Father's Day

MAMARONECK, N.Y. – On Sunday, Tiger Woods has to deal with a holiday that no one ever wants to, his first Father's Day without his father.

Of course he will have golf to distract, to celebrate, to savor, the way it always was with Earl and Eldrick. As he has since 1996, he'll spend Father's Day trying to win the U.S. Open, but like so many fathers and sons and daughters, golf was a bond that bound long before the galleries knew the Woodses' names.

"Father's Day was actually a pretty cool day," Woods said Tuesday here at Winged Foot Country Club just north of New York City. "I would always try to beat my dad on the golf course and then come back home and catch the back nine of the U.S. Open.

"I [first] beat Dad when I was 11. I shot 71 to his 72 at the Navy Golf Course [in California]. I birded 16 and 18, made about a 15-footer, a little right-to-left. I gave it the fist pump walking off the green and everything. Then we went in and we celebrated."

Tiger smiled at the memory, as well he should. It has been six weeks of mourning since Earl Woods succumbed to cancer at 74. Tiger had the resources to take time away from work to heal, but as someone who is still blessed to have his father in his life (a daily phone call away), I can't pretend to predict how difficult it might be to compete here.

Like the Woodses and millions of others, my dad and I often play golf on Father's Day and then make sure to get back in time to watch the end of the Open. It always is one of my father's favorite days, if not the favorite day, of the year.

It is what makes golf such a special sport for so many. Dads still can play right along with their kids, long after their jump shots or pitching arms have left them and made other boyhood pursuits futile. They still can enjoy the thrill of being a participant, not just a spectator, deep into grandfatherhood.

My father and I never played with the skill of the Woodses, and when we watched the U.S. Open afterward it wasn't about how, one day, I would fulfill my immense golfing talent and exchange one of those 18th-green bear hugs. We just hoped to break 90 – which doesn't lessen the experience.

We played golf in a far simpler manner than what gets celebrated in the magazines and on TV. We didn't have the money to belong to a private country club. We never owned the fancy new equipment or even sets that were firsthand. We didn't take golf vacations to those grand courses we heard about – Pebble Beach, Hilton Head or here at mighty Winged Foot.

We knocked it around the public courses on the South Shore of Boston, as pleased with Ridder's, Rockland and Green Harbor as if we were at Amen Corner in Augusta.

We might tee up range balls near water to save our Titleists, and as I got older, we might have slipped a couple of cold cans of Bud in our bags, which we always carried because renting a cart seemed like such a waste of cash. As far as we were concerned, our etiquette overrode the USGA's.

That's golf, and that's golf with your father. The experience is as unique as it is universal. The tee box conversations aren't any better because the green's fees are triple digits. The time spent isn't any less precious because the "clubhouse" is an old trailer, not a national landmark of architecture.

The little lessons of support (in golf or life) aren't any less memorable or valuable because you don't own the latest $700 driver.

"Love," Tiger said when asked what was his father's special gift as a coach. "That's basically it. The love that we shared for one another and the respect that we had for one another was something that's pretty special. It really is.

"To have had my dad in my life and have him be that supportive and that nurturing, it's pretty cool because obviously there are times when I would have easily gone down the wrong path, but Dad was always there."

After Earl Woods died, Tiger didn't pick up a club for about a month. He didn't pay attention to the PGA Tour. He didn't obsess about the pursuit of perfection that will or will not determine whether he wins his 11th major this weekend.

He was just a kid missing his father. He took care of his mother. He visited with old friends. He tried to get his head around it, far from the golf course because the golf course is where the memories all hung and hovered, waiting to rush back with his first step onto a practice tee.

"I think one of the hardest things for me, in all honesty, was to get back to the game of golf because a lot of my memories, great memories I have with my dad are at the golf course," he said.

"It was hard at times going out there. I remember starting back – any time you take a time off and start back you always work on your fundamentals; grip, posture, stance, alignment. Well, that's what I learned from Dad. It was certainly more difficult than I had expected.

"But also, then again, it brought back so many great memories, and every time I thought back I always had a smile on my face. It was also one of the great times, too. To remember and think back on all the lessons, life lessons Dad taught me through the game of golf.

"It always put a smile on my face. We were going through a difficult time with Mom and I and our friends and family, but I'd always smile back when I think back to my childhood. It's one of those things where I'm lucky to have that. I can say that with truth and honesty that I have a smile on my face every time I think back to my childhood because not everyone has that."

After Tiger spoke to the media I called my dad because, well, I know I'm lucky that I can. As different as my wonderful memories with him on golf courses were from Tiger and his father, they meant no less. They were no less.

I won't be able to play with him this Sunday because I have to work, which he completely understands for two reasons. First, he always has valued work. Second, he himself once earned some pay here at Winged Foot so essentially, five decades later, not that much has changed for the Wetzels.

So we talked about that part of golf, that part of the circle of life. My father grew up in the New York area, and back in 1950, at age 13, he and a buddy used to hitchhike up here to caddy for the wealthy members of this and other local country clubs. Later he worked the 1959 U.S. Open here (won by Billy Casper) as a rent-a-cop for the Burns Detective Agency.

One day he guarded a TV tower. "Nobody got up there without authorization," he deadpanned. Then he got a little more lucrative assignment, helping with the parking over on the East Course where, allegedly, some of the money may or may not have been skimmed in a multi-employee ring.

"I don't want to talk about the parking lot scam," he laughed, "because I can't be certain the statute of limitations has passed."

Can I say that the USGA may not have gotten all of their revenue, I asked?

"Well, it seems like they survived without it."

They did. The U.S. Open charged on and will continue to, another weekend here in Westchester County, another chance for Tiger, another Father's Day of memories to come for golf, for fathers and for us kids who grew up loving both.