Be somebody, one time.
I heard it for the first time in the spring of 1979 as a weak-hitting second baseman in Pony League baseball during the only two years my dad was my formal coach in any sport.
Buck Williams was a college baseball star at the University of Florida, but never imposed himself on me in his sport, other than two formative years and one May evening on a sandlot field at Benjamin Franklin Junior High school in North Jersey. That’s when I heard the phrase that guides me to this day.
As a late substitution in a critical game I found myself walking to the plate with two men on base and one out in a tie game in the top of the last inning. Dad was the manager and third-base coach. I looked at him for my instructions and, rightfully so, he signaled to sacrifice the runners over and leave it to someone else to get us the lead.
After taking the first pitch for a ball I stepped out and gave the obligatory look down to the old man, expecting the same instructions. Instead, he wiped his hands down his forearms and clapped twice, which meant to hit away. That was followed by the audible instructions that are my compass to this day: “Be somebody, one time."
Lacing a double down the line was just icing. What really mattered was my dad’s belief in me, his words, his trust at the moment. It crystallized my relationship with my father, a relationship that would be carried forward not through baseball, but through golf.
My acumen as a golfer at the scholastic level was better than average. Dad knew that, and consequently made it his mission to give me every experience, every memory that golf could provide. As a lieutenant in the U.S. Coast Guard, stationed in Hawaii in the late 1950s he did two things when he wasn’t serving his country: court his future wife and play golf. He achieved two goals: He got the girl and became a single-digit handicap.
Time and career eroded the game and ballooned the handicap to 12, but in his advancing years he would fight you for every dollar and charm the pants off all the company he kept. It’s a narrative so many sons can share: We want our fathers around not just for their healthy handicaps, but because we cherish their company.
Golf has forever been the tie that binds fathers and sons, from Old and Young Tom Morris to Jay and Bill Haas. But it isn’t about how well you both play, it’s about what you both got out of the game together.
It started out that I would always appeal to Dad to give me anything close to the leather, because I was consumed with improving my handicap. Ultimately, the roles reversed and he would turn to me to rake away a shaky 3-footer. The refrain was always the same: “Take it away, that’s good.”
For dads, the golf course is akin to a traveling classroom, gymnasium, laboratory, or private study. It’s a place to teach discipline, competition and respecting your opponent. Then when the student (the son) becomes old enough, he learns how to love his opponent ... the Old Man.
The last time I broke a club was May 12, 1992, at Dooks Golf Club in Glenbeigh, Ireland, on the par-4 third hole after making a double bogey. Dad didn’t say a word. At that stage of my life he felt he didn’t have to. I was an apprentice in the PGA of America by that point and should have known better. I never broke another club.
I drank my first beer with Dad while on a golf boondoggle in April 1984 with his buddies outside of Savannah, Ga., on the Plantation Course at the Landings on Skidaway Island. On Sept. 24, 1996, while playing Royal Portrush I told my father that I was going to marry my girlfriend just six months after meeting her. I figured it was a good time since I was 2 down plus a press with six holes to go.
It didn’t help my case that day but it was just another seminal moment between father and son that showed me that the golf course was where I had to show him he could trust me to be respectful and act responsibly. It was a place where I could learn by watching - remove your hat, look an adult in the eye, shake their hand, walk with your head up and accept results without comporting blame elsewhere. These are the teaching moments that our fathers gave us while stealing time playing golf. Bob Jones said about the game, “that which burns inwardly and sears your soul.”
Pinehurst No. 2, where the U.S. Open is scheduled to conclude on Father’s Day, is the site of the last time my dad was on a golf course. On April 11, 2011, I had the humbling honor of joining Ben Crenshaw for the grand re-opening of No. 2. The convergence of emotions was powerful.
I was poised to share a round with the only sports hero I ever chose to attach my allegiance to in Crenshaw. My dad, terminal with stage 4 kidney cancer, his right kidney having been removed just two weeks prior, had no business traveling to Pinehurst from his home in Chapel Hill, N.C., but he was going to do what he always did and not let me down when it came to meeting on a course. He lasted five holes before giving in to the pain, but not before sharing a conversation with Ben and me. There, sitting on the bench off the fifth tee, I realized that these were the only two men that I admired – one from afar and the other as my guiding light and champion in life.
The gift was so large it will never allow me to speak of the experience without pause and a sense of sentimentality that I hope everyone can capture at some point. It was through golf that these moments bubbled up and presented themselves as pillars to a foundation of a relationship and a love affair – the former and the latter for each other and this great game.