Mom's Influence Helped Make Golf More Than Simply A Game
I first played golf as a teenager, with my father, on nine-hole municipal courses. But in my 20s and 30s I took a big step away from the game, in the direction of hockey, rowing, running, karate, back surgery and travel. By the time I returned, with one less vertebral disk, 10 percent less flexibility and 10 times the passion, my dad had passed on.
My mother was 60 years young at the time and, as a golfer, just coming into her prime. Like me, she had played the game first with her father--on some of those same public courses--then taken a big step away into softball (starting third-basewoman for the Boston Olympets, average .375, with teammates who later went on to "A League of Their Own" fame), tennis (she won the city title at 16 and was invited to go on the ladies amateur circuit by none other than the "Queen Mother of American Tennis," Hazel Wightman), and the United States Army (as a wartime physical therapist helping amputees from the Pacific theater).
Too much of a working-class girl to accept the softball and tennis offers in an era when female athletes earned nothing, she married, raised three sons and didn't pick up a club again until we were grown and gone. At that point she and my father (she introduced him to the game) joined a small private club a few miles from our house in Massachusetts, and she began to play the game in earnest.
Having never taken a lesson or spent time at the range, with antiquated clubs in her bag, my mother was not a tour-caliber player. But she was a world-class athlete, and since golf was the only outlet available to her, she pursued it with a pure passion. She would never use the term, but she beat the other women in her league like a drum. Some of them were in their 20s and 30s, some closer to her own age. One season she took home 11 of the 12 tournament trophies.
Two or three times a year we would play together. She introduced my wife to the game, handing over clubs and advice and inviting her to member-guests--which they invariably won. When I rejoined the cadre of golf nuts, my mother and I played together more often, and I came to understand her passion better--and to see what shape it took. A slow, looping swing, a penchant for chip-ins, a certain difficulty reading enough break into putts--that was the technical side.
But it was the focus, grit and temperament that impressed me most. She did not like to lose--not one bit--but she was a gracious winner. She hit her best shots when people were watching and especially enjoyed blistering a gorgeous tee ball on the opening hole when male golfers were next in line and offering disparaging looks. She would wave and smile and then, a few steps down the fairway, say, "Showed them," out of the side of her mouth.
She left the game at 84, no looking back, though she was still sometimes breaking 100 for 18 holes. When we asked her why she had decided to quit, she said, "I want to go out on top," and cited examples of various professional athletes who had hung on too long and made fools of themselves.
Approaching 90 now, she is still fit, but no amount of cajoling will get her to come out of retirement. Of all the on-course memories etched into my brain, the one that stands out sharpest comes from a Peter Fazio layout just outside Rome. My wife and I had a young daughter then, and took my mother with us on that Italian vacation. The three adults played golf and babysat in a fair rotation. On this day it was my mother and me on the links, and we had trouble finding the place. Arriving late, I knew we would really have to hustle to get in the full 18. So there she is in my mind's eye, age 77, sinking a 30-footer near dusk on Parco de' Medici's 16th green, then trotting over to the cart, putter in hand, so we would be able to get in those final two holes.