the year I turned twelve, my innocent life became incomprehensibly complicated. That was the year I got my period, growing tall and thin. It was the year I grew cruel toward my mother for reasons I didn’t understand. It was the year my best friend French-kissed a boy, and I felt left behind. And it was the year my dad decided he would teach me to play golf.
The memories of learning the game rush toward me certain summer evenings when I step onto my front porch at dusk. A symphony of frogs, crickets, and cicadas begin their serenade to the cooling night, and the scent of freshly mowed grass permeates the air. The potent combination of forest music, fading heat, and the dewy, sweet-grass smell breaks over me like a wave, tossing me back to those years of golfing with my father.
As a young girl, I had ridden in a golf cart with my dad, watching in stunned awe, completely still, as he smacked balls off into the sky. For the ride, he usually bought me an Orange Crush, my favorite soda, which I placed (in a very adult fashion) into the cup holder in the cart. I loved the quiet experience we shared; we had purpose, an important reason for being in this cart. I sometimes felt we were on a secret mission to save the world.
My dad and I barely exchanged a word as we zoomed along; golf is a game of courtesy and etiquette, and speaking when a person is setting up for a shot is considered the height of rudeness. In fact, speaking loudly at any time on a golf course is inappropriate. As a child who preferred to watch rather than to speak, I was in heaven: permission not to speak; better yet, rules against speaking. Upon growing older, I found out that people do generally talk while golfing, not to mention tell jokes, and comment — sometimes loudly — on shots. But the extreme quiet my dad preferred was fine by me. In my child’s mind, I thought perhaps my presence alone brought my dad luck. When he had a bad game, I felt as if I, too, had failed somehow.
Usually, my dad would walk the course. Having spent more than fifteen years in the army, he thought nothing of carrying his heavy clubs around eighteen holes. “Golf carts are for pussies,” he always said. You used them only if you had to play quickly in order to get home for dinner or to beat the sinking sun. In his hurry, he often drove the cart with one hand, gripping the club he needed for his next shot in the other. This was more reason not to talk: when he was concentrating and when he was in a hurry were not good times to talk to my dad. I had learned this as early as I’d learned to speak. “Quiet, kiddo,” he’d sometimes hiss if I forgot. Other times I should not talk to him: while he was reading or watching television, while he was working on our car or fixing a leak under the sink, and at mysterious times I could not always figure out in advance.
The drama of watching my dad tee off was incomparable to most events I had witnessed thus far in life. Walking to the back of the cart, where his golf bag was strapped, he’d grab the appropriate driver for the hole. As he stepped up to the tees, his stride seemed a swagger, a strut, the most confident walk a man could have. What followed was nothing less than magic to my young eyes. With a ball in his hand and the tee between his middle and index fingers, he’d set the ball high in one swift movement. Only then would he flick the cigarette he was smoking a few yards away into the grass. After taking a moment to line up his shot, he’d cock his head a bit to the right, move his arms back into his swing, and come down with the force of a Hawaiian wave.
I would try to follow the ball’s path, but it went so fast and met the sky so soon, I always lost sight of it. The ball seemed to submerge itself into the white of the clouds. I was sure we’d never find it.
Having finished, my dad would retrieve his still-burning cigarette, return to the cart, and replace the driver in his bag. (The tee under his ball had, predictably, disintegrated, never enduring the power of his downswing; meanwhile, most golfers could use the same tee numerous times before it even splintered.) The force with which he put the club back indicated his degree of pleasure or displeasure with the shot. This was the only way I knew how well he’d done.
My father’s tee-off swing conveyed the essence of his nature. Its downward motion was a pure white force; God forbid anything should get in its way. Off the golf course, I could read that same fiery intensity in everything he did: The way he ate, breathing heavily, looking into the distance. The way he drove, always over the speed limit, music turned up loud. The way he kissed my mom when he came home from work, a smack on the lips and a simultaneous smack on the ass. I imagined that my father had a ball of fire rolling around inside him. He exhaled its feverish heat with his cigarette smoke, like a dragon.
my first golf lesson, at age twelve, came as a surprise to me. My father hadn’t told me I was being promoted from cart passenger to actual player. I was honored that he thought me worthy of participating in what I knew was a sacred game to him. Golf was his only religion, and he was now allowing me to be a part of it — so long as I did not interrupt his meditation.
In golf, every hole has a “par,” the number of strokes it should take an average player to get her ball from tee to cup. My very first hole of golf, played on the public county course, was a par five, which my father would play out like this: one drive off the tee; one long shot on the fairway with a four iron; one short shot with a nine iron to plop the ball onto the green; two putts to sink the ball. I still remember how many strokes I took before my ball was in the cup: twenty-three.
It took me an entire hour to finish my first hole. We played five holes that day in the time it would have taken my dad to get through thirty-six — two full rounds of golf. I have no idea why, after that, I ever agreed to play again; I doubt I had a choice. But had I been asked, incredibly, I think I would have said, Yes, I would like to try again. I say “incredibly” because for me those five holes were nothing but sweat, gnats, blistered hands, aching elbows and shoulders, and heartbreak. I would have agreed to golf again with my father, however, simply because the invitation had been extended, though not with words. In his voice, on his face, I could read the embossed gold lettering:
Mr. Howard Alexander Burke formally invites his daughter, Julia Lee Burke, to join him in golf lessons — and a fair amount of terror and heartache — for the next two years. Please help him celebrate this very special and tragic event.
I knew then what the future held for me. I knew these lessons would be unhappy days between us. I also knew how much it meant to him that I come along and learn the game that quieted his soul. How could I turn him down?
my father coached like a drill sergeant — my father fathered like a drill sergeant. His style of instruction on the course was no great surprise to me, but that did little to change its unpleasantness. Each golf lesson had two parts. First, we played nine holes, half a round. (Unlike the private country clubs, the local county course had only nine holes; to play a full round, you had to play the course twice.) Gone was the luxurious golf cart of my childhood. Dad thought it important that I carry my own bag from the beginning — to whip the girlishness out of me. Carrying a thirty-pound bag around nine holes quickly taught me who was in charge: golf, my clubs, my father — certainly not me. For every shot my father made, I had to make at least three or four shots to catch up. So, after we teed off, we’d walk to my ball first (often a very short walk). Then, after perhaps three minutes of coaching, I would hit the ball again.
In teaching me the game, my father never stopped giving advice. Before I hit the ball, there was instruction on my stance, my grip on the club, the direction I was aiming, how I was looking at the ball, the position of my arms. Once I had hit the ball, there was vivid description of what I had done right and wrong, what I should do again next time, and what I should never do again. My father’s instructions were so complete, so constant, so careful, he could have been teaching a blind person — which, I suppose, is what he felt as if he were doing.
After we’d played nine holes, Dad would describe my weaknesses and decide which part of my game needed the most work; this would be the focus of the second part of my lesson. Inevitably, my tee-off shots were the most pathetic aspect of my game. (There is really nothing as pitiful and exasperating as using all your strength, willpower, and determination to hit a tiny, defenseless ball very hard, only to see it move two yards.) So we would take out our drivers and a bag of about a hundred golf balls to an area between the ninth and sixth holes, which most golfers used as a substitute driving range; this decrepit little course had no real range. I longed to release my nine holes’ worth of frustration by whacking one ball after another. But instead, my father commenced his second, lengthier round of instructions. He would set up tees in the grass to dictate the path of my swing, tees that, if they were still standing after I’d swung, showed where I’d failed. Over and over, sometimes for an hour or more, I would swing at an imaginary ball, trying to knock down the tattletale tees. Each swing was followed by my father’s description of what I’d done wrong, what needed adjustment.
What eventually came of these lessons was an excellent swing. Really just perfect. Exquisite. Everyone told me so: “What a beautiful swing you have.” (This is a serious compliment in golf.) My father was especially proud of my swing. But it never enabled me to drive the ball off into the sky to a place two hundred yards away. My tee-off shot would never be my father’s tee-off shot.
After the lesson on form was over, we would finally begin to hit actual golf balls, though by then it was dusk, and I was tired — from playing, and from failing. On top of this, at the end of practice I would have to retrieve every ball I hit, which felt like unbelievable idiocy: hitting a ball way off into the landscape, knowing I’d have to go get it later. At a real driving range, you’d hit a bucket of balls and then leave. But Dad’s take on this was: if you know you’ll have to retrieve every ball yourself, it provides a strong incentive to develop a skillful shot, so that your balls generally land in the same place.
I am mystified now that, for everything my dad knew about golf, he was blind to the one element crucial to any game: fun. I suppose one’s meditation is not about the pursuit of fun, but the game of golf never held the smallest levity for either of us. I have not one memory of my dad smiling on the golf course, not one recollection of hearing his beautiful laugh there. Golf was a serious game for him, and so it had to be so for me, too. I didn’t actually discover that golf was supposed to be fun until I was much older. The almost-fun game of golf I played with friends in my twenties was not at all like the game I learned from my father.
The evening drive home from these lessons was reminiscent of the days I’d spent riding in the cart with him as a child. Once again, I sat completely still, in awe of his power, and absolutely silent. This silence was different, though: I was exhausted, frustrated, defeated, and hurting. I cannot say what kept him silent: Perhaps only his thoughts of what we needed to work on in the next lesson. Perhaps his disappointment that I was not catching on more quickly.
What I hoped and prayed was keeping him silent was a thoughtful reconsideration of his teaching style: a mixture of degradation, insults, and extreme impatience. When I faced a difficult shot, he would position himself in front of me to watch how I handled it. Failure to make an excellent — or at least correct — shot elicited an impatient “God damn it, Jul, do it again!” And he’d toss me another ball from his bag. Sometimes he let me off the hook after three tries. On his angrier days, though, he’d force me to make the same shot ten times or more until he either felt satisfied that I had done my best or knew he’d get nothing more out of me.
My tremendous fear of my father’s unpredictable, snorting-bull temper — a fear I normally held in check as much as possible — rose to the top on the golf course. At home, I knew how to stay out of his way, be quiet, and avoid trouble, but on the golf course, as a novice player of his beloved sport, I was constantly in danger of setting him off. When most upset, my dad would stop talking altogether or throw a driver down the fairway with all his might, but he never laid a hand on me. He didn’t need to.
Being on the receiving end of so much bile and anger and frustration taught me well how to hide my feelings and never reveal my emotions to onlookers. I did not want other golfers to see my tears, and I especially didn’t want my father to see them. Crying exasperated him to the point of meanness. I recall my relief at finally being able to make longer shots. Then my father and I would separate, at last, to find our own balls, and I would have a moment of grassy privacy to shed a few tears and swallow the rest before continuing.
i came to passionately love and hate the game of golf in the same way that I passionately loved and hated my father. I continued for a year to take lessons from him, amassing piles of score cards, each one a proud war wound, tangible evidence of my strength and endurance. That I could weather the game of golf — and actually improve with the passing of time — was good, but more important to me was that I could survive my father’s coaching. Although he treated me harshly during my training, I know now that my father did not mean to condemn me to a lifetime of disliking sports, of hiding my weaknesses, of fearing how people might hurt me. He thought, as any military man would, that he was toughening me. He wanted to roughen the soft parts of me, to rub off the sweet girlishness and reveal the shiny steel underneath.
My father, though, had never wished for a son instead of a daughter. No, he wanted something more: a girl who was better than a boy, at everything. For example, in golf, there are separate tee markers for women and men, the women’s being, of course, closer to the green. But I always played from the men’s tees. This was a great source of pride to him. He expected me to grow up to be a woman who could beat any man. He wanted me never to fail. Ever. At anything. His desire for this was palpable. That he thought I had such capabilities was moving, but also frightening, because I knew I could never live up to his expectations. Maybe, though, if l tried just a little harder, if I came close to what he thought was my potential, maybe then he would truly love me.
I vividly recall one afternoon when we played an unfamiliar course — a country club, posh and well-groomed — and I came upon the seventh hole to find a large, wide pond between the tee and the green. (Golf-course designers can be so cruel.) A hole like this can make or break a round of golf. Hit the ball well, over the pond but not beyond the green, and you’ll score below par. Hit it into the pond, and you’ll have to tee off again. Each ball that goes into the water counts as two strokes. It’s likely that your frustration will crest after you sink your second ball. After such a failure, it takes enormous willpower to pull yourself together and finally knock your ball across the pond. These sorts of holes brought tears to my eyes.
To my horror, just as we reached the seventh tee, some golf buddies of my father’s came up behind us. I despised playing in front of other people, because they often watched me closely: it was rare at the time to see a teenage girl on a golf course. And when watched, I inevitably faltered and failed. I lost my concentration. I felt naked and incompetent, a girl trying to play a man’s game.
My father’s friends began to joke with him about making his daughter hit from the men’s tees. “No way she can hit that ball over that water, Howard,” one said. “Put her on the women’s tees, for God’s sake.”
“You just watch,” my dad said. “She’s going to knock the shit out of that ball.”
So three grown men stood, arms folded, and watched me the way you might watch movers hauling something large and valuable — a piano, perhaps, handed down generation after generation. His golfing friends undeniably believed I’d drop that piano ten stories, probably killing several people when it crashed to the concrete.
In my nervousness, I made a horrible shot. Not only did my ball not make it over the pond, it wasn’t even close. I hit that ball with all my might and heart, hoping, praying I would make my father proud in front of his friends — but the ball skipped about six yards and rolled into the pond. Blurp.
My dad’s buddies looked away, said goodbye, and moved on to another hole. My dad said nothing. I took another ball out of my bag and smacked it across the pond onto the green. A beautiful shot. But too late. I had embarrassed my dad, betrayed him by being good only in private.
about two years after my first golf lesson, my father left to work in Seattle for a summer. By this time, my golf game had improved to the point of competency, and I continued to play in his absence; in fact, I savored playing on my own. At the beginning of that hot, dry summer, I instituted a ritual of being dropped off at the county course in the mornings and picked up at dusk, every day. After a week, I abandoned my shoes and walked the course barefoot. At last, I had achieved the meditative approach my father took to golf. And I began to understand his love for the game — a game that, until then, had brought me nothing but sorrow.
Most days, I could play nine holes and not see a single soul. Between the fifth and sixth holes, there was a clubhouse, if you could call it that. Inside was AstroTurf carpeting and, behind an L-shaped counter, a very old man. On one side of the counter you could purchase balls, tees, and gloves; on the other side you could order a cheeseburger. I usually bypassed the clubhouse and just leaned over for a cold drink of water from the spigot near the bathrooms outside.
Playing the game of golf alone can be one of the most gentle, beautiful things in life — just a person following her ball wherever it leads her: through beautiful woods; around duck-filled ponds; into beachlike sand traps. The fine golf-course grass tickled my toes, which grew rough as the summer progressed. Muscles developed on my shoulders, arms, and legs. My skin turned brown as the sun followed me from hole to hole. I pulled my hair back into a ponytail. I became serious. And I became my own coach. For the first time, I began to call this game my own.
I guess my mom told Dad during their phone calls how diligently I was practicing, because, on a trip home in late July, he took me to a beautiful eighteen-hole course and bought me brand-new clubs and my very first pair of golf shoes. On the drive home, he said my game seemed good enough that I should try out for the golf team at school. And then he flew back to Seattle.
I knew enough not to say, “Um, I’m really not interested in doing that, Dad. Actually, I can’t think of anything more loathsome and terrifying.” After all, I had just been outfitted — expensively. More importantly, I had been given my father’s seal of approval, his confirmation that I was now a good golfer, and he wanted other people to know this, as well. There was no getting around it.
So, at the end of the summer before my sophomore year in high school, I tried out for the golf team. No girl had ever attempted to get on the team before. The day I showed up for the weeklong tryouts, the boys raised their hackles, looked away, and made jokes at my expense. I was not wanted there by anyone, including the coach. My guess is that, if he had thought he could get away with it, the coach would have asked me to leave.
Amid all this hostile scrutiny, I played golf in a way I hadn’t for quite some time: very, very badly. I made shots that, to this day, still make me shrink in embarrassment. My most vivid humiliation occurred on the seventh hole, where, for a period of twenty minutes, I hit my ball back and forth over the green, from sand trap to sand trap, again and again. The boys laughed at me; even the coach smirked. On the second day, I improved slightly, but I was still not the confident and competent golfer I had been that summer. My previous self-assurance withered in my fear of these boys and what they thought of me. I knew exactly how much they wanted to keep it an all-boys team.
Over the summer, I had wandered through each round of golf unsupervised and invisible. I had become accustomed to my own coaching, which tended to be speculative, kind, and curious. Gone was the adversarial drill sergeant. Had my dad been with me that summer, I would likely have been more hardened to those boys and how they felt. But then I would never have found out that I did not need to be pounded and roughened to become a graceful, powerful golfer. I needed only to be left alone.
The third day of tryouts marked the first cut, when several of those attempting to get on the team would be dismissed. That afternoon, I’d finally regained my confidence and played well, but it was too late. The coach climbed into a golf cart with me, handed me a tee, and said, “You can’t say I never gave you anything.” I knew at that moment I would not be coming back. When we got back to the clubhouse, he told me he’d been surprised that day by how talented I actually was. But, he said, the first two days had shown I was too easily rattled, and there would be a lot of rattling moments in competition with other schools.
At the time, I thought he should have given me another day to prove myself. But I know now that, had I managed to make the team, I would have regretted it. I had no interest in being a repository for those boys’ prejudices, and I had no wish to compete with other golfers. I wanted only my own quiet game, barefoot, with my old clubs.
Summer ended, school began, and I put away my new clubs and shoes. I never played golf again the way I had that summer. My father’s disappointment was fierce, but I wanted nothing more to do with the game and all the bitterness it had brought to my life. The lessons were over, and I was free to pursue boys and friendships and a life away from my parents.
six years later, when I was twenty, my mother called me at school to tell me one of my father’s lungs had mysteriously collapsed. After being examined in the emergency room, he’d walked out, against doctor’s orders, and proceeded to play eighteen holes of golf. I don’t know if he’d felt disabled enough to use a golf cart — probably not. My mother and I were flabbergasted at his nonchalance.
“What’s the big deal?’’ he said. “I was just a little winded. So I just have half as much breath. So what?”
That same lung continued to fail in the following months, and eventually both lungs collapsed. It was only then that a doctor discovered the cause: an enormous tumor in his chest, pressing against his lungs. A malignant tumor.
My father suffered through six months of chemotherapy and radiation, pain and impairment, all the while denying what was clear to his physicians. He believed until the very end that he could defeat cancer with the same determination and willpower he applied to everything else in his life. He fought like the dragon he was, and he lost.
His final weeks were protracted, disgusting in the pain he endured, and horrifying in his rapid deterioration. In the middle of the night, the day before he died, he looked over at me and said pleadingly, “Help me.” I mark that moment in my memories with lilies and gold. It was the first, and the last, time my father ever revealed any weakness to me, the only time he ever truly needed my help. I hadn’t believed he could die until that moment.
Afterward, though, my disbelief returned with a shocking intensity. This towering, powerful, snorting man, full of charisma and fire, this man I still believed was invincible — this man had died. He had the most beautiful smile I have ever seen, and I thought that alone should have saved him. He was forty-four.
a year passed before my mother finally found the strength to begin taking his clothes to Goodwill. Then all his other belongings began tumbling out of a closet that needed emptying, and she had to decide on those, too. If at any time she questioned where his golf clubs might go, I’m sure I made it quite clear that they were mine. It did not matter that I no longer played; his golf clubs were all I had left of him. They were sacred and, in my grief, magical, too. They allowed me the temporary illusion that he was not entirely gone.
Golf is my only means of understanding my father, and I feel fortunate to have at least that much. Otherwise, he was mysterious, frightening, and confusing. When he invited me into his game, he was extending himself to me, laying himself bare. Maybe I was too young to notice — or, more likely, too afraid to pay attention. It was all I could do to keep my eyes on the ball. Any willingness on my part to lean into him, to recognize his invitation to come closer, to make myself soft again, would have made me even more vulnerable. This seemed a dangerous thing to be. Many years later, however, I regret not having been courageous enough in those brief teenage years to rise and meet him face to face in that fleeting opportunity.
I can recollect certain details about the way he played the game: He did not cheat, ever. His instruction was infallible, even when my execution of it was not. He made a point of stopping to admire the same persimmon tree on the ninth hole every time he played the county course. At the sight of any violation of golf etiquette, he defended the game as though the course were the landscape of his own body. Teenage boys playing drunk and swerving around in a cart, or players who lazily dragged their golf shoes on the green, creating tears in the delicate turf — these people would not get off the course without hearing, to their face, what my father thought of them.
Golf was my father’s true beloved — more so, sadly, than I, or my mother, or anyone else. He embodied the very essence of the game. He was long, quiet stretches filled with difficult, sticky areas that one could navigate only after years of practice. On one day, you could play the best game of your life, and on the next, the very worst, for reasons you could not understand. He was beautiful, but serene only if left to himself.
in the more than ten years since my father died, I have played golf rarely — perhaps a game every other year. It is difficult for me to stand, gripping my driver, and not see him before me, not hear his words. As when I was little, I now prefer to watch.
My last longtime boyfriend, Drew, grew serious about golf midway into our relationship, and I offered up my father’s clubs for his use. Though I am intensely protective of Dad’s clubs, I wanted to see them used, especially by someone who knew how much they meant to me. I was shocked, then, when I returned home one day to find Drew with my father’s clubs spread out before him and the smell of epoxy thick in the room. He was putting on new grips. I stood, dumbfounded, trying to sort out how I felt about this. I wanted to object — loudly. I wanted nothing changed about these clubs. I’d often revised my memories of my father, but this one thing I wanted to remain fixed in place forever.
Then Drew showed me what he’d found in the pockets of the bag: a golf glove, two old divot menders, some tees, and a score card from the last time Dad had played. My father, come alive. Drew was reverent. And I felt my father standing in that room, demanding I get out of the way and let Drew get on with the important task of regripping those clubs. So I did.
Drew and I lived in a rural community, and the local course, Sour Wood, reminded me of the poor little county course where I’d first learned to play. On occasion, when I could tolerate it, I would ride along in the cart and watch Drew work on his game. My only desire was to be there with him, to keep him company, but, almost unconsciously, I began to throw out suggestions here and there, tips I was stunned to find myself remembering. Drew followed my advice, and his game improved quickly. He began to ask me what to do on many shots, and I responded happily, so glad those difficult years could be of some use. But, as much as Drew wanted me to, I wouldn’t play with him. I’d had shoulder pain for many years, and healthy shoulders are critical to a good golf swing. So I begged off, and Drew found another golf partner. I was off the hook.
But did I really want to be let off the hook? Being back out on a golf course had been difficult at first. But then, while I was sitting in the cart, or standing before Drew, offering encouragement and suggestions, my heart had opened once again to the game. I forgave it for the humiliation, and I loved it anew for the magnificent tee-off shot that I never had, but that Drew now did. I remembered its beauty, its meditativeness, its calming effect on the soul. The time I spent alone on a golf course in my teens was only three months, a small fraction of my life, but it has come back to me often in difficult times, reminding me of solace, reminding me of my father, who, even in his absence, has the power to speak to me.
My father visited me at Sour Wood. I felt his hands on my shoulders. He saw what fun Drew was having, what pure pleasure he took in the game. He heard my advice, gladly given, and I felt his beautiful smile warming my neck. His rumbling laugh tumbled out across the golf course, wreaking havoc and fouling other players’ shots. His laugh met the sky, mixed with the clouds, and disappeared like a wave.