Souvenirs Tell Stories: Playing Golf with My Father — And My Daughter
I possess what may be one of the most unusual golf clubs ever made. It’s a driver, but it’s much smaller than a normal driver with a shaft a good foot shorter, and the head is personalized with my name — Jimmy LaBate — above and below a five-pointed star.
Yes, my dad actually made this club for me when I was about seven or eight, so I could hit golf wiffle balls in the backyard. With a gentle push like that, one might assume that I’d grow up to be a Master’s Champion, and I might have except for one minor problem: I hated golf.
Okay, “hate” might be too strong a word, but honestly, at that age, I thought golf was a stupid game. I was a big baseball fan at the time, so hitting a ball off a tee seemed too simple, and trying to hit that ball into a small hole seemed ever sillier. And you didn’t have to play defense either. What kind of game is that?
Still, I grew up with golf because my dad, who worked all week as a plumber, loved to play, and he decided early on that I would be his caddie. Thus, every summer Sunday afternoon, right after lunch, I would accompany him to the Amsterdam Municipal Golf Course where he would play 18 holes with three of his best buddies: Joe, a postman; Larry, an insurance guy; and Dom, who worked as a machinist and was an old friend from the East End.
Dad’s friends all carried their own clubs, so I was a bit of an outcast in their midst, but his friends were always nice to me, and they periodically included me in their conversation. I think Dad thought the experience would be good for me, to get me away from my five sisters, and I always got a juicy hamburger, fries, and a tall Coke at the end, so that was a bonus. Nonetheless, I didn’t really care for the game, and I gradually reached an important conclusion.
“I’ll save the game of golf for when I got older,” I told myself; “then, Dad and I can play together.”
Fast forward 40 or 50 years, and an insightful person might predict what could go wrong with that plan. I was not an insightful person.
Instead of gradually making the transition from baseball, softball, and tennis to golf, I waited too long. By the time I was really ready to give up or play less of those other sports to make the switch to the old man’s game, Dad had pretty much stopped playing. His legs couldn’t walk 18 holes any more, and even when he used a cart, he couldn’t hit the ball like he did previously. “I’m not as strong as I used to be,” he lamented on numerous occasions.
Dad passed away six years ago at the age of 89, and one of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t realize sooner that golf isn’t so much about hitting a ball three or four times before tapping it into a cup. No, golf is about enjoying the beauty of God’s creation with a loved one while pretending to care about birdies and pars and bogies.
I came to this clearer realization last week when I played nine holes on a local par-three course with my daughter Katrina. We had a blast.
As part of a Father’s Day present, we visited the driving range one weekend to practice, so we wouldn’t look like total amateurs. We whiffed often, and we laughed heartily. Then, a week or so later, we signed up for a morning tee time on a weekday, when we hoped to be almost alone, and no one could see how poorly we play. Our plan worked perfectly.
The elderly couple in front of us was clearly superior, so they left us in the dust, and the gentleman behind us was trying to teach his two young boys how to play, so we never felt rushed as we whiffed some more, topped the ball often, and each planted an old ball in the course’s one waterhole. Our first three holes were a disaster.
But, then, something amazing happened. We each gradually figured out how to hit the ball decently, and we amazed each other with our improvement. In fact, you could have knocked both of us over with a putter when Katrina knocked her shot on the fifth hole into the cup from off the green, a good 40 feet away. Amazing! Way to go, Girl!
No, that shot wasn’t for a birdie or a par or even a bogie, but it didn’t matter. It felt like she had won the Master’s with that shot, and as her dad, I could not have been prouder.
So now as I look at that old club that Dad made especially for me over half a century ago — a club that I still keep in my golf bag, by the way — I remember the finest man I have ever known, and I hope and pray that my daughter will be willing to play with her old man, at least once in a while.