PINEHURST, N.C. – I was sitting next to my father the first time I fell in love with Pinehurst.
Fifteen years old and fresh off the golf course from a junior tournament, I grabbed a seat with my dad, Bill, at a hotel lobby bar in Orlando, Fla., and we watched the final round of the 1999 U.S. Open together. For much of the afternoon, we were the only two people in the room, munching on popcorn and watching as Payne Stewart and Phil Mickelson dueled in the foggy mist at No. 2. We sat transfixed as the drama unfolded across a course the likes of which I had never before seen, one where every mound and undulation appeared to be crafted with such distinct purpose.
We passed hour after hour watching Stewart will himself to victory, then shared in celebration when he holed his famous putt. It was one of those rare instances in life when you realize the gravity of a moment in real time: by that point, the two of us had watched a ton of golf together, but we both knew that the round we had just witnessed was special.
That afternoon remains one of my favorite childhood memories.
I was with my father when I first visited Pinehurst. Inspired by the events of ’99, I signed up for a winter series of tournaments in 2000 across several of the resort’s layouts. He and I flew up from Florida, scouted some of the venues and shared a first-hand appreciation for all that the place had to offer to those who love the game. We returned again in 2005, the week before Michael Campbell won his U.S. Open, and took a resort tour that allowed us to walk the fairways of the final three holes of No. 2.
From watching on a TV screen six years prior to strolling the tournament grounds, our appreciation for this place had only grown.
I remember getting my first set of golf clubs from my father when I was 9 years old. Over the next two decades, he instilled in me a passion for golf – the man loved a good challenge, and in his mind there was no greater challenge than trying to conquer a game that remains unbeaten. I grew up immersed in golf, spending summers scuttling from tournament to tournament, with my father/caddie/swing coach/sports psychologist at my side every step of the way.
A 1992 car accident crippled my father, crushing his back and leaving him in a wheelchair for most of the subsequent years. Despite the pain, he would hobble into a golf cart and ride along while I played thousands of rounds, either coaching me from the seat beside or watching tournament play from afar. Regardless of venue, or weather, or how wrecked it would leave him at the end of the day, he was there.
He and I both knew that while his physical condition kept us from sharing many activities, we would always have golf.
This week, I returned to Pinehurst without him.
Last June, I was covering a U.S. Open sectional qualifier in Columbus, Ohio, trading texts with my dad about the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the event. About 45 minutes after our last exchange, he suffered a heart attack and died at age 63.
I have been filled with mixed emotions over the past few days, back in a place that he loved, that I loved, and that we loved together. I have walked through rooms where we once dined, and crossed holes that we once played, and I have thought of him often. But I have also enjoyed being at a tournament that we both cherished so much.
More so than any other event, the U.S. Open is about bridging generations. It is an annual ode to fathers and sons, to men who teach their children the game with the hopes that they might someday pass it on to the next generation. It is grandfathers describing the 1962 playoff between Arnie and Jack to their grandchildren, who will someday recount the duel between Tiger and Rocco with similar passion.
Two weeks after my father died, I watched Justin Rose cap off his U.S. Open win at Merion and point to the sky to his father Ken, who passed away in 2002. Given my circumstances I found it especially poignant, but it served as a reminder that every golfer can trace his roots in the game back to the person that first handed them a club.
Today the tournament will end on Father’s Day as it has for many years, a staple on the calendar that allows us to recall with ease past Opens. For nearly 20 years, I spent that third Sunday in June in front of a TV along with my dad – watching Tiger’s romp at Pebble, or Tom Lehman and Phil Mickelson both come up painfully short so many times, and of course Payne’s putt in 1999.
I’ll walk the fairways as another Open winner is crowned on Father’s Day, and while I still miss the man that first introduced me to the game, I know exactly the words he would impart were he here.
“Well, my son … ain’t this something."