For its fans, Golf is a singular sport, and Jack Nicklaus is a singular golfer. I was never all that interested in golf--or indeed any sport--when I was growing up, but recently I began to follow the game rather closely. It all began in January of 1998 when I was stuck at home during a blizzard. The snow was so bad that even Ohio University closed down--something that happens only very rarely. I happened to have the TV on, and as I surfed I suddenly found myself watching something that I didn't even know existed: The Golf Channel. It was a Tuesday morning in Januray, so of course there wasn't much happening in the world of golf--not that I would have known about it if it had been. What wason was an old, black-and-white repeat of an episode of Shell's Wonderful World of Golf from sometime in the early- to mid-1960s, featuring Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player in a stroke-play match.
My father had been an avid golfer all of his life. He sometimes voiced some regret that he hadn't played professionally. Instead he was an engineer in charge of truck tire design at Goodyear, in Akron, Ohio. Because of his position he got to play a lot of golf with big-wigs, and he enjoyed showing them how the game ought to be played. I myself never got to play golf with my father, because he died, just three weeks after his 48th birthday, when I was just 7 years old.
As I watched the rerun of Jack and Gary I remembered watching grainy black-and-white TV tournaments with my dad--he sitting in his chair, I crawling around on his lap--and I suddenly felt cheated. Cheated out of a life-that-could-have-been with my father. Instead of getting all maudlin and sentimental about it, though, I decided upon a much more rational course of action: I took up golf. At the age of 40.
I started watching golf on TV regularly--in color this time, following Tiger instead of the Bear as my father had done. I started going to the driving range with an old half-set of clubs that I got at a garage sale for $20. Before the summer was over, I had played half a dozen rounds at the OU golf course (a 9-hole par three, at the time; since then it has been upgraded considerably).
Since I was interested in Tiger, and Tiger is interested in Jack, I learned a lot about Jack, too, and watching the tapes of his very early career, when they were on, always reminded me of my father. I began to love the game of golf--perhaps in a way not unlike the way my dad loved it. But my dad was a scratch golfer, while I totally suck.
On the other hand, I'm having a great time. Golf is a lot of fun to play, even when it is frustrating--which for me it usually is--and as I walk the fairways (or, well, in the tall grass or bushes that run alongside of them) I often think of my dad. It's fair to say that we never really knew each other, but I can't help but feel that, when I'm having a good time playing golf, I'm knowing him just a little bit.
I spent this morning watching Jack Nicklaus play his last-ever round of golf at the British Open. It was a stirring performance--he only just barely missed the cut--and while I can't say as how I approve of sentimentality, I'm kind of a sentimentalist deep down, and I won't say that I wasn't a little misty eyed as he walked up the fairway on the 18th, to thunderous applause from galleries that were bursting at the seams, and paused on the bridge for photos with Luke Donald, Tom Watson, and the caddies.
Where did that mist come from? Jack will play again. So will I. But I'll never get to play with my dad, and perhaps that's all it is: regret over what could have been. But I also think that, through golf, I have access to at least a small part of that life. And insofar as I love my own family the way my dad loved his, I carry that part forward. My son has only a mild interest in golf, but he is already 11 and I am already 47--it looks like we'll have a much better chance, than my dad and I had, of living a whole life together.
When Michael watches Tiger Woods play his final round at a British Open, I'll be sitting right there next to him.
Hopefully in the Gallery at the 18th.