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All In The Family

When my relatives take a road trip, there's sure to be golf, booze, heckling and usually a little violence. Why? Because we're optimists

December 2008

We saw a gray goose and a wild turkey on the front nine at Wild Rock Golf Club in Wisconsin Dells, Wis., and each of us -- my dad, my brothers and I -- took comfort in these liquor-bottle logos come to life. "Look," said my brother Tom, pointing to the last two scores on my card. "Steve just shot a Seven & Seven." These boozy omens were auspicious.

Over the years, Rushin family trips have been marked by endless rounds -- rounds of golf, rounds of drinks, concurrent rounds of golf and drinks -- but also by withering criticism of each other's games. Our trips are four parts Johnnie Walker, one part Johnny Miller -- or had been, for the better part of 17 years.

There was that memorable night at the Beer Hunter tavern in La Quinta, Calif., when my dad told the bartender: "Keep bringing me beers in progressively larger containers." Hours later an appreciative crowd saw -- stair-stepped in front of my father like the bars of service on a cell phone -- a line of spent receptacles climbing ever higher, and culminating in an earthen jug from Africa, which he uncorked and downed in a trice.

Some golf rounds have shotgun starts. Ours, historically, have shotgun finishes.

But that was when we were soused, before we were spoused. My three brothers and I are now married with children, each of us shouldering the heavy tour bag of responsibility.

We're no longer inclined to wrestle another family for the last taxi at Miami International Airport, as we did on Christmas Eve of 1992, when Avis ran out of rental cars. Or to fistfight Hawaiian giants at the cart return of a Big Island golf course, as we did the next Christmas.

These were the years immediately after my mother died, when my dad took up golf and his sons all did the same -- out of sympathy and a sense of shared burden, in the way that siblings shave their heads when one of them gets cancer.

We did that, too, when my oldest brother, Jim, felt a sharp pain in his sternum on the first tee of the Irish Course at the American Club in Kohler, Wis., in 2002, leading to his diagnosis of a relatively rare form of cancer called multiple myeloma.

A scant 12 weeks after his bone-marrow transplant, Jim joined us on a golf trip to Ireland, where my brothers and I packed cans of Harp in our bags and played Killarney Golf and Fishing Club for free after dark, the beers kept cold (in a land bereft of ice) by boxes of frozen Birds Eye Garden Peas.

rushin

Steve Rushin (far right) with father Don, his three brothers, John, Jim and Tom and his sister, Amy.

My uncle Patrick Boyle joined us and preceded every utterance with "You know what I love about Ireland... " On the last night of the trip, in a pub in Ennis, Uncle Pat provided us with a catchphrase for the ages when he said: "You know what I hate about Ireland? The soup's too @#$%^& hot." It has since become the phrase to utter when everything is perfect and we're desperate for something to whine about.

We hoped to recount all of these stories in June, as we checked into the Wilderness Resort in Wisconsin Dells, midway between Minneapolis (where half my family lives) and Chicago (where the other half does). The Dells had just endured catastrophic flooding, a cruel irony in a city that bills itself as The Water Park Capital of the World, the largest of those 20 parks being Noah's Ark, a billboard for which was half-submerged -- another cruel irony -- on the side of I-94.

Our cabin at the Wilderness was decorated in a Mid-Century Moose-Lodge motif, with antlered chandeliers and lamps made from logs. It looked onto Lake Delton, or what used to be Lake Delton: Its levee had broken four weeks earlier, draining the lake and washing away many of the houses on its bank.

All of which is to say that the Dells -- flooded, Arked, with a man outside my window now walking across the lake bed -- seemed a sufficiently Biblical backdrop to tell this, the Rushin family golf epic, with its blood feuds and blessings and minor miracles.

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After the abrupt death of my mother, Jane, on Sept. 5, 1991, of a disease called amyloidosis, my dad took up golf at 57. He and my mother had always played tennis -- a couples' game of mixed doubles and tennis bracelets and Love-Love. But in mourning, Dad turned Job-like to golf, a game of frustration and golf widows and solitary hours on the range.

On his first visit to a driving range, my father struck a steel stall divider with one of his drives, and the ball rocketed back into his privates, beginning a long history of violence and comedy -- often combined -- in the Rushin golf game.

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