The most important shot in golf is the next shot.
One of the ironies I’ve discovered on becoming the father to grown children is that the lessons I tried to impart in their younger years seem to come back to me from them as I have aged.
I was delighted when my youngest child, Meghan, began to take an interest in golf. In addition to the pure enjoyment of her company and the bond the game creates between parent and child, I would finally have someone to help remove the guilty sting of the inordinate amount of time I stole from my family to pursue my obsession.
Of course, I did not know at the time part of her motivation was to get my wife interested in golf. Meghan, who was the last at home, worried, as youngest children do, that her mother and I would not have enough in common to keep us together when she was no longer around. I only found this out years later once it became clear to her that Eileen and I were reasonably secure and stable empty-nesters.
In any case I introduced Meghan to golf by bringing her with me to a golf lesson. The pro I was working with at the time was a truly eccentric genius who loved teaching kids and I know that first golf lesson still sticks in her mind 15 years later. It was immediately apparent she had real talent. Being the youngest among intensely competitive type A characters bequeathed on her healthy aggression often hidden in the personalities of young women. From the beginning she swung with the kind of abandon I only saw in women who played professionally.
One day shortly after we began to play together she asked, “Dad, can we play golf tomorrow?” For some reason I did not immediately say “Yes!” though, of course, that was the answer but instead embarked on the following Socratic dialogue.
“Meghan, if I say the word “baseball” does that tell you anything about the game of baseball?”
“Sure dad, there are bases and a ball.”
“And if I say the word “basketball” does that tell you anything about basketball?”
To this she pondered for a moment before answering “Well yeah, I guess the hoop and net are a kind of basket and there is a ball.”
“And how about football?” I persisted.
To this she replied “Of course dad, there’s a ball and you kick it.”
Finally I queried “If I say the word “golf” does it tell you anything about the game.”
Now she was stumped and looked at me quizzically.
I said “Right, Meg! There’s nothing in the name of the game that tells you anything about golf. So from now on whenever you want to play golf with me, I want you to ask “Dad can we go play some next shot? because that phrase actually has something to do with and begins to describe the game.
Sadly, Meghan’s interest in the game peaked when she left for college. Ultimate Frisbee, young men and the rigors of an Ivy League education at Cornell left little time for golf. Though we still played the occasional nine holes when she was around in the summer, most of her involvement with golf was as a caddie. Her knowledge of the game, her high professional standards and personal dignity made her an exceptional caddie, one sought out by many members of the golf club in our hometown.
You would think a degree from Cornell in International Agriculture and Rural Development would lead to a better job than manning the cash register at the local gift shop for minimum wage but Meghan graduated in June 2008 and the economy had collapsed. Much as she wanted her caddie days to be behind her, she badly needed the money.
As it turned out her bad luck was lucky for me because she was available to caddie for me in the senior club championship in July that year.
A good part of my golf career was an exercise in frustration in that I often came close to winning but rarely succeeded. Never the most talented player, I prided myself on my intensity and refusal to quit but the truth is I lacked confidence and somehow that always seemed to show itself under pressure.
To defuse the natural tension that precedes a tournament I told myself having Meghan on my bag for the 36 hole stroke play event meant I was in a no lose situation. Regardless of the outcome, we would enjoy each other’s company. Obviously, that was not just a psychological ploy but also true. But, once the tournament began, it did not seem to be working.
Driver, nine iron to 15 feet on the first hole and three putts for bogey. 6-iron to 30 feet on the second hole and three putts for a bogey. Routine pars on the third and fourth holes and a five wood to 20 feet on the fifth hole. So far I’d hit every fairway and every green. I lagged the downhill 20 footer to 2 feet above the hole and missed the tap in. Another bogey. Though my frustration was building, I managed to lace a four iron to the uphill par 3 sixth hole onto the green but on the wrong side of a huge mound that bisected the green.
Unlike the other 5 greens I had hit, this was a truly challenging birdie putt, one anyone would be pleased to two putt. It broke right to left up the steep slope and then hard left to right down the far side of the elephant’s back buried in the middle of the green. In order to get it close you had to just crest the top of the hill and risk the ball coming back down to you but I judged it perfectly. I struck the putt firmly and it crept to the apex of the hill and wobbled over the top, gained speed and slipped past the edge of the cup no more than 2 ½ feet directly below the hole.
I was left with a perfectly straight uphill putt but after 3 three putts in the first 5 holes, my confidence was shaken. I tried to convince myself otherwise but a familiar tightness crept into my chest and I missed it! Now steam was coming out of my ears. Six holes, six greens and four over par! I was storming off the green with my head down towards the seventh tee when Meghan handed me the grip end of my driver before she hurried out to fore caddie. I grabbed the club and pulled away but she held fast to the club head. I pulled again but she wouldn’t let go. At this I finally looked up at her and she said “Dad!”
I said “What Meg?”
More gently now, she said “Dad.”
I said “What Meghan?”
She just looked at me and said “Next shot.”
It’s funny that I can remember those first six holes so well yet can’t remember much about the remaining 30. But I remember vividly that moment with Meghan and the feeling it gave me, one of immense pride in her mixed with gratitude and a kind of deep calm. The tightness in my chest dissolved into warmth. If I had played any role in producing such a splendid and wise young woman, I could not possibly be the failure my foibles at golf led me to believe. That I am vulnerable to such emotional tyranny is a long story and I’m grateful to golf for giving me a safe place to exorcize those demons. But my deeper gratitude is to Meghan for providing me with such a memory.
This event took place many years ago and Meghan has moved on to a fine career in the non-profit world. I would like to report that I have overcome the challenges to my confidence golf seems to continually present. Sadly, I am still a work in progress in this regard but I continue to draw on the lesson Meghan taught me, the one I tried to teach her when I introduced her to golf in the first place.
For the record I went on to play two over par for the next 30 holes and won the event going away.