“Father & Sons”: ESPN's best Masters memory

Masters champion Jack Nicklaus walks down a fairway followed by his sons Michael, and Jackie who is also his caddy, during a practice round at the 1986 U.S. Open site at Southampton, N.Y. June 11, 1986. First round play was to begin two days later at the Southampton course.

Masters champion Jack Nicklaus walks down a fairway followed by his sons Michael, and Jackie who is also his caddy, during a practice round at the 1986 U.S. Open site at Southampton, N.Y. June 11, 1986. First round play was to begin two days later at the Southampton course.

As I sit here writing this, I can’t say with any certainty how the 2011 Masters will turn out. Two rounds remain, plenty of time for dozens of roars to echo from Amen Corner, plenty of groans as well, maybe even a few cries of “Yes sir!”

I do know how the story will play out in Augusta National’s media room. Golf writers will be scouring the data on driving and putting and scrambling, seeing if it offers some insight as to who will don the tacky green jacket on Sunday night. They’ll study Tiger’s swing, Phil’s short game, Rory’s composure. A few writers will test out broader storylines: Can McIlroy, the young Irish gunslinger, fend off far more experienced players? Can Tiger find redemption – in golf, if not in life? 

But mostly, the writers on the ground, whether at Augusta or other tournaments, focus on birdies and bogeys, not life and death. There are deadlines on top of deadlines on top of deadlines. There’s precious little time to take a step back and see the big picture, to assess the broader meaning.

For two wonderful minutes this week, ESPN asked its viewers to take a break from watching their favorite tournament of the year, to take a deep breath and think back a quarter century.

“Where were you in 1986?” 

And so began Wright Thompson’s narration of “Fathers & Sons,” quite possibly the finest essay I’ve ever seen on any sports telecast. It’s a personal story – Thompson’s story – told through the prism of the 1986 Masters and the years that followed. (If you missed it, you can find “Father & Sons” at: here. “Holy Ground,” Thompson’s story that inspired the video essay, can be found here.)

Thompson tells us that he was just a boy when his dad, Walter Wright Thompson Sr., called him away from his toys and insisted that he watch Nicklaus’ improbable victory. He recalls his father’s tears when the result was final.

“I guess he understood things about time that a 9-year-old never could,” Thompson said.

It was only with the passage of time – Thompson grew up, covered the Masters annually, but never had a chance to share that experience with his dad – that he understood what happened 25 years ago.

“I realize now why he cried,” Thompson said. “Time, I’ve learned, moves so fast. The years slip away. They slip away like falling leaves.”

Maybe Thompson’s words struck a nerve because I appreciated his wonderful writing and his willingness to share such a personal story. Perhaps it was the tone of Thompson’s deep, gravelly Southern drawl – the kind of voice that sounds like it belongs to a man at least twice Thompson’s 34 years. But it’s more likely that it touched me – as I hope it touched millions of other viewers – because it reminded me of my own father, who, like Thompson’s dad, died far too young from cancer. 

I still remember him telling me how fast time moves, and how it seems to move even faster as you grow older. Those are the sorts of thing that a child doesn’t understand when he’s sitting in fifth-grade English reading “The Red Badge of Courage,” thinking that high school, much less college and the world beyond it, can’t come soon enough. 

As Thompson and all of us inevitably learn, the world comes at us way too fast.

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