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Dad, golf, and the circle of life

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This is a story about golf, my Dad and the bridge it built between us. And it’s about the circle of life as relates to my Dad limping down the home stretch of his time on Earth. But first some context.

Dad couldn’t have come from an upbringing less aligned with golf in the late 1940s and 1950s, when private clubs outnumbered public ones and there were many more well-to-do golfers than those from blue-collar lives. Heck, Dad didn’t eat at a restaurant until after he turned 18. That was a luxury his family couldn’t afford. Hailing from hard-scrabble Western Pennsylvania – the son of a hard-drinking steel mill worker – life was hard for Dad’s family of five and toughness was mandatory.

Earning a sports scholarship was one of the few ways that Dad could avoid working in the steel mills; fortunately, he was a gifted athlete who won a full ride to then all-male University of Virginia. He led the ACC in rushing his senior year – while also starting at safety on defense. And he did so with a chronically painful back and shoulder that were shot with painkillers virtually every practice and game for four years. Dad was tough.

With his playing days behind him, Dad began coaching football. His teams won more than 200 games, two state high school championships (I proudly played on both), and roughly one dozen of his players made the NFL. An old-school disciplinarian – as both a father and coach – he left deep impressions on his student-athletes (and his son). Former players sought him out over the decades to say things like “Not a day goes by without me thinking of the life lessons you taught through football” and “You taught me how to be a man.”

I shared similar sentiments with him. But our relationship was more complicated and strained; he was extremely tough on me and I was rebellious. Our relationship away from football wasn’t easy, and we struggled to connect, communicate or express affection. Thank goodness for golf; we bonded through the game.

We began playing together in the early 1980s when he joined an old, low-end private club near our Maryland home. Then in his mid-40s, he took to golf instantly. When it wasn’t football season, he was playing golf. His first lesson was from Fred Funk, then golf coach at the University of Maryland, my alma mater. And he pursued getting better with the same meticulous approach he brought to game-planning for a football opponent – tracking putts for each round, analyzing his tendencies, getting fired up when things weren’t going well, and working on his game whenever possible.

We enjoyed countless rounds together at the club. While Dad was never one to speak much, it didn’t matter. I relished walking the fairways with him hour upon hour, knowing he was enjoying the game and my company as well. In later years, we continued our mutual passion at Bryce Resort in Virginia’s Shenandoah Mountains where he retired. Our ability to play regularly ended about 10 years ago. He lives in Aiken, S.C., now, about 20 minutes from Augusta, Ga., in a golf community. I still live in Northern Virginia. But golf remains at the forefront when we’re together or talk on the phone when we’re not.

Many of my best golf memories involve Dad. On Father’s Day 2008, we watched Tiger thrillingly catch Rocco Mediate with a 72nd-hole birdie on Father’s Day. For years we played in an annual tournament with more than 60 others each fall. It was a multi-day orgy of golf, camaraderie and good times that kept us close.

If only that honey spot in life would have lasted forever. . . But as happens, Dad, who is approaching 80, is diminishing significantly. Both in his golf game and his physical and mental faculties. He asked me not too long ago if he’d ever been to my house. He has been. Many times. And he gets confused and anxious more frequently and profoundly as the seasons pass.

I know it’s the circle of life and that Father Time is undefeated. Still, it’s heart-wrenching to see him falter, both intrinsically and because this was as dynamic, decisive and robust a man as any I’ve ever met. The fiery-yet-poised coach who excelled at leading now often struggles to remember things. And he plays much less golf now, often bitter that his scores are steadily rising.

But he’s still playing and competing against himself and his friends (a pool of people who are slowly passing – today’s playing partners, sometimes tomorrow’s memories). I spoke to him recently and mentioned that Mom told me he shot 87 in a round. That’s a great score for him these days and he can’t always complete 18, another victory. Not one to jinx success or gloat, he tried to give the Heisman to my praise for his good play. But I could tell he was pleased.

That warmed my heart, and I’m grateful that the game still provides him with many of its gifts – camaraderie, competition, exercise and a life measuring stick of sorts.

Here’s praying that he’s playing and with a peaceful mind until the end. And God willing, when it’s his time to go, that he shoots a low score on his final day, then passes that night, drifting off contentedly while thinking happily about his success on the course that day.

 

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A University of Maryland graduate, Dan is a lifelong resident of the Mid-Atlantic, now residing in Northern Virginia. Fan of the Terps and all D.C. professional sports teams, Dan fell in love with golf through Lee Trevino's style and skill during his peak years. Dan was once Editor of Golf Inc. Magazine.

13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. Susan Rittenberg

    May 13, 2019 at 10:54 am

    Your dad coached my son along with Jimmy Kemp in the 80’s and he still quotes him today. He coached his own Peewee teams in college and often said he called to his kids with instructions and then turned around because he felt like ‘Coach Shepherd’ had just said that. That’s a lasting influence and a role model to carry through life. Both your parents were a joy to know and work with and it was and honor to be part of that special fraternity of football families.

  2. DON bAILEY

    Jan 17, 2019 at 1:39 pm

    I met your Dad here at Bryce,we both grew up in same area,myself in a coal mining patch him in steel mills area. We had alot to talk about and our kids was one of them. We are the same age. Dan this is a from the heart piece,great to hear you guys got it all worked out. One thing your Dad sometimes brought up the day we beat you and your buddy on the golf course he just loved that day. I think maybe you picked up some of you Dad and thats good.I think your writing is very well done.
    Good Luck
    Don Bailey

  3. Jeff Mion

    Jul 3, 2018 at 12:54 am

    Dan, So glad to hear the story of your “circle” and bonding with your dad through golf, and that those walks/rides were not spoiled by the golf (ha!)- Golf is such a wonderful and befuddling/irritating game at the same time- I try to play every week!

    I recognized very early on following high school that- through those few football years for me- I was fortunate that your dad/Coach was there to reinforce the values and discipline instilled by my own dad & mom- this realization only grew clearer as I got older myself.

    My Best To You,

    Jeff Mion

    • Dan

      Jul 4, 2018 at 3:45 pm

      Thanks, Jeff. Know the important roles that golf and your Dad play in your life. Blessings both. Cheers!

    • Dan Shepeherd

      Jan 21, 2019 at 5:53 pm

      Thank you, Don. Appreciate the nice feedback.

  4. Paul Foringer

    Jul 1, 2018 at 8:05 pm

    Dan
    Never knew you as a player when I coached with your Dad. You were a bit ahead of me. He was a pretty stubborn guy. He knew way more than we did and I think he liked that control. His way or the highway. I learned a lot from him and there were times when we saw his anger, but I’m not the coach I am today without his influence. He was like a 2nd Dad to me in the coaching ranks, and as with my own father, I spent a lot of time trying to please him. Wanted to prove myself to him. It took a few years to earn his trust. But when I did it was the best feeling. I believe you and your Dad struggled early in your relationship so you could be great together now. Always a balance in your life. Glad to hear Golf had a hand in bringing you together again. Well written and well done.

    • Dan

      Jul 4, 2018 at 3:41 pm

      Appreciate it, Paul. I got to see you coach from a different perspective when I was Sports Editor at the MoCo Journal. You were one of the best, and had a lot in common demeanor-wise with Bob Milloy. Cheers!

  5. Debra

    Jun 11, 2018 at 8:15 am

    So beautiful Dan! You captured your Dad – and the Sheps- perfectly. Bravo! Peace and love.

  6. Jimmy Kemp

    Jun 9, 2018 at 4:50 pm

    Coach Shepherd did have an incredible impact on all of us players.
    Thanks Dan for writing about his life and the struggle we all hopefully have to endure if our time isn’t cut short.

    Your piece is a great example of the intersection of life, love and sports.

  7. Frank

    Jun 7, 2018 at 8:24 pm

    Great story, Dan. Cherish the moments, as they go by way too fast. When others are asked about their dream foursome my mind immediately goes to my personal dream foursome; my father, my mother and my brother. If I could bring back my father and mother I wonder what the time spent on the golf course would entail? We would never stop talking to hit shots!!

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Opinion & Analysis

Everyone sucks at golf sometimes

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“Golf is a game whose aim is to hit a very small ball into an even smaller hole, with tools singularly ill-designed for the purpose.”

This quote dates back over 100 years, and has been credited to a number of people through history including Winston Churchill and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. Although the game and the tools have changed a lot in 100 years, this quote remains timeless because golf is inherently difficult, and is impossible to master, which is exactly what also makes it so endearing to those that play it.

No matter how hard we practice, or how much time we spend trying to improve there will inevitably be times when we will suck at golf. Just like with other aspects of the game the idea of “sucking” will vary based on your skillset, but a PGA Tour player can hit a hosel rocket shank just as well as a 25 handicap. As Tom Brady proved this past weekend, any golfer can have a bad day, but even during a poor round of golf there are glimmers of hope—like a holed-out wedge, even if it is followed by having your pants rip out on live TV.

I distinctly remember one time during a broadcast when Chris DiMarco hit a poor iron shot on a par 3 and the microphone caught hit exclaim “Come on Chris, you’re hitting it like a 4 handicap out here today” – the shot just barely caught the right side of the green and I imagine a lot of higher handicap golfers said to themselves ” I’d love to hit it like a 4 handicap!”. This is just one example of the expectations we put on ourselves even when most golfers will admit to playing their best when expectations are thrown out the window.

– Gary Larson

Dr. Bob Rotella says golf is not a game of perfect, and that’s totally ok. The game is about the constant pursuit of improvement, not perfection and with that in mind there are going to be days when no matter what we just suck.

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Opinion & Analysis

By definition, there will be no 2020 U.S. Open. Here’s why the USGA should reconsider

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In 1942, the USGA decided to cancel the U.S. Open because it was scheduled so soon after U.S. entry into WWII.  They did this out of respect for the nation and those called to war. There was a Championship however called The Hale America National Open Golf Tournament, which was contested at Chicago’s  Ridgemoor Country Club. It was a great distraction from the horror of war and raised money for the great cause.

All the top players of the era (except Sam Snead) played, and the organizers (USGA, Chicago Golf Association, and the PGA of America) did hold qualifying at some 70 sites around the country. So effectively, it was the 1942 U.S. Open—but the USGA never recognized it as such. They labeled it a “wartime effort to raise money” for the cause.  Their objection to it being the official U.S. Open was never clear, although the sub-standard Ridgemoor course (a veritable birdie fest) was certainly part of it.

The USGA co-sponsored the event but did not host it at one of their premier venues, where they typically set the golf course up unusually difficult to test the best players. Anyway, Ben Hogan won the event and many thought this should have counted as his fifth U.S. Open win. The USGA disagreed. That debate may never be settled in golfer’s minds.

Ahead to the 1964 U.S. Open…Ken Venturi, the eventual winner, qualified to play in the tournament. His game at the time was a shell of what it was just a few years earlier, but Kenny caught lighting in a bottle, got through both stages of qualifying, and realized his lifelong dream of winning the U.S. Open at Congressional.

Ahead to the 1969 U.S. Open…Orville Moody, a former army sergeant had been playing the PGA Tour for two years with moderate success-at best. But the golfing gods shone brightly upon “sarge” through both stages of qualifying, and the tournament, as he too realized the dream of a lifetime in Houston.

Ahead to 2009 U.S. Open…Lucas Glover was the 71st ranked player in the world and had never made the cut in his three previous U.S. Opens. But he did get through the final stage of qualifying and went on to win the title at Bethpage in New York.

Ahead to 2020…The USGA has decided to postpone the event this year to September because of the Covid-19 virus. This was for the fear of the global pandemic. But this year there is a fundamental difference—the USGA has announced there will be no qualifying for the event. It will be an exempt-only event. By doing so, the event loses it status as an “open event,” by definition.

This is more than a slight difference in semantics.

The U.S. Open, our national championship, is the crown jewel of all USGA events for many reasons, not the least of which is that it is just that: open. Granted, the likelihood of a club professional or a highly-ranked amateur winning the event—or even making the cut—is slim, but that misses the point: they have been stripped of their chance to do so, and have thereby lost a perhaps once in a lifetime opportunity to realize something they have worked for their whole lives. Although I respect the decision from a  health perspective, golf is being played now across the country, (The Match and Driving Relief—apparently safely)

So, what to do? I believe it would be possible to have one-day 36-hole qualifiers (complete with social distancing regulations) all over the country to open the field. Perhaps, the current health crisis limits the opportunity to hold the qualifiers at the normally premier qualifying sites around the country but, as always, everyone is playing the same course and is at least given the chance to play in tournament.

In light of the recent “opening” of the country, I am asking that the USGA reconsider the decision.

 

featured image modified from USGA image

 

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TG2: Reviewing Tour Edge Exotics Pro woods, forged irons, and LA Golf shafts

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Reviewing the new Tour Edge Exotics Pro wood lineup, forged irons, and wedge. Maybe more than one makes it into the bag? Fujikura’s MCI iron shafts are some of the smoothest I have ever hit and LA Golf wood shafts get some time on the course.

Check out the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes or here to listen on Spotify.

Want more GolfWRX Radio? Check out our other shows (and the full archives for this show) below. 

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