, earning a one-quarter share for each of the four years of dedicated service. He would often talk of who would be willed the shares when he died but even then he knew they weren’t worth the ink on the low-budget parchment paper they were printed on. The plaque that the club gave him when he retired and moved to St. Catharines hung proudly in his living room and followed him when he moved into a retirement home with my mother. Always hanging with the plaque were the two golf balls used to score his hole in ones.
He introduced me incrementally to the sport. Hit a few shots while he played nine holes. Hit a lot of shots while he played nine holes. Step up to the women’s/junior tees armed with a set of Powerbilt junior clubs, following by graduating to the front tees where my father and older brothers awaited fresh meat.
Soon, we were hitting the golf course as a foursome or an occasional fivesome when one of my sisters decided to tag along. My father was OK with them not coming out as much because it saved them from the profanity-laced explosions my one brother was prone to when things weren’t going his way.
When his game went horribly wrong, he would lay waste to his golf bag with his seven iron and then toss it so far into the bushes that we weren’t able to find it until near the end of partridge hunting season.
My other siblings and I would be biting our tongues so as not to laugh aloud while my father tried to show disapproval. His sly half-smile made it clear he was busting a gut inside his head.
I feel blessed to know I was able to play hundreds and hundreds of rounds of golf with my dad. I’m blessed because I realize too many of my other friends had far less time with their fathers than I did.
My lone regret in my golf relationship with my father came back when he was in his early eighties. For the first time in a decade, my brother visiting from Alberta made it possible for the four of us to get together for a round of golf. No one said it out loud but all three brothers knew it was probably the last time we would have the opportunity to relive a childhood memory.
The selected challenge for the day was the front nine at Riverview. My once cluster F-bombing brother was now the model of decorum, no doubt mellowed by a career as an employee of the federal government. My other brother and I were up to our usual games. We were nonchalant about what our scores were, but both of us were in a battle to the death in quest of victory. That two-foot gimme on the third hole would become ‘You better putt that out’ on the seventh.
Against this somewhat altered backdrop, my father was playing his best game in years. He was hitting it straight, draining putts and we arrived at the ninth and final hole with him beating me by a single stroke. It was obviously bothering me because I was no longer focused on where I stood on the scorecard in relation to my oldest brother. I’m pretty sure he was kicking my butt at the time, but never in a million years would I give him the satisfaction of saying so. He’s already insufferable enough as it is.
I’m sure most men in my position would have made sure that margin stood but not I. Knowing what was at stake, my father, like many mortals before him, choked in crunch time and double bogeyed the final hole. My par gave me a victory I knew was hollow the moment my putt curled into the hole. He took it graciously, thus imparting one more valuable lesson that still resonates in my mind like the many that preceded it.
I felt bad but I was able to redeem myself in the ensuing years when continuing to take my father golfing was a challenge. In honesty, taking him to Tim Hortons was getting to be a challenge at that point.
One morning in particular remains permanently imprinted on my memory. He was more than 90 years old at the time and was only able to play a few holes. When I arrived at Tufford Manor, it was clear he was not feeling well and he would be wise to go back to bed. Before I lifted his five clubs off the back of his walker, I gently suggested to him that we should postpone to another day.
“I have already filled two pots (I think he meant he was having frequent bowel moments) and I am going golfing today if I have to crawl,” he replied.
Admittedly, a few tears leaked down my cheeks as I loaded him carefully into the car and took him to St. Davids. He probably only hit three or four shots that day and I snuck behind him every time to make sure I could catch him if he lost his balance. As we rode in the cart, I looked over at him and I could tell he was a million miles away. He was smiling and had a serene and joyous look on his face. Rather than feeling crappy (no pun intended) and old, I’m certain he had been transported back to a day when he was challenging par, teaching his kids lessons and listening to my brother shout every curse word known to mankind.
I would love to look up and tell him all his advice has been heeded, but I am still a work in progress. Even if I’m far from perfect, he stills loves me and supports me to this day. I know this because he tells me every time we go golfing together on that warm fall day in September.
Happy Father’s Day to my dad and all the other dads out there. For my dad, I have a few last words.
“Go ahead and play through. I will join you eventually.”