Tee to heart

THE LIFE OF KINGS

Sport provides great forum for bonding

On golf and family

May 10, 2008|By KEVIN VAN VALKENBURG

Some voice mail messages, you listen to, then delete without much further thought. I think I erase close to 20 per week.

Hey honey, can you pick up some groceries on your way home?

So, did you remember that today is your uncle's birthday?

Dude, you want to get beers later and watch the game?

Your story today stunk, Van Valkenburg. Watch your back in dark alleys.

There are a few, however, that I tend to save, renewing them every 21 days when the robotic voice inside my phone tells me they're about to expire. One, in particular, I've held onto for just less than a year. It's from my dad, and there is a playfulness to his voice that always makes me smile.

"Kevin," he says. "Where are ya? The coach wants you to go in right now and hit this shot for Mickelson on the 17th. If you're not available, he's going to have to do it himself."

My dad was calling during the final round of The Players Championship last year, when Phil Mickelson was about to close out a surprise victory. All he had to do was survive the scariest and most famous hole in golf, the par-3 17th and its infamous island green.

My pops wasn't just calling because he knows I'm a Mickelson guy, but because a few years ago - when I was the Maryland football beat writer and covering the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla. - I got the chance to play the Stadium Course at Sawgrass. Standing on the 17th tee that day, I called my parents acting like I'd just gotten engaged. It was surreal. I even kept them on the line while I short-armed a pitching wedge into the front bunker. (A fellow sportswriter friend, whose identity I'll keep secret, gave up after dunking six shots in the water.)

Whenever I'm feeling glum, that voice mail raises my spirits a bit.

The truth is, even though it's a voice mail from my dad, I wouldn't have it if it wasn't for my mom.

My mom's always been pretty fearless on the links, which I suspect you have to be when you grow up with five brothers. She hits it long and straight off the tee, doesn't make mistakes with her irons and overcomes a questionable short game with consistently good putting.

My dad and I play a less conventional style. We swing like baseball players, flub too many chips, get stuck under trees, and run hot and cold with the flat stick. My mom, who won her country club's senior championship last year, whips us pretty consistently when we play together.

For me, it's pretty easy to associate golf with family. Though it may seem cheesy or staged to you, I never get tired of watching a PGA player embrace his wife and kids after a big victory. Family golf outings have been staple in my life for close to 20 years, so much so that my nervous wife - back when she was only my girlfriend - signed up for golf lessons before she met my parents.

No family golf outing, however, was more important than one my mom and dad played together in October 2006.

After the round, after tallying their scores in the clubhouse restaurant and after sharing a quick meal, my 58-year-old father slumped over in his chair and stopped breathing. His heart was beating out of control and not pumping any blood.

For 10 minutes, while others in the restaurant stood paralyzed with fear, my mom - a college journalism professor, not a doctor - gave my dad cardiopulmonary resuscitation until the paramedics arrived. The emergency medical technicians shocked his chest five times before his heart started beating normally again. After a week in the hospital, he went home, no permanent damage done.

Last week, he celebrated his 60th birthday.

I can't watch The Players Championship without thinking about both of them, and all the golf I still want to play with them.

So often, we talk about golf in the context of fathers and sons like Tiger and Earl, but for me, that was only the half of it. This year, the final round just so happens to fall on Mother's Day, and that couldn't feel more appropriate.

So when the last group comes to the 17th tee tomorrow and tries to find the courage to keep it dry, take a second and thank all the dads out there who remember to call and tease their kids when they need it the most. And then thank all the moms out there who are strong and fearless - golfers or no - and ready for anything.

kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

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