Travelers Championship

TPC River Highlands

Appreciating Bad Golf

By Steve Rushin Illustrations by Mickey Duzyj
April 27, 2009

Like so many of my golf problems, this one began at address: I've never known how to address my father-in-law. After my wedding in 2003, I couldn't bring myself to call him "Dennis," and I already had a "Dad." So we eventually came to address each other as "Hey" and "Hey There." As in . . .

HIM: "Hey, you gonna let me in?"

ME: "Hey There. Thanks for the unannounced visit."

One morning, in the first year of my marriage, Hey There drew me aside on the second tee of our local municipal goat track. "Hey," he said, putting his hand on my shoulder in the manner of someone about to share a deep confidence. "I've given this a lot of thought, and . . . " -- he paused while a 737 screamed to a landing at the adjacent international airport -- "I want you to start calling me Pop."

"Pop?" I said, suddenly feeling 8 years old. "And what should I call your wife, Snap or Crackle?"

Hey There was not amused by this remark and never again raised the subject. This was just the beginning of our excruciating efforts to bond on the golf course. It didn't help that we came from different golf traditions. I had grown accustomed, in 20 years as a sportswriter, to playing the world's finest courses. Hey There played courses whose signs, with suggestions like "Shirts Preferred," depressed me on arrival.

I'm used to signs that say, "Leave Rakes in Bunker." Hey There is more used to reading, "Rake Leaves in Bunker."

Worse, my 67-year-old father-in-law plays only nine holes. Seniors might like to believe that 60 is the new 40. But in golf, nine will never be the new 18. It's an abomination, a crime against nature. And so Hey There talks of "making the turn" on the fifth fairway. He hopes to someday "break 45." And he refers to the clubhouse bar as the 10th hole.

And yet these 90-minute lightning rounds have become "the thing we do together." Golf is our "shared interest," though his enthusiasm for his brand of golf is not something I'm always able to reciprocate.

One morning Hey There called me from Dick's Sporting Goods.

"What are you buying?" I asked.

"Golf hats," Hey There said.

This answer rendered me momentarily incapable of speech. I didn't know, until then, that anybody actually bought golf hats. Rather, I thought they reproduced in my hall closet, where at least a hundred giveaway lids have come to life only to die without ever being worn.

But then we are radically different men, of radically different temperaments. I often begin cursing on my downswing. If I'm playing poorly, and I almost always am, I fall mute for several holes, and silently brood in the shotgun seat of our cart. I take pleasure, I'm afraid, in the on-course misfortunes of my playing partner, an unbecoming trait that I inherited from my father. (On every errant tee shot of mine, Dad still belts out the chorus to "Goodbye, My Coney Island Baby.")

Seniors might like to believe that 60 is the new 40. But in golf, nine will never be the new 18. It's an abomination, a crime against nature.'

Whereas my father-in-law is the gentlest soul I have ever met. My wife claims to have never seen him lose his temper. He hugs everyone by way of greeting, holds hands with the people seated on either side of him while saying grace at dinner and ends every telephone conversation with "I love you," even, I suspect, when bidding farewell to a telemarketer.

And so it was with fascination that I watched him come to a slow boil on the golf course one recent fall day. On the eighth and penultimate hole of our round, he was bent over a three-foot putt for par. But I was away, and made a point of pre-emptively draining my five-footer for par. "No pressure," I said, and Hey There abruptly backed away from his ball.

There followed from Hey There an eternity of sighing, plumb-bobbing, line-reading and grass-sweeping. Then he calmly stepped up to his ball and ran it 11 feet past the hole.

What happened next filled me with a kind of fatherly pride for my father-in-law: He flung his putter 30 feet into the air.

The club went wind-milling in a parabola that was positively majestic, though he instantly regretted the action. And so Hey There began trying to wave the club away from the green, like Carlton Fisk waving at his home run in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series.

But alas, like most of his drives, his putter had too much height and not enough distance. It kamikazed down to the green headfirst, leaving an L-shape gash like a surgical scar.

My anger had scarred him, and he in turn had scarred the green. I was proud. But you know what? His patience has left its mark on me. I no longer mind playing nine holes, my new goal is to break 40, and the tire fire burning just off the third fairway is no longer an eyesore to me, rather a benefit: It plays as a lateral hazard.

In the first five years of my marriage, Hey There has taught me to appreciate bad golf. And the three children I've blessed him with in that time have given me another gift, a new name for my father-in-law.