February 22, 2010

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

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.

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.


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.

His four sons, taking it up at the same time, turned golf into a contact sport. While driving a cart to the range at Minnesota Valley Country Club in my hometown of Bloomington, my brother Jim was felled by an errant range ball that struck him in the Adam's apple and sent him shoulder-rolling from his seat. My dad and I looked on in astonishment, wondering how we could possibly bring dignity to such a death when delivering his eulogy.

Just last summer, Tom's 9-year-old son, Charlie, took golf lessons at Minnesota Valley and drove a ball straight up and into his forehead. He collapsed on the tee box in agony, an apparent golf suicide.

Indeed, most of our golf violence has been self-inflicted.Tom and I engaged in a Cain-and-Abel cage match in Maui when I chipped onto the green and then sprinted for the toilet, an affront to Tom's sense of etiquette. He picked up my ball, threw it into a water hazard and said, "What kind of jackass chips on and then takes a leak?"

"Both of you refused to pose for the family photo at the next tee," recalled my brother-in-law Mike Kolar.

Mike is married to my only sister, Amy. Amy is a variation on the golf widow: a golf only-child (to her brothers) and a golf orphan (to her father). The only rounds Amy enjoys are her rounds as an emergency-room physician. But when you play golf like the Rushins do, it helps to have an ER doc at close hand.

And so our foursomes are more male than most maximum-security prisons. (And often involve more denim. We frequently find ourselves behind guys in jean shorts and wife-beaters at various Midwestern resort courses chosen solely for their geographic convenience.)

My wife, retired basketball player Rebecca Lobo, seldom plays with us, in spite of -- or more likely because of -- her status as the 219th best golfer among professional athletes. Or so she was named by this very magazine, which ranked her one spot ahead of the starting shortstop for the New York Yankees. Ever since, my brothers have tried to draw her into a heavily handicapped round by saying, "You gotta give us strokes. You're better than Derek Jeter." Wisely, she has declined to play with us.

Over the years nonblood relations have made countless cameos on our family golf trips, each guest more appalling than the predecessor. Often they've been attorneys. In 2003 at Cypress Point, Jim brought along his buddy Hondo -- Chicago lawyer Jeff Henderson -- who showed up at the first tee at the top-10 course on Golf Digest's 100 Greatest with a strapless bag.

The caddie's face fell like a soufflé when he realized he'd have to hump Hondo's tour bag around by the handle for four hours like an 80-pound attaché case.

And yet Hondo and Mike, also an attorney, provide something that is too often necessary on Rushin family golf trips: legal counsel. In Kona, a decade-and-a-half ago, Jim's wife, Mary Jo, shattered the window of a condo with her tee shot and then turned, stricken, to my dad. "What should I do?" she said. "This has never happened to me before."

"Take a drop," Dad replied, irritated by her ignorance. "You can't play it from in there."

Karmically, Dad now spends his winters in a condo overlooking the 17th fairway of the Highland Woods Golf & Country Club in Bonita Springs, Fla., where his rooftop is routinely pelted by hail-size golf balls, cosmic payback for his family's manifold golf sins.

The greatest of these was committed on the Big Island in 1993, when the cashier at an upscale course shortchanged me $2 on my $78 green fee. He said he'd given me my change. I said he hadn't, for if he had, I'd now be in possession of two singles. This went on for three full minutes. The only thing wider than my family's mean streak is my family's cheap streak.

Moments after leaving the golf shop, seated in a cart and still bereft of my $2, I felt a backhanded slap to my chest.

It was the cashier, angrily flinging two bills into my lap, like I was an exotic dancer. Tom scrambled from the driver's seat to grab him. Jim came sprinting downhill from the first tee box. A crowd of giants -- they were the same size and temperament as the 600-pound Hawaiian sumo champion Konishiki -- poured from the cart garage, like circus clowns from a Volkswagen Beetle.

Sadly, we were missing my little brother, John, a 6-feet-6 human hockey fight who was a seventh-round draft pick of the New York Rangers as a high school senior. On this trip, John was in college at Notre Dame, where he majored in cross-checking.

John is the best golfer among us. He shot a 79 at Augusta in 2003, an unforgettable experience principally because he won't let us forget it. "Maybe you could slip that into Golf Digest," he said. "My 79 at Augusta."

And yet John remains a few range balls short of a bucket. He famously asked on a family golf trip to French Lick, Ind.: "Why do I play golf? I guess I'm just a sodomist." He presumably meant "masochist," which he'd confused with "sadist," which he'd further confused with "sodomist." But even so, I was nervous on the next several greens when bending over to take my ball out of the cup.

But back to the Big Island, and what has become known as the Hawaiian Punch.

My dad played football at Tennessee, where he majored in bar fights. When he saw his sons squaring off with the maintenance crew, he ran from the first tee box to join the fray, his metal spikes throwing up sparks as he skidded down the asphalt cartpath like a locomotive forced to brake abruptly. And just as he was about to jump into the pile, he pulled up lame, clutching his buttocks and howling in pain, until the staff shifted its attention away from the donnybrook and toward the senior citizen writhing on the ground with a pulled hamstring.

Dad pulled the same hammy last spring, in Costa Rica, while trying to climb out of a deep bunker at the Four Seasons Resort course on Peninsula Papagayo. "Check it out," Jim said, looking at his old man with a profound lack of sympathy. "Dad literally can't get out of the sand."

We told these stories in our cabin at the Wilderness on a Friday night last June. In the cabin across the road, a bachelor party was just kicking off. After an hour, the courtesy shuttle from a central Wisconsin strip joint called Cruisin' Chubbys came to collect the happy drunks.

As I privately wondered what one shouts in a Dairy State strip club -- "Lose the lederhosen!" -- Mike Kolar recounted a bachelor party he'd just attended, in which the group played golf at Deacon's Lodge, the Arnold Palmer course near Brainerd, Minn. There, Mike's friend Len Murray arrived from Dallas with a boom box, which he promptly fired up on the first tee box. When Mike asked him if he was out of his cotton-picking mind, Len replied: "I need to listen to tunes when I golf. It chills me out." And so he did, for the entire round. "Try teeing off while listening to Souljah Boy," Mike lamented.

Through a window at the Wilderness, we watched the drunken stag party depart, as if watching footage of our former selves from some long-ago golf trip. We Rushins remained resolutely in our cabin, all 18 of us: Dad, his five children and his 12 grandkids. I went to bed at 9:30 in preparation for our 7:18 tee time the next morning. Tom told me, "I can't believe how lame we've become."


Wild Rock Golf Club is new. It opened in May on the site of the former Wilderness Woods course. After a 2005 round at the Wilderness, my dad's clubs were stolen from the bag drop. They were never recovered, despite the stickers on every shaft bearing his name, address and phone number. And still we go back every summer.

The new course is beautiful, with tee boxes from a Pottery Barn catalog: Dad played from Sand Stone, his sons played from Shale.

On the front nine we saw gray geese and wild turkeys and began to look for other alcoholic avians: An Old Speckled Hen or a Famous Grouse.

They were the only birdies on offer -- at least until the par-4 13th, where Tom's second shot was 12 feet from the flagstick. That's when a guy from the group ahead of us ran down from the 14th tee box and onto our green. With mounting horror, we watched from the fairway as he bent down, picked up Tom's ball and put it in his pocket before running away.

We were momentarily stunned into silence. And then Tom went booking after the brazen ball thief. For a moment, I felt those familiar sensations -- adrenaline, fear and foreboding -- that precede a golf fight.

I took little comfort in my glove. Because it's not worn on your dominant (or punch-throwing) hand, a golf glove won't protect your knuckles in a golf fight. Every Rushin knows that. And so D'Annunzio from "Caddyshack" and Tommy (Two-Gloves) Gainey are wise to wear them on both hands.

Tom confronted the ball burglar with an air of heavyweight menace: Andrew Golota meets Top-Flite Balata. But the guy immediately apologized, unhanded the ball and said meekly, "I thought it was my friend's." Tom believed him, not least because the guy appeared -- in flip-flops, with a rental bag -- to be playing for the first time.

And anyway, Wild Rock's rustic beauty served as a natural pacifier. The par-3 15th requires a tee shot over a gravel pit that put me pleasantly in mind of Fred Flintstone's quarry workplace. In an early episode of "The Flintstones," Fred won the Loyal Order of Dinosaurs golf tournament. Alas, lodge president Barney Rubble withheld Fred's trophy because his dues were delinquent. There is that bittersweet quality -- golf giveth, and golf taketh away -- in every round the Rushins play.

There was that time at Meadowbrook in Hopkins, Minn., that Tom and I were paired with a lone stranger who had -- we couldn't help but notice -- only one arm. The man swung right-handed clubs with his left hand, as if hitting a backhand in tennis, and his fluid swing (and flawless first tee shot) gave my brother and me a strange feeling of impending doom. And so Tom turned to me and whispered, with a deep sense of disquiet, "We're about to get our asses kicked by a guy with one arm." Which is precisely what happened.

Our games have scarcely improved in the 17 years that we've been playing. And yet we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Why? Why do we keep coming back to golf? We're masochists, to be sure.

Or sadists. (Or sodomists.) But we're also optimists. In preparation for Wild Rock, I shopped for a new driver, in the same way that I shop for wine: by figuring out how much I want to spend, which label I like best and whether or not Greg Norman had anything to do with its production.

The new club has had no impact whatsoever on my score. But drivers are not what drive me. The real driver of my golf game is family. The family that plays together, stays together, at least literally so. Eighteen of us stayed in a duplex cabin at the Dells, where everyone agreed that the high point in our family's golf history -- hell, the high point in our family's history, period -- came on Dec. 26, 2006.

We were in Bonita Springs. My dad booked a tee time for his four sons at Highland Woods. When I begged off the early-morning tee time -- as a sportswriter, I was still keeping vampiric hours -- my dad filled in for me at the last minute.

At the 133-yard 15th, Tom went into the can adjacent to the tee box. "Jim had his back turned and was goofing off," recalled Dad, who can't see more than 50 yards ahead of him.

This fairway blindness is not uncommon on the geriatric courses of South Florida, where my dad once played with a 90-year-old who tried to follow the flight of his own shots with the binoculars around his neck.

And so when Dad's tee shot went straight at the stick, landed five yards in front of the cup and majestically rolled, like a red carpet, toward the cup, John was the only one jumping up and down and shouting, "It went in! It went in!" Jim whipped around in disbelief as Tom minced from the can with his shorts around his ankles. At age 72 -- life's par -- Dad had his first hole-in-one.

I thought about this little moment of perfection in our cabin at the Wilderness while Dad witnessed yet another one: His five kids and 12 grandkids joining him to pound fajitas down their open maws, giving new resonance to the phrase "18 holes."

This family tableau was unimprovable. Or was until I bit into my still-sizzling fajita and remembered, with seared tongue, what I hate about Ireland: The soup's too @#$%^& hot.