On Father's Day, celebrating a 20-handicapper's journey
BETHESDA, Md. - Sportswriters aren't very good at math, not to say we don't know our way around numbers. We can be uncanny when it comes to athletic anniversaries and milestones, handy hooks for stories that they are. Commemorating when somebody famous did something phenomenal, we do those all the time.
I love doing those stories, but this isn't one of them.
This is about a 20-handicapper who never played golf before he was 50 and died before he was 60, a guy who hit only irons off the tee and chips out of sand. To him, the U.S. Open was a flicker on a Zenith, an agate scoreboard in the paper, a distant place he was never going to visit.
The U.S. Open and Father's Day, though, they've been as close as cheese and crackers since 1965, when the USGA dropped the 36-hole Saturday sweatfest and moved the final round of the Open to the third Sunday in June. This Father's day, if my Dad was here to get a card, or a tie, or a dozen golf balls, he would be 90 years old.
It's a nice, round number. Being a sportswriter, it gets me thinking. Being a son without a father for more than 30 years, it makes me sad.
Many fathers pass golf down to sons, which injects more meaning into U.S. Open Sunday, but I gifted the sport to him. I got hooked and pulled him along like a skier behind a boat until he could stand on his own. My electric putt-return with foam-rubber rug became his. The tin cups buried in the back yard became our targets. My dime-store putter and department-store 5-iron fit better in his Byron Nelson-large hands than my own. He inherited my 3-5-7-9 irons when I finally got a full set.
His ride through life wasn't without bumps and blind curves, but golf was free of trouble even if his scorecard was full of bogeys. An afternoon in the sun with a couple of friends and a couple of beers -- what was there not to like? This is someone, after all, who in 1945 parachuted from only 400 feet above the island of Corregidor, a badly broken ankle being the wound you could see.
Dad didn't beat balls. He never cleaned the grooves of his irons with an old toothbrush. He refused to put his golf balls in front of a heat duct the night before a winter game. The last thing before bed was not a re-reading of The Nine Bad Shots Of Golf and What To Do About Them. He never broke a club in anger, as I did at 16, with him present, unfortunately, to officiate the aftermath. I was obsessed with golf; he merely loved it. The one thing we did have common was 1970s golf fashion, for which the photographic proof that we actually wore the stuff is as incriminating as a police mug shot.
We played 11 holes in our last round together. It was the fall of 1979. He had gotten sick, gotten better, then gotten worse again -- a cancer journey taken by so many. I know he wanted to complete the full 18, but he didn't have the strength. When I remember him, I usually am able to think of good times we had when we played, days that putts dropped or laughter ruled if they didn't. Occasionally, however, my mind returns to that October day when the scores just stopped.
For many years after Dad died, when he was 59 and I was 20, I felt cheated that he didn't get to grow old. I wished we could have had more talks, more rounds of golf, more time together.
Then, just a few years ago, something happened that made me more grateful for the years we were able to share, and the life, though abbreviated, Dad had.
He knew he was adopted but seldom talked about it. There was family chatter that his birth parents had been killed in a car accident, after which he ended up with a couple who raised him like their own. Those folks were his parents, and to him, that was enough.
But the mystery nagged at me, particularly as I got older, until three years ago when I finally had the gumption to at least attempt to see what I could discover. A tip from a helpful attorney pointed me to a musty room in a county courthouse. In minutes, as one bound volume of records led to another, the events of December 1920 became clear.
Dad had been "an infant manifestly abandoned by its mother," left by the side of a country road. There he was found by a man who rescued him, kept him for several days until handing him over to the couple who would become his parents, a husband and wife who not long before had lost their teenage daughter to diabetes.
My father's birth parents were not known, and I guess they never will be, so I traded one mystery for another. Since I walked out of that courthouse not quite believing what I had seen, when Dad comes to mind, George Parker, the name of the person who found him by the road, does too. It doesn't matter whether I am looking at Dad's Purple Heart or one of his old Top-Flites.
On Father's Day, especially, I can't think of one man without the other, and probably never will.
--* Bill Fields