By RAHN ADAMS
MORGANTON, N.C. (June 20, 2020) – I kind of wish PGA legend Tiger Woods and LPGA rising star Lily Muni He would get together despite the difference in their ages and procreate a supergolfer for us. They could name the child Tiger Lily, and he, she or they could take over the golf world and Instagram.
Like Lily Muni He, a 22-year-old Chinese model with a sexy backswing, 44-year-old Tiger Woods has stood in the worldwide spotlight and been the focus of media photographers since his youth, as a golfer and as a product influencer, as He—that’s Lily Muni He—is called now. I’m even one of her followers.
I’m not entirely sure what product Lily is selling—well, besides her good looks—but you can bet I’ll be watching the next LPGA event that’s televised on Free TV. Timberley will probably be glad that I (may) stop yelling “Creamer!” every time veteran golfer Paula Creamer, my former favorite, comes on-screen.
Yeah, this is a strange way to lead into an essay about golf, Father’s Day and the U.S. Open. But I think my late father-in-law, Nat, who also is our guardian golf angel, would enjoy watching Lily—and Tiger, too. By the time Nat died in late August 1999, Tiger had won only one of his 15 major championships.
That Masters win, though, was more impressive than usual. Tiger won the 1997 Masters by 18 strokes with a tournament scoring record. At 21, he was the youngest Masters champion. Also, he was the first-ever black Masters winner. That final-round sportscast on CBS set a ratings record for TV viewership.
I’m guessing that Nat was one of the 44 million viewers of that final round on Sunday, April 13, 1997. I don’t know for sure, because Timberley and I were still living at Ocean Isle Beach then. That spring we probably visited Nat, who was fighting lung cancer, a couple of weekends earlier over our Easter break.
Tiger didn’t win the U.S. Open until the year 2000 at Pebble Beach—our nation’s 100th “open” golfing championship. That means it’s technically open to any golfer in the world, really. I mean, shoot, even I could work on lowering my handicap enough to enter a U.S. Open qualifier. Now, don’t laugh too hard.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Nat this spring for several reasons. It’s funny that his two favorite sports—stock-car racing and golf—are the first two professional sports (not counting pro wrestling) to return from our COVID-19 purgatory. (Ain’t it ironic that SmackDown was the first “sport” out of lockdown?)
Nat didn’t introduce me to golf—that was my grandfather, who gave me a set of toy clubs when I was four or five—but my favorite father-in-law gave me my first real set of golf clubs after Timberley and I got married in 1982. Until then, the only clubs I owned were a cheap putter and a MacGregor six-iron.
My older brother and I had gone together during the miniature golf craze of the late 1960s and bought the putter, one ball and a metal practice hole, later a mechanical cup that automatically shot holed putts back to us. We liked watching the Professional Putters Association’s regionally televised tournaments.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I bought the six-iron and three balls during the summer of 1977, to have something to do by myself after the death of my younger brother. After stroking all three Titleists deep into the woods and losing them, I discovered packs of inexpensive, plastic, Wiffle-style, practice balls.
Less than six months after Ken’s cancer death, I spent most of that summer alone. My older brother and sister were doing their older-sibling things, and my parents had bugged out for the summer, leaving me to work my part-time job at The News Herald, to watch our house while they took a couple of extended trips, and to deal with my grief. By Father’s Day, I was a pro at six-iron shots in the front yard.
Unfortunately, I developed muscle memory with that old six-iron from swinging it for hours, and I have never been able to play with clubs of other lengths—irons or woods—as proficiently. So when I took a golf class at Western Piedmont Community College, I carried only borrowed six- and nine-irons and a putter on the nine-hole Quaker Meadows Par 3 track we played once a week. My basketball coach taught the class.
I made an A in Golf 101, if that counts for much of anything. But I sure didn’t set the golf course on fire every Thursday afternoon from 2 to 4 o’clock that spring. Of course, the Quaker Meadows Par 3 course really wasn’t much of a course at all. All nine holes were perfectly flat. Fairways weren’t really defined, as all the grass was cut to the same height. The greens were chewed up and weedy. It was like playing in a cow pasture.
The Quaker Meadows Par 3’s greatest distinction was that back in the late ’60s, maybe, and definitely in the ’70s, the course was lighted. I remember riding in my folks’ car on warm spring or autumn evenings back then and seeing the golf course all lit up on its side of the river—the par-three holes, anyway. Golf looked like fun, but my preacher dad despised it because some men missed church to play on Sundays.
I remember when Nat, Timberley’s dad, took up golf. He and his two male advertising salesmen in The News Herald’s ad department started learning the game at Quaker Meadows after work when I worked part-time at the newspaper in 1977. As far as I know, Nat was the only one of the three to stick with the sport. He often played with old friends at Pine Mountain Golf Course near South Mountains State Park.
Though he was never a member at Mimosa Hills Country Club, the Donald Ross course in Morganton, Nat and a playing partner once won a member-guest tournament there due to Nat’s fairly high handicap. He played better courses whenever he could, usually in connection with his last job in advertising with Western Steer/Mom ‘n’ Pop’s, Inc., or in the golf mecca of Myrtle Beach when he’d visit us on the coast.
My biggest criticism of golf, as Americans play it anyway, is that it’s a rich person’s game—a taxer, if not thief, of both money and time. I never developed a muscle memory with anything other than a six-iron because I could never afford to play often enough with other clubs to do so. Maybe that’s why Val Galloway, my fictional heroine in Night Lights, figures out how to be a good golfer despite her poverty.
I think Nat sprang for my first actual round of golf—with 14 clubs in my bag and on an 18-hole, par-72 course. As I said, he’d already given me his old set of clubs. So one weekday afternoon we went over to Quaker Meadows, hit a bag of balls on the practice range, and then walked confidently—well, Nat did, anyway—to the first tee. With the honor, Nat teed up his ball, waggled, then drove it down the fairway.
With a nod, he stepped to the side, moving behind me to stay out of my line of sight while I stepped up to the tee. As I bent over to place my ball, I glanced back and saw Nat nod again, smile and give a little wave to a foursome of older ladies on the adjacent 10th tee. “Hit it good, Rahn,” Nat instructed, turning his attention back to me. I waggled. I swung. I shanked the ball sideways off my wooden driver’s hosel past the ladies on 10. With a sheepish grin, Nat hustled past them to run down my ball and to apologize. That was classy on his part, to ease my pain.
That was my grownup golfing life’s inauspicious but entirely appropriate start. Until we had to give up golf entirely in 2017 for health reasons, we played maybe once every couple of months in the summer and fall, more often before I wrote Night Lights at the Rutherwood house in the early 2000s. When we lived on the coast in the late ’80s and ’90s, we usually played with Nat when he came down for a visit.
When Timberley and I both had newspaper jobs that discouraged us from traveling much, Nat would come down around Father’s Day, and we’d play a quick round together, often at the now-closed Ocean Isle Beach Golf Course. Ironically, that course was almost identical to Quaker Meadows, which itself closed last year, as both were designed by the same architect. It was our home course away from home.
Not counting Timberley, Nat was my favorite playing partner. He took the time to show me how to play according to the rules, and he was always patient with me, as well as with his own shanks, slices, skulls and chili-dips on the links—which weren’t that frequent. Golf really does reveal one’s character. A good golfer isn’t always the best playing partner. The sport’s holy threesome is patience, integrity and respect.
Because of Nat, we always think about golf at Father’s Day—well, and because the U.S. Open is played to its conclusion on Father’s Day, the third Sunday in June, usually. This year, of course, the 120th U.S. Open Championship will be played—God and his coronavirus willing—on Sept. 17-20 at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., close to the coronavirus pandemic’s former epicenter, New York City.
Our last Father’s Day with Nat was Sunday, June 20, 1999. Whether we all were admitting it or not, we knew how ill Nat was, and so Timberley and I wanted to help him celebrate the holiday as the three of us had marked it in years past—on or at least near a golf course. We rented Nat and his wife a room at Blowing Rock’s Green Park Inn on the side next to Blowing Rock Country Club. Their room’s balcony overlooked the golf course’s fourth green and fifth tee. We wanted to spend that Sunday watching golf.
No, we didn’t go to church that morning. We ate Sunday brunch at the Green Park Inn, then settled into Nat’s room where he could rest and watch local players on the course at his leisure. The U.S. Open that year—that weekend—was being played halfway across our state at historic Pinehurst No. 2 for the first time, so we also wanted to tune the room’s TV to NBC’s coverage of the championship. We were all set.
Then it got chilly—chilli-er, rather. It started raining. And the fog rolled in, not just in Blowing Rock, where summertime chills, rain and fog are par for the course in the High Country, but even in the sandhills at Pinehurst, where Payne Stewart, soon-to-be dad Phil Mickelson—he was carrying a pager connected to his pregnant wife back home—and Tiger played neck and neck down the stretch of course designer Donald Ross’s greatest achievement. Watching Payne’s walkoff win on his long, final putt is a cherished memory. Two months later, Nat died. Two months after that, Payne died in an odd air mishap.
The other day as I prepared to write this essay, I was looking online for photographs of Tiger and Lily Muni He at Pinehurst to use as illustrations, and I ran across a Golf Digest article about that 1999 U.S. Open. According to writer Peter McCleery, Payne sank his winning putt, hugged his caddie, and then grabbed Mickelson, who was tournament runner-up and Stewart’s final-round playing partner. “You’re going to be a father, and there’s nothing greater in the world,” Stewart said. “You and Amy are going to make wonderful parents.” Phil later noted how “classy” it was that Payne had thought of him just then.
Some golfers would have us believe that this ancient game we continue to play is all about winning and losing, when, in practice, it’s actually about that holy threesome I mentioned earlier—patience, integrity and respect. And if we ever need to complete the foursome, class in a playing partner will certainly do.