January 4, 2010

Momma's Boys

From Ouimet to Palmer to Woods, golf's greats have a special bond with Mom

From Ouimet to Palmer to Woods, golf's greats have a special bond with Mom

It is one of my most vivid memories, although out of embarrassment, I kept it private. I was 14, playing the opening match of my first junior tournament on a blustery day at Lincoln Park Golf Club in San Francisco. I was nervous, afraid of losing, shaken by the sheer aloneness of competitive golf. Finally, while walking up the incline of the fifth fairway, I suddenly felt more love and need for my mother than I ever had, or ever would again.

Call me a momma's boy. Certainly an overprotected kid, and anything but tough. That abiding self-image is why I've always found beyond hilarious the scene in "Young Frankenstein" in which Gene Wilder, upon being locked in a room with the monster, quickly abandons bravado and desperately bleats, "Mommy!" But I remember being startled and ashamed about my feelings of dependence, and I spent the rest of adolescence and early adulthood consciously pulling away from my mother, no longer as confiding, affectionate or available. I thought it was what I needed to do, and although my distance wounded her, we tacitly convinced ourselves it was normal.

I've come to regret that I let insecurity rule. With each passing Mother's Day, it becomes clear that so much of who I became was drawn from my mother, who has now been gone 10 years. And the more I would have let her give me, the better person I would have become.

That perspective has been bolstered by examining the relationship of mothers and sons in the history of golf. In looking back, and in speaking to active players and all-time greats, it's clear that old-school fears that a mother's nurturing can weaken the competitive drive are trumped by an argument that a tournament golfer needs as much of Mom as he can get.

"My mother was a very gentle, generous person, but I never felt as if I was being soft by going to her," says Arnold Palmer, arguably golf's most classically masculine figure, of his late mother, Doris. "I sought her because she was the balance I needed to my father, who was tough and hard-core and refused to give me a compliment. I was always afraid to lose because of my father's reaction, but I never felt that way about my mother. No matter what, she was the one who always understood. All that was so important--much more important than I realized at the time."

Adds Tiger Woods, of his mother, Kultida: "With my mom, all my life it's been her love and support. She has always, always been there for me."

Fathers have often been the back-story stars of golf. Col. Robert P. Jones, Deacon Palmer, Charlie Nicklaus, Davis Love Jr. and Earl Woods are almost as much a part of the game's lore as their sons. Though athletes in other sports have made "Hi, Mom!" a reflexive response when the camera lands on them, that reaction has never quite caught on in golf. But it doesn't mean that mothers haven't prepared golfers for a profession that requires more resilience, self-esteem and self-sufficiency than most.

According to Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood, clinical psychologist William Pollack posits that even though society and Freudian psychology often urge mothers to pull back from their sons, men are made stronger and better balanced when mothers follow their instincts and stay close.

Pollack and other psychologists believe that the "shame-based" toughening that fathers and male authority figures often impose on boys creates a false manliness that masks fear. Meanwhile, a mother's talent for allowing a son to feel safe and accepted is what breeds confidence and a freedom to fail--the foundations of real bravery.

"I knew that if I went out there and put myself out on the limb and I failed, hey, I had love to come home to," Woods says. "Not everyone has that. And I know that with her, I always will."

Dr. Deborah Graham, a sport psychologist who has counseled hundreds of male pros, says professional tournament golf is best played with psychological balance.

"I've found that the healthiest tour players, and often the most successful, have an almost androgynous quality: They possess the tough-mindedness that we associate with the masculine influence and which is important to competitiveness, and the tender-mindedness that is traditionally imparted by mothers," Graham says. "But men who are secure enough to be tender have the kind of self-esteem and intuition and resilience needed not only during a round of golf but in a lasting career."

Adds veteran mental coach Dr. Dick Coop: "Golf is a high ego-risk endeavor--it's just you and your score. A young golfer really craves unconditional love, but fathers are almost trained not to give it because they can see it as encouraging weakness. But mothers are generally more able to do it, and it can make a huge difference in how a young golfer grows."

Every story is different, of course, but beneath the surface of golf history are mothers who made a huge difference. In American golf, it starts at the real beginning with Francis Ouimet's mother, Mary. As presented by biographer Mark Frost in The Greatest Game Ever Played, Ouimet's father was a harsh disciplinarian who ridiculed his son's ambitions in golf. But Mary Ouimet, according to Frost, decided "the dreamer in Francis needed looking after," and took her 7-year-old son to a Boston department store in 1900 to see Harry Vardon. Thirteen years later, Ouimet beat Vardon and Ted Ray in the U.S. Open at Brookline.

Sam Snead said the best of himself came from his mother. Laura Dudley Snead was 47 when she gave birth to Sam, the last of her six children. From her he inherited physical strength--she could throw a 100-pound sack of flour onto a rack--and a country shrewdness that was the hallmark of his personality.

"I'd like to have had all my characteristics and character from my mother," Snead told Al Barkow in Gettin' to the Dance Floor. "We always went to my mother."

Arguably the most important mother in the history of golf is Doris Palmer, for it was she, not Deacon, who had the charisma and an ability to connect with others, which became her son's most distinctive attributes.

"I'm deeply flattered when people who knew us both say I inherited her personality," Arnold wrote in A Golfer's Life, "for she was magnetic and charming, and nobody ever had a bad word to say about her." It was with Doris that little Arnold played his first rounds, during which he remembers being eager to show off for her. "Almost anything I did seemed to thrill her," he wrote.

That would have drawn a nod from Dr. Freud, who wrote: "If a man has been his mother's undisputed darling, he retains throughout life the triumphant feeling, the confidence in his success, which not seldom brings actual success with it."

In contrast, Jack Nicklaus' relationship with his mother, Helen, was one that essentially supported the extraordinary bond between her son and husband. Her maternal style was also shaped by a traumatic period from her adolescence. "Helen lost three members of her family within a short period: her mother, her father and her sister," says Jack's wife, Barbara. "It had a profound effect on her."

"My mother was always in the background, never in the foreground," says Jack. "I think above all, she was very proud of the relationship I had with my dad. Most of my traits are my dad's, although I suppose my natural shyness and bluntness come from my mother. Because of what happened to her earlier in her life, she was very protective. She didn't like me going anywhere or doing anything. If I had stayed in the house all day, she probably would have been real happy. I didn't pay any attention to that because my dad would say, 'Let's go do this and let's go do that.' I was always on the move with my dad."

Nick Faldo, who was heavily influenced by Nicklaus as a golfer, had an enterprising mother, Joyce, who above all believed in her son's talent.

"First we wanted him to be an actor," she told a reporter in 1980. "We thought he'd be another Sir Laurence Olivier. We took him to dancing and elocution lessons. We tried to interest him in music. We knew he'd win the Tchaikovsky piano prize. He had smashing legs, and I wanted him to be a model, so I used to take him to Harrods fashion shows. Finally, we realized he was only interested in sport."

"My mother would always hold my hand and say, 'I love you,' " Player says. "Instead of Gary, she would call me Gwatty. When I think of her, I often see her when she was very sick, and she was trying to walk up this hill, and I stood behind her and pushed. And when we got to the top and she gave me a hug . . . man!

"When she was alive, my mother never saw me hit a golf ball," Player says. "But I believe that she has been up there watching me. And my whole life has been a way of telling my mother, 'You taught me so much in our short eight years. I just want you to be proud of me and what I'm doing.' That's been a huge part of my energy."

EMOTIONAL OBSTACLES

In a different way, Lee Trevino's legendary drive can be found in his mother's emotional absence. "She and I never had a great relationship," he says of Juanita Trevino, who with his grandfather, Joe, also raised Lee's two sisters in a four-room house without electricity. "But as kids we didn't know any different. I wasn't around other people to see how their mothers hugged them and kissed them, did things for them, and we didn't have a television that showed how happy families acted toward each other. I didn't expect anyone from my family to believe in me or tell me I could make it. That's why I practiced so much, why I always tried harder than anybody else, because I never believed I was good enough. Because I never had that foundation that a mother gives a son.

"Sure, I became very good, but at a very big cost, especially to my eldest kids," Trevino says. "Probably I didn't need to practice that much or be away that much. Maybe if I'd been happier in my life, I would have had an even better career. But some things are very hard to make up for."

David Feherty also suffered from a lack of self-belief due in part to a complicated relationship with his mother, Vi. She passed along a gift for language, but her stoicism left her son conflicted.

"My mother has never, ever told me that she loves me," says Feherty, "and I don't think that she ever will. For a while it bothered me. And it might be that the way I am--always terrified of people not liking me, always trying so hard to please others--is a result of my mother's approval being incredibly and disproportionately important to me."

After retiring from competition in 1995, Feherty fell into deep depression made worse by alcoholism.

"I never felt that I wasn't loved by my parents," he says. "I don't think my mother's inability to verbalize emotion was the reason for my illness and depression. But once I understood her better, it helped me cure myself."

A breakthrough came when Feherty learned that his mother's father, who had died when he was a boy, had returned from World War I with psychological damage so severe he had been unable to speak for five years.

"The terrible remnants of what he went through were surely passed on to her," Feherty says, "and I began to look at her in a different way. When I went back to Ireland for my father's 80th birthday, no one knew I was mentally ill, but I felt I had to tell my mother. It was a big step to tell her that her little boy was broken. She took it like she took every other disaster or difficulty. She stiffened and said, 'What do we do now?'

"I used to be frustrated by that kind of reaction," Feherty says. "But now I understand that it's built on tremendous strength, and I appreciate it. As I've emerged from my illness, I'm tremendously grateful that it's been passed on to me."

THE ADVENT OF SUPERMOM

Mother-son dysfunction might be common, but it seems to be in decline in the background of today's touring pros. Pro after pro interviewed for this story recounted a childhood in which mothers fulfilled the near-impossible standards of Supermom.

"You run into overbearing mothers, or mothers who don't hold their sons accountable, but it's pretty rare," says Jon Wagner, an agent who specializes in recruiting young golfers for IMG. "Most mothers are the backbone of the family. The dad is often living vicariously through the son, but mothers don't care about that. They want to make sure that whoever is working with their son will be fair, be there for him, take care of him. That's all."

According to a tour-player composite, that maternal support would include: > Being her pre-school son's first playing partner (Sean O'Hair's mother, Brenda, and Padraig Harrington's mom, Breda).

Making long, conversation-filled car rides to tournaments (Charles Howell III's mother, Debbie, drove him from their home in Augusta, Ga., to David Leadbetter's learning academy near Orlando at least twice a month from the time Charles was 12, and Janice Sutherland would get up at 2 a.m. to beat rush hour and drive Kevin and David from Sacramento to junior tournaments in San Francisco).

Taking full-time jobs to help pay for the cost of big-time junior golf (Jim Furyk's mother, Linda, worked with the mentally impaired; Phil Mickelson's mom, Mary, helped run retirement homes; and Stewart Cink's mother, Anne, drove a bus and did bookkeeping for the school district).

Shagging balls during practice sessions, as Justin Leonard's mother, Nancy, did in the summer heat at a junior tournament in Wichita Falls, Tex.

"It might sound corny, but I couldn't conceive of having a better mother, and I know a lot of tour players who feel the same way about theirs," says Brandel Chamblee of his mom, Sandra. "Mine was so insightful, so sweet, so reliable. The perfect blend of velvet and steel."

As much as the mothers were doing, they did even more showing.

"With my mom, it's always been her positive spirit," says Rocco Mediate of Donna. "In 1992 she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. Basically there was no hope. Fifteen years later, she's in the medical journals as a survivor. When she first got sick, everyone was depressed, but I told my wife, 'She'll kick this thing's ass.' Because my mom is strong as a bull, especially mentally. So when I make a double or my back goes out, I don't complain. I keep going, because that's what my mom does."

"I'm the youngest of six, and my dad died of an aneurysm when I was 7," says Joe Durant. "My mom [Daisy] never remarried. She told me to believe in myself, that I would always know the right thing to do. All I really had to guide me was her example. That, and knowing that I never wanted to make life harder for her than it already was, even though she never complained. She's 87 now and going strong. She's my hero."