2005: Round of golf makes Mother’s day

My father, Stanley, has told me many times that he hopes to die on the golf course, preferably following a birdie-2. His history – 2 a.m. Sunday arrivals at Bethpage State Park to get a tee time on its famed Black Course, 327 once “magic” putters abandoned in the garage, endless cockamamie theories on the “secret of golf” – is that of a hardcore, hopeless golf junkie, and so his future will be, too.

While his glory days of tennis, body-surfing and four-wall handball are behind him, now in his early 70s the man walks 18 holes as long as there’s no snow on the ground, and his single-digit handicap hovers near its all-time low.

My mother, Lila, can’t ride a bicycle. In fact, looking back on my childhood, I don’t recall a single instance of her engaged in any sort of athletic endeavor: throwing a ball, swinging a racket, swimming.

I don’t mean to be uncharitable – the woman is a fine dancer – but Babe Zaharias she is not.

She also is no dummy. At Cornell University, where she made Phi Beta Kappa, her nickname was “the Brain.” (This bit of trivia came courtesy, and repeatedly, from my grandmother, to Mom’s endless embarrassment.) So, although she is nearly as stubborn as my father is obsessed, after 29 years Mom gave in.

Twenty-nine years around the house yelling at Dad, “Would you stop it with the putting already!” and “You’re ruining the rug with those practice swings!” was enough. Twenty-nine years of Sunday dinners listening to him take the family shot by shot through his round without caddie fees, or even help with the dishes, was enough.

Thirteen years ago, just about the time I moved out of the house and left my parents with an empty nest, they received a happy letter: After more than a decade on the waiting list for the Lake Success (N.Y.) Golf Club, a local community course, they were in. Other than Dad’s indoor practice sessions, Mom’s golf experience at that point consisted mostly of pulling his cart for a round on family vacations, and that was fine.

“It combined all the things I love,” she says. “Being out in nature, walking, spending time

with family – what could be better? Then, with the accessibility of the club, I figured if there’s nobody home, I might as well be at the golf course. And I can pull my own cart, I don’t need to pull his cart.”

Her swing, not surprisingly, was Rube Goldberg mechanical. Watching it, you could read her mind: The club goes here, and then it goes here, and then I turn my upper body away from the ball, then Stanley said I should cock my wrists.

She hit her share of grounders and banana balls, and then she hit someone else’s share. But she also hit enough shots on the middle of the clubface to keep her coming back the following Sunday. She set the bar for success low, and took more pleasure from the few good ones than frustration from all the not-so-good ones. Like I said, she’s no dummy.

A not-so-subtle topic shift of our Sunday evening phone conversations began: from, well,

all things me to her golf game. “I’m working on shortening my backswing,” she said. “I made a

20-footer on No. 7!”

Given Dad’s preferred subject matter, I was suddenly double-bagging it on these virtual caddie loops. And, once I got used to it, these chats became surprisingly comforting.

I could envision pure domestic bliss at the old homestead, as Dad worked on Mom’s setup and takeaway.

And although Mom remained the rational one, never converting to his more outlandish, fantastical views on the swing (“It’s all in the left pinky!”), the game has only strengthened their bond. In the warmer months, after his morning round is complete, Dad often will join Mom for the back nine of her round should one of the ladies in her foursome drop out, which is usually the case. Mind you, this is now on Saturdays and Sundays. And they play together all the time during the winter – yes, my mother puts on

long underwear and a ski cap and plays golf in the winter.

Over the years, through what I suspect is sheer force of will, her game has ascended to levels I never dreamed possible. Her swing still won’t draw comparisons to Annika’s, but with a pleasing rhythm she now drops the clubhead on the ball with enviable consistency. And, like most women golfers I know, she bangs home 3-footers fearlessly – I’d take her over Dad all day long. He’s enormously proud of the strides she’s made, too: “Your mother’s really hitting the ball!” he crows. She occasionally breaks 100 despite not being able to really hit the ball more than 140 yards, a pretty neat trick.

Remarkably, she has become a golfer, a fact that was cemented by one of our recent Sunday night roundups. At Lake Success at the end of January, she hurt her hand hitting a root hidden underneath her ball. As she excitedly recounted her visit to the orthopedist to me, “He says I have the same injury as Lee Trevino!”

Mom just joined Dad in retirement. During that same conversation, I asked her how she planned to fill all that extra time.

“I assume I’ll play some more golf, although I don’t think I’ll be like your father and play every day – maybe I’ll play three times a week, tops,”she said.

“Maybe four.”

­– Evan Rothman, a free-lance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y., plans to spend Mother’s Day seeking Lila’s advice on his recent chipping woes.

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