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Testing family ties on the links

Email|Print| Text size + By Pippin Ross
Globe Correspondent / June 27, 2004

My son, Nick, and I caught the golf bug simultaneously. I was 40. He was 7. At the time, this seemed very cool. I repeatedly patted myself on the back for what I thought was a stroke (pun intended) of parental brilliance. Here's why: Once the early imprinting stage has passed, parenting, as you know if you are one, becomes an exhausting tenure in pedagogical arm-twisting.

"Use the toilet, OK?" No.

"We're going to take your training wheels off today, won't that be fun?" No.

"Put you napkin in your lap, please." Why?

"Time to start your homework." Silence.

All the buying of books, athletic gear, art supplies, and lessons, all the guidance, coaxing, and righting of wrongs and upsets gets old. As we were brutally reminded in Anne Lamott's great child-rearing memoir, "Operating Instructions," it's a little unnerving to show the way when you've no clue what that is. So, it seemed to me the apex of parental fun and freedom to launch into an activity where we were both at ground zero.

And it was -- at first. There were still motherish things I had to do, like buy us a couple of sets of used clubs, make inquiries as to how, exactly, the game is played, and get us to the local driving range or pitch-and-putt to develop our chops. It was fun to ding and chunk and whiff our way together to some degree of proficiency. When I would collapse into a heap of steaming frustration, I was enthralled by the parental way Nick would encourage me: "C'mon, Mommy, you're doing well. Don't give up." And so, for him, I would rally.

As the years passed, we began to spend more time on the links than the practice range. We were careful to pick scruffy, unpopular, nine-hole municipals where we could play as a twosome. Mostly we played alone, because when potential partners learned this mother-son team were rank beginners, they would demurely suggest we golf on our own, after they had teed off.

That was fine with us -- at least at first. Though we were proud of our mutual and remarkably similar development as golfers, it was Nick who finally suggested it was time to start playing with other people: "Sometimes when you do something with someone better, it makes you better, Mom."

Without the advantage of a young mind like Nick's, free from irrational fears of embarrassment and failure, I understood that to keep pace with his impressive advances, I'd better get crackin'. When I asked his advice, his brutal response was, "Take up another sport, Mom."

Oooh. That hurt. Equally painful is golf's wretched learning curve: a little progress and maddening bouts of remission. As we matured, I began to notice that we both brought unexpected impediments to the sport. Mine is lifestyle. I simply feel too busy to commit to a game that takes a minimum of four hours to play and requires enormous dedication. Nick's problem seemed to be genetic. He's volatile, like me. He has a nasty competitive streak, like his father. The result? When he played poorly, he was a club-flinging, cuss-hurling embarrassment. A good shot, a well-played hole, inspired exquisite end-zone dances and impromptu rap tunes about Nick the Great Golfer: "I just came down from the mutha-ship. I'm gonna make a wicked chip." Etc.

Still, we stubbornly played through our defects, seeking out courses that accommodated our disparate ages and paltry skills, preferring off-season resort courses in Vermont. When Nick entered teen-hood and its attendant mood swings, I started to dream. As Nick moved on in his life, the golf course would be where we would meet and, in quiet civility, bond. To bolster this fantasy, I sneaked lessons. Local pros, clinics, costly private lessons -- nothing was exempt. But nothing seemed to help, either.

Then, I went to the weekend golf school at the Stratton Mountain Resort in Vermont, a two-day series of intensive drills and training on a sprawling green campus of putting greens, bunkers, unusual lies, even a pond for practicing water shots. Instead of reveling in my development, I felt horribly guilty. I'd cheated on my son, who was not at all thrilled that for a spell, I outplayed him. So, I did what any guilt-addled parent would do: I signed him up for Stratton's junior clinic. Between hikes and visits to the resort's fitness center, I would drop by to observe Nick. I'm sure the six other boys in his group viewed me as a hyperprotective mother unwilling to let my child out of sight. Fact is, I was riveted by his absolute focus and dramatic progress.

One of the perks of Stratton's golf school is free late-afternoon access to the 27-hole Stratton Country Club course, a hilly, rigorous, and sumptuous track. Nick played like a man: Elegant, unflappable, and unfailingly polite. I had to confront yet another poignant parental moment: I had to release him from my grasp. In golf, as in all things, to hover would stunt and suppress his growth. At the 19th hole, over lemonade and hot dogs, I turned to him and said, "Well, my friend. I think you're leaving your old mom in the dust."

"Don't worry, Mom," was his benevolent response. "We've got a few years and a few dozen rounds left."

Pippin Ross is a freelance writer who lives in Western Massachusetts.

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