How I revisited a sad golf memory and created a new—and better—one

My late father Dennis and I enjoying a happy golf moment. Years earlier, we shared a not-so-swell golf memory at the Early Bird tourney.

It started with an email from a fellow university golf coach.

Jim Waite, long-time coach of the Western University men’s team, sent me a note about the upcoming Early Bird golf tournament, and asked if I’d send it along to my University of Guelph men’s team.

Then, I thought, ‘Why don’t I enter?’

A lot of my friends—including my podcast co-host Howard Glassman, and golf pal Ronan —play in it every year, and rave about it. My brother Pat had offered to caddy for me.

Its past winners include some of the best amateur golfers in Canadian history, including Gary Cowan, Garrett Rank, and Moe Norman. In my biography of Moe, I documented that his first major tournament win was the first Early Bird in 1949.

And it’s played at magnificent St. Thomas Golf & Country Club, a Stanley Thompson masterpiece.

Then I learned that everyone was playing from the championship gold tees. Tipped out, St. Thomas is 7,007 yards. (The field was smaller because it was rescheduled for early October from its usual May long weekend date because of Covid.)

I thought: ‘What’s a 63-year-old man doing playing a 7,000-yard course? I could shoot a million.’

The thought train roared out of the station: ‘This could be a disaster. What happens to your credibility as a coach if everyone sees you post a brutal number?’

In talking with Howard, I realized that I was caught in a story—the same kinds of stories that I caution my university players about. That is, worrying about how they will look and be judged, and how we create self-fulfilling prophecies.

I also have personal history with the tournament from about 50 years ago that is both painful and comical. The risk of reliving it wasn’t funny, however. It was scary.   

I caddied for my late father Dennis in the Early Bird when I was around 14 years old. Dad was around a 6 handicap. He was the consummate tinkerer. That obsessiveness helped him become a single-digit handicap, but it was also costly.

On the morning of the Early Bird, we went to Thames Valley Golf Club near our house in London where I shagged balls for him as he practiced as pitch shots.

I was excited and impressed by his dedication. I had never caddied for him in a tournament before; he was a good player and I liked being with him. He was a sports guy and I was a sports kid.

After the 45-minute journey to St. Thomas, we went to the range well in advance of his mid-morning tee time where he worked through the bag, hitting solid shots with his trademark shot draw.

When it came time for his opening tee shot, Dad settled over the ball, drew the driver back … and topped his drive. The ball skittered about 100 yards down the hill of the first fairway. The round figuratively went in the same direction.

He bladed a sand shot over a green into another bunker. Then he then bladed the ball back into the original bunker. By the mercy of God, he hit the next one on the green.

That’s pretty well how the day went—a sad, grinding trudge. We walked in stony silence for most of the round. My heart bled for him.

That evening, my Mom organized a picnic dinner at nearby Springbank Park for our family. I got out a golf club from the car, and started chipping some balls around.

Dad came over and started to give me some advice, when he stopped himself, and said something like, ‘Who am I kidding? I’m a hack.’

And with that, he headed back to the picnic table, slumped on to the bench.

The whole day was strange. I had never witnessed him so exposed, so ripped open, so disappointed. I saw my father in a way that I never had. I had never felt sorry for my father. 

In considering whether to play in the Early Bird, the risk was that I would relive that disastrous day about 50 years ago. Would I slash and burn like dear old Dad with Pat as a witness this time?

In talking it through with Howard, he offered a different story line—that it was an opportunity for me to play some “tournament golf” at wonderful St. Thomas, and have fun with some friends and Pat.

I entered.

(Check out ‘Howard and Tim’s Excellent Tournament Adventure’ on our Swing Thoughts podcast about our Early Bird experience. Click here for Part I and here for Part II.) 

I tossed and turned the night before the tournament. The gremlins were roaring around underneath the floorboards.

As I drove to St. Thomas in the darkness, I replayed my strategy over and over: to ‘be here now.’

As much as I could, I wanted to be fully present to what was happening in the moment: drink in the beauty of the course; fully listen to the birds, to my brother; feel the ground, the club, my body—be there. Not entangled in thoughts.

When I arrived at St. Thomas, I chattered with my brother Pat like a sugar-laced five-year-old vibrating after a birthday party. My warm-up was a mixed mess of skulls, chunks and line drives.

On the first tee, I shook hands with my two competitors and the starter—Jim Waite.

Then, it was show time. After a few practice swings and a deliberate, deep breath, I stepped up to the ball. I felt fully here. The club felt light in my fingers as the driver head waggled back and forth.

Then … Smack! I didn’t see the ball. Uh oh.

“That’s perfect,” Waite said. “Nice shot, Tim,” Pat offered.

I exhaled like a whale. After picking up my tee, I walked over to Waite and exclaimed, “The hardest part is over.”

The rest of the day was gravy—the most fun I ever had shooting 95. My ball-striking was great, but the  sloping greens were the fastest I’d ever encountered. 

Pat and I had a wonderful time, re-connecting, delighting in repeating many of Dad’s trademark golf phrases and relishing in our favourite golf stories about our father.

Through the years, as I countlessly replayed that Early Bird memory with my father, and others like it, I’ve thought that, quite possibly, it was one of the reasons that I became a coach. I hated seeing him sabotage himself by trying so hard. Of course, throughout my life and my golf, I do the same thing.

But at this year’s Early Bird, I made headway in allowing myself to just be,  rather than defaulting to my past.

I made peace with that memory of my father, and created a new—and better—one. 

About Tim O'Connor

Tim O'Connor is a golf and mental performance coach, an award-winning writer, and Head Coach of the University of Guelph golf team. He is the recipient of the 2020 Lorne Rubenstein Media Award, given by Golf Ontario. He is author of The Feeling of Greatness: The Moe Norman Story, and co-host of the Swing Thoughts podcast with Howard Glassman. And he plays bass in CID—a punk band!

Comments

  1. All that going on in your heart, and your caddy had no idea. I too caddied for Dad in that tournament and though he didn’t play stellar golf, as he could, he didn’t suffer the loss of confidence that you experienced with him.
    It was a great day together on such an incredible golf course. Thanks for writing the story.
    Pat

    • Thx for the good word, and you are welcome. Indeed, it was a great day for us—with Dad. In writing about it, I learned a lot more about what was going on for me. And it brought home to me the power of writing, and how it helps us make sense of our past, especially traumatic events. Two very cool books that touch on the topic: Opening Up by James Pennebaker, and Redirect by Timothy D. Wilson.

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