When father and son start playing golf together, lessons in progress and expectations for both
Editor's Note: This story was first published in 2019. The son now gives the author four shots a side.
For several years when my boys were quite young, the predominant emotion I associated with golf as a father was guilt. It was an indulgence, a wildly impractical use of time given the new strains of parenting. I recall even my first few months at Golf Digest, when my editor asked in passing whether I was going to play golf one weekend. That Saturday was my oldest son Charlie’s 4th birthday. There were 50 people coming to our house for his party and a massive swing set to put together in the backyard. Whatever free time I could shake loose would be spent dozing while my youngest watched “Bob the Builder.” My editor might as well have asked if I would also be riding to the course on a unicorn.
There was no grand plan when I introduced my boys to golf. I was primarily a hockey player growing up, and the only athletic certainty was they would be as well. Everything else would have to bend to the whims of the ice-rink schedule. But at some point we found our way to the range, and they started taking a few swings. My only real concern was when they duffed a shot a few yards into the infield and instinctively chased after it, narrowly avoiding shanked 8-irons that screamed by their heads.
What’s been most rewarding about golf with my boys is that there were no expectations, at least at the start. I’ve never been a great player, and I didn’t play at all when I was a kid, so I don’t hold either to the type of benchmarks I might subconsciously attach to other sports. The fact that either can get the ball airborne with any sort of regularity still qualifies as a marvel, and it’s apparent both have some innate, though still raw, ability.
For several years, golf among the three of us was of the typical contrived family variety: chipping competitions at the short-game area, par-3 courses, full courses in which the boys teed off from the 150-yard markers—just enough of the game to entice them without trampling their spirit. Then two summers ago when Charlie turned 12, he qualified for a junior membership at our local course, and he started venturing off to the golf course on his own.
A part of me always recoils when golf gushes about its ability to impart “core values” and “life lessons”—all those platitudes you hear in commercials during Sunday telecasts. I have never questioned that the best in golf can resonate at a deeper level. But I also know people who play three times a week, and they’re assholes just the same.
What I do think golf provides is a type of educational blueprint, and like with anything else, you can either follow it or divert from it entirely.
If golf teaches us anything, it’s there is little regard given to what 'should' happen.
The first day that Charlie played 18 holes without me, he and a buddy arrived at the first tee and got paired with a single man in his 20s. (I was at work getting updates via text from my wife, who hung around long enough to see them off.) I felt a brief flutter of panic, and sympathy for the poor soul paired with two 12-year-olds still learning the game. I considered calling the guy to apologize, but also to press him for details: Did Charlie play fast enough? Did he replace his divots? Also, how did he hit his irons?
At the risk of overstatement, I imagine sending your kid off to play golf without you is a sort of precursor to the day you’ll drop them off at college. You’ve hopefully provided them a decent foundation, but ultimately it’s up to them to navigate the highs and lows on their own, and not tarnish your family’s good name along the way. By Charlie’s estimation, his first round without me was a blast, the only lag in pace of play attributed to the “old ladies in front” (his phrase, not mine). He relished the entire experience—the hole-by-hole twists of fortune; their older, cooler playing partner who treated two kids as equals; even the idle BS sessions during backups on the tee. For the final month of summer, he played golf pretty much every day.
The running joke among my friends is now that my son is a full-fledged golfer with a backswing that reaches absurdly past parallel, the countdown is on until he beats me. Maybe next year, they say. I hope so, I say.
But the unintended consequence of a son who has become fixated by golf is he has rejuvenated my game as well. Charlie and I can go on at length about ball position, about when to chip versus putt, about which hole we’d redesign at our course and how. At the U.S. Open recently, I videoed players on the practice range to show my son how Justin Thomas takes his club back slow, or how Ian Poulter gets through the sand in greenside bunkers. Charlie’s scores have inched down this summer, but so have mine.
I wish that was it. But to know golf is to know the game doesn’t dole out progress in tidy, linear increments. I think back to my experience breaking 100 for the first time. It was one summer in college, and I remember the feeling of betrayal when I slogged to a 106 the next time out. I figured golf was like a video game, where once you graduate to a new level, you need never return to the old one.
Turns out it doesn’t work that way. One day last summer, Charlie and I snuck out for nine, and we were both out of sync from the start. I pulled my opening tee shot into the trees. He hit a low flare into the rough. When Charlie missed a short putt a few holes later, he angrily scooped up his ball and hurled it into the trees. The afternoon devolved from there. Stomped feet, slammed clubs. He grew angrier at his game. I grew angier at him. Eventually I just walked off the course. He had to get a ride home.
The problem with expectations is, they always change. I could remind Charlie he should just be happy to learn the game at his age, but once you hit enough balls square on the clubface, you sense you should do it every time. If I wasn’t the same way, maybe that’d be different.
It’s taken me awhile, both as a golfer and a father, to recognize the dangerous potency of that word—should. That ball should have broken left. I should have made par. You should always keep calm. If golf teaches us anything, it’s there is little regard given to what “should” happen. The same could be said for a lot of things—a daunting thought at first, but then oddly liberating once you learn to let go.
Among the reasons I’ve learned to love golf more is that I now approach the game with what I call tempered optimism. I know there’s better golf in me, but I’ve also lowered my expectations to such modest depths I can’t ever be too disappointed. Perhaps I shouldn’t place similar restrictions on my boys, both of whom deserve to be better than me. But even they would be wise to accept that what should happen and what can happen are often two different things. As far as life lessons go, you just need to play enough golf to figure that out for yourself.