2006: Go Green, Irish Travel - Father Son

Waterville, Ireland

A week of golf in Ireland with Dad.

Three-quarters of the way through that invitation, it’s center-cut. That last quarter falls off a tabletop.

I love my gregarious, golf-addicted 73-year-old dad, Stanley. That said, we live just 20 miles apart and had played exactly two of our umpteen rounds in each other’s company since 2004. The first ended with Dad’s surprise announcement that we play like crap together (the surprise being the admission, not the fact, which is well documented). The second was his comeback loop after triple-bypass surgery.

When the offer came to compete in a four-day, grandly named World Invitational Father-Son Golf Tournament at Waterville Golf Club, well, damn the torpedoes and Dad’s crazy swing tips.

The bumpy six-hour red-eye flight from New York’s JFK to Shannon Airport provided a reasonable approximation of my jangled mental state: I left claw marks in the armrest. I was wearing my sleep mask during one turbulent stretch when a stewardess barked, “Sir, if you don’t take your seat right away, the plane’s insurance will not apply to you!”

I didn’t have to look to know that Dad, ever restless and a libertarian regarding personal safety laws, was standing in the aisle – mandatory seat belts are one of our ongoing debates. Thankfully, she spoke loud enough for him to hear, and stern enough for him to listen. Back home on Long Island, Mom surely smiled.

On the drive to Waterville, we stopped for a wonderful round on a perfect, windless – yes, windless – day at Dooks Golf Club, where we were joined by my friend Eamon. The only hiccup came on No. 17; after a Texas wedge rolled back to my feet, Dad said I was overusing this play – never mind that this was his first Ireland trip and my seventh, and wasn’t I the better judge, etc., etc. As I muttered profanities, little could I have imagined this would be his only advice all week.

Eamon ferried us the 45 minutes to the quintessential Irish seaside village of Waterville. For the moment, the less said about our lodging, the Waterville Lake Hotel, the better. The help tried hard, but the place is threadbare and dreary. Most tournament veterans lodged at the cozy Butler Arms Hotel in the town center – specifically at its bar, which proved the nightlife hub.

The friendly, bustling staff from Carr Golf, the event’s organizer, directed us to the Smugglers Inn, adjacent to the Waterville Golf Links. Dad and I enjoyed an excellent seafood dinner while mostly staring out the floor-to-ceiling window at the ocean. A Guinness each sapped our remaining strength – it was a long time since we’d seen a bed – but as nightfall wasn’t for another few hours, we walked the three miles back to the hotel, much of it along a waterfront promenade.

I don’t have the poetry in my soul of Keats or Van Morrison, but ambling shoulder-to-shoulder with Dad as the bay glistened in the dying day, well, you’d have to be black-hearted not to appreciate the blessing of the moment.

I awoke at 3 a.m. to an ungodly cacophony of snoring, a mix of tuba-like bleating, flute-like whistling, a sawing fiddle, the whole works. The failure to invest in separate rooms suddenly loomed large. “I have a deviated septum,” Dad said in the morning, a plausible if inadequate explanation.

We took the shuttle bus over to Waterville for our morning practice round. The clubhouse is one of those wonderful Irish versions – warm and unpretentious, comfortable but deferential to the course. Among other baubles, trinkets and clippings, the locker room walls featured stories about the tour pros who had joined the club: Tiger Woods, Mark O’Meara, John Cook, Stuart Appleby and Lee Janzen, as well as the late Payne Stewart, of whom there’s a full-sized statue adjacent to the chipping green. (He had been elected captain of Waterville shortly before his death.) Dad rested a handful of clubs against the statue while he practiced – I think Stewart would have approved.

We were paired with another rookie team, Bob and Richard Rousseau, the only twosome from Canada. (An Australian duo also competed; the vast majority hailed from either the U.S. or Ireland.) The Rousseaus kept intact my lifelong streak of meeting only affable Canadians; the government must not give passports to the unpleasant ones. A dutiful son, Richard holed an impossible flop shot over a bunker for a birdie on the first; I tapped in for a double-bogey 6 and already felt destined to disappoint the old man, who also made double to start this better-ball, 3⁄4-net handicap event.

For those so inclined, father-son tournaments are a way to experience complicated emotional stuff in an uncomplicated atmosphere. On the second tee, I showed Dad the plaque noting that Christy O’Connor Jr. had named this majestic, sweeping dogleg-right two-shotter down to the bay one of Ireland’s 18 greatest holes. Dad’s response: “What’s so great? It looks like a long par 4.”

I hadn’t designed the hole. I hadn’t even redesigned it – Tom Fazio had, as well as several others on this magnificent links, and masterfully so. (Waterville is perhaps Fazio’s sharpest rebuke to critics who say he only does pretty, not strategy.) And yet I very much wanted him to be impressed by it. Later, back in the clubhouse bar, he allowed, “I really liked the course. I’d have enjoyed it more if we hadn’t played in a hurricane.”

Several other incidents transpired that, inevitably, loomed larger than they should have, for the simple reason that he is my father and I am his son. The short list: Dad’s incessant comments to me about what a wonderful player Richard was – true, although his father was the one playing off scratch – which drove me to the verge of replying, “His father must have taught him well.” Dad’s absent-minded jiggling of change and tees during my swing, which he doesn’t hear but rabbit-ears me does. (I lost it two days later over what we’ll just call The Candy-Wrapper Incident.) His near-conniption over having to wait a few minutes for a waitress to reach our table. Upon reflection, my view of this last scene, and many others, evolved. Why, after all, should we get more patient when we have less time left?

Aging, of course, was bound to be a subtext of this trip, and Dad’s request for a cart for the three tournament rounds stunned me, as he has always been a devout walker. (He’s also a devout tinkerer. Funniest moment: Dad informs me that he has removed his hearing aids. I ask if the wind is making things too noisy. “No, it’s just that I’m not playing well,” he says, “and I’ll try anything.”) His momentary confusion about whether a hole was a par-4 or par-5 rankled me – call it force of habit. Then you realize, as when you’re suddenly the one explaining the movie’s plot twists instead of asking about them, that this is a natural progression, and that you should be – proud? Pleased? Accepting? – to have stepped into this new role. I caught a sentence of Dad’s e-mail to Mom from the Waterville Post Office: “The mantle is being passed…” He was, I’m guessing, referring to golf, but it was poignant nonetheless, and I was happy and relieved to see it phrased in the present rather than past tense.

That night, we attended a newcomers’ welcome reception at the stately Waterville House, where Tiger and his crew stay and fish prior to most British Opens. It was an intimate affair – about 80 percent of the tournament’s competitors are repeat customers – and wonderful, with a steady flow of drinks, hors d’oeuvres and good craic, as the Irish love to say. Dad talked at length to Bob Rousseau, who it turns out not only won four Stanley Cups as a member of the Montreal Canadians, but also owns two courses north of the city; I talked to people other than Dad, a needed break for each of us. As we walked back to our hotel at dusk, Dad said, “Well, that was a lovely evening,” which was music to my ears even if, again, I hadn’t mixed the drinks or cooked the food.

Rest assured that the rest of the fathers and sons were downing beer and whiskey until the wee hours at the Butler Arms; the week’s most common conversation concerned exactly that, and the later the hour and the more beers consumed, or remembered to have been consumed, the better. In my view, almost anything that unites (or mollifies) fathers and sons is a good thing, even if bragging about one’s carousing can get staler than day-old lager. The tournament seems to predominate with males who find the notion of spending four or five days in the company of their father or son an entirely natural proposition – Dear Old Dad and Chip Off the Old Block. (Although my favorite line came later, from a son who told me that he’d played last year with the veteran bickerers with whom we’d been paired that morning: “I told them, ‘Look, it’s not a husband-wife tournament.’ ”) More power to these ham-and-eggers, I suppose, although I didn’t need Freud to consider the possibility that I was projecting.

One of the lucky things about the tournament was that our draw had us playing with sons at various stages: a junior high school student (“Like this, Dad?” “C’mon, Dad, we need to birdie seven of the last nine holes!”); a recent high school graduate; a college senior (Dad: “Son, put away that driver!” Son, under his breath: “You didn’t seem to mind it when I bombed it on the last hole”); a successful 30-something businessman. Not in order, but it was easy enough to re-jigger the timeline to reveal both the linear and non-linear nature of maturity. Development but also missteps. In short, me at various points in life – or various points in a round.

You could give yourself a headache thinking too much about this stuff. Anyway, there’s something to be said for grinding, for making the best of something that doesn’t always come easy. Dad and I didn’t make the 36-hole cut in the tournament, nor were we a factor in the final day’s consolation plate competition. He struggled with his swing and with the firmness and vagaries of links turf; I played OK and mostly just felt bad that he felt bad about his game. After the final round, our playing partners gave each other a big, backslapping hug. We shook hands and went over to the range, where I tried to help Dad work out the kinks. Unlike me, he received the unsolicited advice in the spirit it was offered. I still have a lot to learn from him, I guess, and I’m looking forward to our next round together – sometime in mid-to-late 2007.

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