There was little question that Father’s Day 2003 would be my father’s last. A doctor’s scrawl on a piece of paper left no room for doubt, or for hope. My father, the doctor wrote in November 2003, was an “unfortunate 73-year-old gentleman” who had Stage 4 cancer in his lungs and liver. The doctor attached this note to some X-rays that I shopped around in search of a second opinion. The opinion was merely seconded.
What kind of going-away gift would I give him for Father’s Day? There was little question about that, either. I would give him the gift of golf, because golf made him smile.
A hundred years ago or so, he put an eight-iron in my hand and pointed to a piece of grass a long way away and said, “Just keep your head down.” Until recently, I declined to acknowledge the wisdom of those words, but in middle-middle age, I have decided that this is probably the smartest thing any parent has ever told a child. Just keep your head down.
We played dozens and dozens of rounds together, which means we spent hours and hours in each other’s company, talking, reminiscing and passing along advice that seemed related to golf, but really was more than that. Just keep your head down. Watch where you’re aiming. Play it down the middle and you’ll be fine. I remember him showing me how to hit a low, running chip with a seven-iron rather than a pitching wedge. It’s a fairly common technique, but at the time I thought he had just given me a secret known only to the game’s greats. Had the ghost of Bobby Jones visited my father’s firehouse and shared this wondrous tip?
And so, for this final Father’s Day, the gift had to be golf, because it was what we did together, and it was how we talked to each other. We spent that day in the Pocono Mountains, watching young guys we’d never heard of compete in the Northeast Pennsylvania Classic, an annual event on the Nationwide Tour-golf’s equivalent of the minor leagues. I couldn’t tell you who won on that sunny afternoon day in Moosic, Penn., except that there was a small victory in every uphill step my father took as we walked the hilly course and clapped for young men chasing dreams. He actually had gotten stronger since winter, strong enough that you might not know he was sick, unless you read the doctor’s note and knew that there was no hope.
After four hours in the sunshine, we returned to his house and watched the last few hours of the U.S. Open, always played on Father’s Day weekend. We usually rooted for Phil Mickelson, my father because Phil was a perpetual underachiever; me because Phil is a lefty (as I am) and because he seemed like a terrific dad. This was not to be Phil Mickelson’s day, but we were happy that funky-swinging Jim Furyk won. “He has a swing nobody would teach,” my father said. “Just like ours.”
We played a few more times last summer, and talked about spending Father’s Day 2004 at the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills on Long Island. He looked good enough in July that I could have this conversation without swallowing hard and looking away.
In August, we played the West Course at Pocono Manor, a few miles from my parents’ home in Pennsylvania. It was a hot day, and he was struggling by the time we reached the tee box at the 440-yard ninth hole, a difficult par 4. He hit a poor drive, an even worse second shot and two straight ground balls. He was still 50 yards from the green after four shots. He looked like an old man.
I was on the green, trying to look away, not wishing him to feel embarrassed or silly. He looked in my direction, looked down at his ball and, with a swing that suddenly had grace and tempo, he hit a beautiful high shot toward the green. I watched it land softly and roll 15 feet into the cup. The players in front of us had been watching, too, and broke into golf claps as my father picked up his ball. They thought they’d seen a nice golf shot. In fact, they had witnessed the most courageous bogey they would ever see, by a man who would be on his deathbed in three weeks.
We never played together again, although he played one more round on his own in early September. The following day he didn’t feel well, and he never would feel well again. The cancer had regrouped and now was advancing. He would linger for three months, and was gone by Christmas. I smile when I think he spent his last healthy day on a golf course.
Midway through his last illness, I brought my 8-year-old son to a little nine-hole course in New Jersey. It seemed like the place to be at such a moment in our lives. Under an orange sky, with the leaves red and gold, my son ran from shot to shot, delighted with life.
We reached the final hole just before dark. My approach shot came up short of the green, and I instinctively pulled a pitching wedge out of my bag. But it quickly went back, and I took out my trusty seven-iron and remembered a lesson I had learned a long time ago. “Watch this,” I told my son. “Watch what Pop-Pop taught me.”
I kept my head down. The ball rolled to within an inch of the cup, a shot I couldn’t make again if I tried a dozen times. My son was properly astonished.
“Pop-Pop taught you that?” he asked.
Among other things.