My Son, The Gorilla!

By Deal W. Hudson

Golf prepared me for manhood. My Dad made sure of it. “This is my son, the gorilla,” he would say to his buddies on the first tee of Ridglea Country Club in Ft. Worth. “He can hit it a hundred miles.” For a kid of 12 or 13, that’s plenty of pressure.

So in the early-morning dew, I would set my feet on the grass and address the ball. The familiar “dollar, dollar, dollar” bantering would grow silent and all the eyes would turn to me.

“Jesus,” I thought, “just let me hit it solid, somewhere. Anywhere!”

I’m older now, and I realize everyone was rooting for me then, hoping I could fulfill my Dad’s expectations. Every now and then I would look up after my swing to see the ball arching its way toward the middle of the fairway, safe from the traps on the right and the out-of-bounds down the left side.

But more often, the result of my nervous backswing would be a dribble into the first cut of the rough or a pop-up that would barely make it onto the first few yards of the fairway. My Dad and his friends would pretend not to notice my shame. In time, I learned to assume the same poker face, to ignore the mistakes that threaten to infect future swings.

After the dribble or pop-up, I recall getting really good at hitting 260-yard 3-woods to within short-iron distance of the first green. I always noticed how these prodigious second shots would quickly revive the spirit of our foursome, as if the grown-ups wanted to be assured that they really had a “gorilla” in their midst.

But Dad wouldn’t stop there. He liked putting pressure on me as much as he liked me to succeed. As a former World War II bomber captain and airline pilot, Dad wasn’t affected by pressure. In fact, he seemed to thrive on it. The more important the putt, the more likely he would make it. He seemed to suddenly wake up, all his senses and energy would focus on the one task, and the ball would rattle in the bottom of the cup.

I always thought he put pressure on me simply to help me grow up. There were times it made me angry, and there were times it kept me from playing good golf. Dad and I would come home from the course and my mother would take one look at my face and say, “He got to you today, didn’t he?”

“Yes, he had,” I thought, but I never admitted it.

I was nearly 50 when I now realized something perhaps Dad didn’t even know at the time. Pressure is not necessarily the enemy of golf (or life) but can be its friend. That’s the lesson I learned from watching Dad hole all those 20-footers to win a $3 nassau. He made pressure into a kind of inspiration, a spirit — pressure became his good daimon.

My Dad was no philosopher; he couldn’t explain to me what happened, or how he did it. Like the cowboy stars of old, he could only show, not tell. But I’m glad I eventually figured it out for myself, although it took me a long time. I should have know those father-son antics on the golf course had deeper soundings.

A few times he asked me if I wanted to become a professional golfer, but I had other, more intellectual, aspirations. Dad watched in despair as I traced my route through graduate school to university teaching, and then, much to his relief, into the publishing business.

During my 15 years of teaching philosophy, golf was just about the only thing my Dad and I had in common. Golf kept us friends. As every golfer knows, if you take your personal differences, your financial or marital troubles out on the course, you might as well not be there. So, for 20 years we could talk and laugh on the golf course, even if we were barely speaking after we got off it.

Over the years the tables slowly turned between Dad and me. I learned to handle the pressure, and would often discover his knack for inspiration. We often played his course in Houston, the venerable Champions, owned and run by the champion Jack Burke, Jr., a philosopher of golf if there ever was one. And every summer we teamed up to play in the member-guest at the country club in Rockland, Maine.Father:Son

Two summers before he passed away, my Dad, who was in his 70s and still played to a 12, had an attack of nerves. It was the first time I had ever seen him routinely miss 2- and 3-foot putts. The only time he had ever missed short putts before was when he was fooling around, never in competition. For the first time in our golfing history, it was my short game keeping us in contention. We had come full circle; we both knew it, but we didn’t talk about it. Men just don’t.

After that match, I realized we had become better friends, because of his missed putts. Golfers often curse and complain that the game exposes everything about you, that golf leaves you nowhere to hide. We had received a blessing in the naked moment of those missed putts. It was almost the final chapter of how golf had make us known to each other: a son’s youth to his father, a father’s age to his son. And, because of this, we not only stayed friends, we became better ones.

I went back to Ridglea Country Club in Ft. Worth after my father’s passing just to take a quick look at the place where I learned to play golf. I noticed the first tee had been moved to the right so it faced directly at both the traps down the right side of the fairway and the out-of-bounds on the left. I thought of all those nervous teenagers teeing off with their dads who must be finding it even harder to hit the fairway than I did.

Published at The Christian Review, May 30, 2016

Fill the Basket Before Dinner!

Deal W. Hudson

It was too pretty, and evocative, a late fall day, to watch football or pursue any other indoor pastime. Without thinking much about it, I grabbed an old pillow case full of golf balls, my hickory niblick, a laundry bag and headed for the front yard.

The grass was still green there, sprinkled with only a few dry leaves, which slithered to the side as I dropped the balls on the grass. Placing the laundry bag on its side twenty feet away, I started to chip, hoping to fill the bag with neatly pinched shots, evidence of the reliable stroke taught to me by my father, Jack, who first put a club in my hands at age 11.

I missed and I missed, then I took off my tweed jacket and my scarf, and got down to business: “Move the body ahead of the hands,” “Lead with a flat left wrist,” “Don’t quit on it, and don’t be quick either.” As the shots started to land in and around the bag, I suddenly felt my father watching me from behind. I missed a few shots, stopped for a moment to smile, before getting back into my rhythm. “I’ll show him!” I thought to myself.

No, he showed me — as I stood over the next ball, I saw myself in the backyard of a small brick house in Ft. Worth, TX. My father was chipping into a laundry basket, dropping one after another neatly over the rim, his hands and hips moving like a dancer. His limbs were loose, but It was his eyes that betrayed the fierceness of his intention, to do this one thing well.

He handed me the Hogan wedge and watched me hit a few — those eyes made me very nervous. Balls were going all over the place, somehow I missed the house and the car. Not registering any disappointment, my father simply said, “Once you’ve hit all these balls into the basket without missing one you can come into dinner.” It was already growing dark when he walked inside the house.

In those days, with men of his generation, sons did what they were told, or faced the consequences. In this case, though, I wanted to rise to his challenge, to charge into the dining room, proudly carrying a basket full of golf balls. So I stayed outside well into the evening — at some point the outside lights came on, probably my mother’s intervention.

All I remember about finally pitching all the balls into the basket was that the darkness made it easier. I knew how far away the basket was without looking it at, and I knew where the next ball would lay after I dragged it towards my feet. Without the distraction of the target or the ball, my swing became smooth like my fathers, my feet moved in his rhythm, until there were no more balls to hit, or any to pick from the ground.

I won my father’s smile that night. He was a war-hardened man, who had lost his father early, but his heart was soft with the kind of vulnerability that comes with seeing death up close and believing fervently it is coming for you.

His smile, as I know now, was not for demonstrating my skill, but for persevering, for standing in the dark until all my fears of failure had passed.

Bobby Jones Meets the President

Deal W. Hudson

Last summer I had a supremely enjoyable day introducing my daughter to golf.

As I watched her skip down the fairway with a cut-off five iron in her hand, I wondered if she would learn to love the game the way I did from my father. He helped teach me the hard lesson that loving the game, like loving life itself, requires accepting its limitations, its measure—as it were—on us.

That’s how the game reveals the character of a man, or woman.

The greatest golfer of them all, Bobby Jones of Atlanta, is still admired for calling penalty strokes on himself in major tournaments, for infractions no one else even noticed. He was tragically struck down in his prime by a debilitating and painful disease. But the character he demonstrated on the links served him well for the rest of his life. When asked if he regretted the disease that crippled him, Jones grinned as he answered, “Life is like golf: You have to play it where it lies.”

At summer’s end, I read an article in the American Spectator by Byron York on our president’s habit of ignoring the rules of golf.

When I learned about President Clinton’s veritable shower of second, third, and fourth shots —so many that the green gets littered with balls—it was apparent that the ancient game, once again, was providing an insight into human character.

Here is a man who considers himself, and his own enjoyment, more important than the rules, more important than the traditions laid down by those before him— traditions that make golf a constant challenge of self-mastery, and not another opportunity for self-inflation.

Of course, one has got to wonder how much genuine enjoyment there is in pretending to have saved par when you really shot a triple bogey. All the while this entire charade is carried out in front of men of real accomplishment—often with great golfers or world leaders of government and business.

What kind of man can find enjoyment in such pretense? What kind of man can be so oblivious to what others must be thinking?

If I were a novelist, I would conjure up a meeting, say, on the first tee at Augusta National between Bobby Jones, the club’s cofounder, and the president. There would be the usual mannerly greetings and fraternal kidding. As a matter of courtesy, the president would be asked to hit first.

Then the president would take his first swing and send it out far left or right of the fairway, only to reach back toward his caddy for another ball. One imagines a deep voice with a thick Georgia accent saying, firmly but politely, “Mr. President, I imagine we’ll be able to find that one.” Unable to get the message, the president would continue to hold out his hand toward his caddy.

The caddy, not knowing what to do, would look again at Jones. Bobby Jones, who had a smile that could outsparkle Cary Grant’s, would put his arm around the president’s shoulder, smile, and say, “Mr. President, this is a great golf course, and this is a great game, but you’ll never find out how great either is if you drop a new ball every time you hit a bad shot.”

It’s hard for a grown man to learn for the first time to play by the rules. He may, by the time he is fifty, find it impossible to enjoy himself under the conditions that honesty requires. He will feel himself stifled, his appetites frustrated.

Clinton often plays at the Robert Trent Jones Club in Manassas, Virginia. As reported in the American Spectator, club members are tiring of his bad manners: “Caddyshack should have had a Bill Clinton character in it,” said one member.

There are times when we all dream of shortcuts to excellence. Millions of dollars are spent on gimmicks to lose weight, build muscle, achieve happiness, make money, and build lasting friendships. The easiest gimmick of all is just to pretend: If you didn’t make the putt for par, just putt it until you make it, or, if you can’t make it, just pretend you did.

Golf, like all great sports, is supposed to help us live well.

“Play it where it lies” is a lesson that has benefited me all my life. It means that life often provides opportunities that only come once—be ready. It means that I have to live with my mistakes—be responsible. It means that when I act every part of me must be involved—be committed. It means that no situation is perfect, no opportunity is without its difficulties—be courageous. It means that all we do, all we are, is shot through with limitations—be humble.

Let’s hope this presidential pretense is not the “bridge to the future” he promised. The future needs more the spirit of Bobby Jones and less the spirit of self-indulgent leadership.

If Bobby Jones put his arm over my shoulder, I’d listen closely to anything he happened to say.

The Last Outpost of American Manners


Published July 1,1995

The scene at the final hole at the Masters Golf Tournament—Ben Crenshaw weeping for joy, bent over, head in hands, while his caddy Carl Jackson comforts him.

In that image many of us noticed something almost lost, nearly extinct, in American manners—the gratitude of a pious man who loves his game. Among professional sports, golf is the last outpost for such a sensibility. Tennis had it, but lost it after condoning a generation of rude and spoiled behavior. Hockey players, who nowadays are so busy getting stitched up, probably never had it. Baseball players surely felt nostalgic when they watched Crenshaw win. Their ten months of shamelessness insures it will be a long time before they can recapture the honor of their game, if ever. Football and basketball players lost it years ago, drowned by their PR, along with the rock music that blaringly interprets their sport to the fans.

In that moment on the 18th green at Augusta National, we saw a man overcome by the joy of winning, a man paying honor to his sport, not a man consumed by his paycheck or his celebrity stature. Crenshaw didn’t walk off the green to record a TV spot for Disneyworld or Nike shoes. Instead he talked about his golfing mentor Harvey Penick, of Little Red Book fame. Just a few days before the tournament, Crenshaw had served as a pallbearer at his funeral. As he received the green jacket, the new Master’s champion credited Penick with helping him somehow throughout the final round— how rare a thing such piety has become!

Those who know Crenshaw and his love for the game and its tradition knew he was overwhelmed by his awareness of winning his second Masters, and taking his place in the history of golf. Manners like his require piety, reverence for the past, for tradition, for the accomplishments of one’s elders, for those who have made the institutions that nourish us today.

As the writer Marion Montgomery has put it, “Manners allow the soul to catch its breath.” Manners take over where self-conscious reflection and deliberation leave off. Golfers tee off in an order paying homage to the lowest scorer on the previous hole—this is rarely discussed, it simply happens. Perhaps this is why golf is so refreshing, it has not taken on the confusion of contemporary life, particularly its deep skepticism regarding privilege and honor.

An older friend of mine recently said, “Golf is the last sport where a young man can learn to be a gentlemen.” Remaining quiet and motionless while another player hits, tending to the pin for a partner’s putt, praising good shots, offering consolation for bad ones, lending good cheer to a round’s conclusion, regardless of scores, all are civilizing habits. They are hardly in evidence on our nation’s streets.

Golf remains the only major sport to resist the thug element infiltrating our public life. One reason is that you simply cannot play decent golf with bad manners—it gets in the way of the game. John Daly is the perfect example: when he gets his life together, and shortens his backswing, his amazing talents will fully emerge. Temper may help you make the downfield block but it won’t help you sink a short putt. Initially playing golf is about learning the proper swing; ultimately it is about learning self-command.

People wonder why public civility is on the wane, why so little respect is shown toward tradition, the greatness of the past. Some of us have accepted this as the price of becoming cynical, of exposing much of past glory as counterfeit, as camouflage for greedy self-interest and class injustice. No longer believing in the accomplishments of the adult world we now venerate the scowl of adolescent rebellion. Why should our nation’s youth try to grow up and overcome an attitude that the adult world, in large part, has chosen to emulate?

Just like in golf, bad manners get in the way of living well. To grow, to mature, requires great effort and much help—we are helped both by God’s grace and the efforts of good men and women who have come before us. The essence of rudeness is not listening, in not knowing when to be quiet and to profit from those who know better. Ben Crenshaw’s bowed head, Carl Jackson’s fatherly consolation, the acknowledgement that help comes from beyond the grave—here are clear signs that manners are not dead, that they can flourish once again.

The Sublime Askernish

Deal W. Hudson

I had just finished my second experience of the three-day Askernish Open at the restored 1891 Old Tom Morris course in the Outer Hebrides on the island of South Uist.

As in the previous year, I was completely exhausted but completely exhilarated by my three days of walking, climbing, trudging the fairways, greens, rough, and dunes of that rugged course. I had played great golf courses before — many of the top 100, in fact — but I was struggling to figure out why this course seemed to be one of a kind, as it were. Why did Askernish stand out to me among courses like Pine Valley, Shinnecock Hills, Cypress Point, The Old Course, Royal County Down, Winged Foot, Seminole, Pebble Beach, Sand Hills, etc.

Bear in mind I’m not alone in wondering about the greatness of Askernish. It was the advocacy of noted sportswriter John Garrity that helped to draw me there in the first place by naming Askernish the #1 golf course in the world.

Then I recalled, having taught philosophy for many years, a essay written by Edmund Burke in 1757. Burke is best known for his defense of political liberty, but this essay is one of his most original because he distinguishes between the experience of the beautiful and what he calls “the sublime.” The beautiful, according to Burke, is simply what pleases our senses. But the sublime is something more: It has beauty, for sure, but also imparts an element of fear. The sublime is the beautiful that feels dangerous.

Thus in the experience of the sublime we are drawn by beauty to something that overawes us and reminds us of our fragility and even our mortality.

All golfers are familiar with fear — the fear of their own failure to make a good stroke, hole a putt, compete under pressure. They are also well aware of the fear facing them by an out of bounds, a lake, a creek alongside the fairway, a sand trap. But these fears are not drawn from an encounter with the sublime, such as the view from the 5th tee at Askernish. A 556 yard par 5 starts from an elevated tee overlooking the ocean to the right and looks down on a fairway that sweeps upward from left to right towards a green barely visible in the distance set between two dunes. The gradual, and deceptively steep, rise and the sensual bend of the fairway looks as if their lines were drawn by an artist’s hands. Its length intimidates, into the wind it can paralyze, and the golfer knows at that by going across any of its edges the ball will likely be lost or, if found, moved only by a savagely descending wedge.

Once on the fairway the green comes into view with a front edge as round and smooth as a bowling ball. It must be cleared but then the pin appears to be on ground sloping away: What to do? How to clear the edge but keep the ball on the green? Into the wind, the problem is clearing the edge; downwind the problem is stopping it, because the “deep stuff” lies just behind.

The 5th fairway is wide by any objective standard, but in the half dozen times I’ve played it, I’ve found myself to the left or the right many times, and I was not alone. The visual sublimity of the hole incites even the most grooved swing to go awry and the slightest miscalculation of a well-struck shot can catch the rough on the right or bound into the rough on the left where the fairway near and below the green slopes away along hard ground.

The 5th hole is typical of the Askernish layout, not because of its length but because of the challenges posed by what, a first glance, should be a fairly easy holes. At the 5th hole the fairway is wide and, except for the imperious green position, should be reachable in three shots by most golfers. The pitches, undulations and subtle humps of the fairway and greens can send the ball, well-struck or not, into harms way. Once past the first cut, balls are rarely found.

Add to these elements a factor that players of links golf don’t need to be reminded of — weather — the 6000 yard Askernish can leave you feeling as if you’ve played 7000 yards, or more. Weather on the links becomes as important to the striking of the ball as any other consideration, affecting everything from club selection and line to the intended ball flight. It wasn’t until I started playing the links of Scotland and Ireland, some fifteen years ago, that I found out what kind of golf game I really had, and what the game really was about.

But there is another factor, not just inherent to links golf, but to all golf that golfers may not take into account — the pressure the pressure they feel, or the anxiety, created by the sheer beauty of a golf hole. By this, I mean, at an unconscious level the golfer would no more want to ruin the beauty of a golf hole with the white tracings of a duck hook than he would ruthlessly drag a key across the side of a jet black BMW. Golfers may consciously become aware of this, however, when they carefully place their, often oversized, divots back into the mark they left on a pristinely green fairway. “I sinned against the beauty of this hole,” I will sometimes say to my fellow players after an errant tee shot. Some get it, some do not, at least consciously.

But the sublime golf hole imparts to the senses an even a greater challenge: The 5th at Askernish, like the labyrinthine par 5 12th, brings the danger of a sin against beauty explicitly into a golfer’s mind: He or she knows this hole is dangerous — possessing a seductive beauty yet potentially deadly. Perhaps what I have learned from playing Askernish this year, and winning there this, is a lesson in how to deal with that seductiveness, that fear of losing my confident stroke in the face of such attractive grandeur.

I will return to Askernish — what will draw me back will be the opportunity to stride again over those 18 holes, overcome by their awe but adding to their sublimity with shots that rise and fall through the sky finding their fairways and greens, as well as pitches and putts that trace a faithful line toward their proper end, the cup.