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Opinion & Analysis

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

Squares2Circles: Course strategy refined by a Ph.D.

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What do you get when you combine Division I-level golf talent, a Ph.D. in Mathematics, a passion for understanding how people process analytical information, and a knowledge of the psychology behind it? In short, you get Kevin Moore, but the long version of the story is much more interesting.

Kevin Moore attended the University of Akron on a golf scholarship from 2001-2005. Upon completing his tenure with the team, he found himself burned out on the game and promptly hung up his sticks. For a decade.

After completing his BS and MS degrees at the University of Akron, Kevin then went to Arizona State to pursue his Ph.D. Ultimately what drew him to the desert was the opportunity to research the psychology behind how people process analytical information. In his own words:

“My research in mathematics education is actually in the realm of student cognition (how students think and learn). From that, I’ve gained a deep understanding of developmental psychology in the mathematical world and also a general understanding of psychology as a whole; how our brains work, how we make decisions, and how we respond to results.”

In 2015, Kevin started to miss the game he loved. Now a professor of mathematics education at the University of Georgia, he dusted off his clubs and set a goal to play in USGA events. That’s when it all started to come together.

“I wanted to play some interesting courses for my satellite qualifiers and I wasn’t able to play practice rounds to be able to check them out in advance. So I modified a math program to let me do all the strategic planning ahead of time. I worked my way around the golf course, plotting out exactly how I wanted to hit  shot, and minimizing my expected score for each hole. I bundled that up into a report that I could study to prepare for the rounds.

“I’m not long enough to overpower a golf course, so I needed to find a way to make sure I was putting myself in the best positions possible to minimize my score. There might be a pin position on a certain green where purposely hitting an 8-iron to 25 feet is the best strategy for me. I’ll let the rest of the field take on that pin and make a mistake even if they’re only hitting wedge. I know that playing intelligently aggressive to the right spot is going to allow me to pick up fractions of strokes here and there.”

His plan worked, too. Kevin made it to the USGA Mid-Amateur at Charlotte Country Club in September of 2018 using this preparation method for his events just three years after taking a decade off of golf. In case you missed the implied sentiment, that’s extremely impressive. When Kevin showed his reports to some friends that played on the Web.com Tour and the Mackenzie Tour, they were so impressed they asked him to think about generating them for other people. The first group he approached was the coaching staff at the University of Georgia, who promptly enlisted his services to assist their team with course strategy in the spring of 2019. That’s when Squares2Circles really started to get some traction.

At that point, UGA hadn’t had a team win in over two seasons. They also hadn’t had an individual winner in over one season and had missed out on Nationals the previous two seasons. In the spring of 2019, they had three team wins (including winning Regionals to advance to Nationals) and two individual wins (including Davis Thompson’s win at Regionals). Obviously, the credit ultimately belongs to the players on the team, but suffice it to say it appears as though Kevin’s involvement with the team was decidedly useful.

“One of the things we really focused in on was par 3 scoring. They finished 3rd, 2nd, 4th, and 3rd in the field as a team in their spring tournaments. Then at the SEC’s they struggled a bit and finished 6th in the field. At Regionals, they turned it around and finished 1st in the field with a score of +6 across 60 scores (186 total on 60 par 3’s, an average of 3.10).”

Sample Squares2Circles layout for the 18th hole at Muirfield Village. Advanced data redacted.

Kevin is available outside of his work with UGA and has been employed by other D-I teams (including his alma mater of Akron), Mackenzie Tour players, Web.com Tour players, and competitive juniors as well. Using his modified math program, he can generate generic course guides based on assumed shot dispersions, but having more specific Trackman data for the individual allows him to take things to a new level. This allows him to show the player exactly what their options are with their exact carry numbers and shot dispersions.

“Everything I do is ultimately based off of strokes gained data. I don’t reinvent the wheel there and I don’t use any real new statistics (at least not yet), but I see my role as interpreting that data. Let’s say a certain player is an average of -2.1 on strokes gained approach over the last 10 rounds. That says something about his game, but it doesn’t say if it’s strategy or execution. And it doesn’t help you come up with a practice plan either. I love to help players go deeper than just the raw data to help them understand why they’re seeing what they’re seeing. That’s where the good stuff is. Not just the data, but the story the data tells and the psychology behind it. How do we get ourselves in the right mindset to play golf and think through a round and commit to what we’re doing?”

“Even if you’re able to play practice rounds, this level of preparation turns those practice rounds into more of an experiment than a game plan session. You go into your practice round already knowing the golf course and already having a plan of attack. This allows you to use that practice round to test that game plan before the competition starts. You may decide to tweak a few things during your practice round based on course conditions or an elevation change here and there, but for the most part it’s like you’ve gained a free practice round. It allows you to be more comfortable and just let it fly a lot earlier.”

Kevin is in the process of building his website, but follow @squares2circles on Twitter for more information and insight.

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Podcasts

The Gear Dive: Mike Yagley and Chad DeHart of Cobra Golf

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In this episode of The Gear Dive, Johnny chats with Mike Yagley and Chad DeHart of Cobra Golf Innovation on Cobra Connect, new ways to evaluate good play, and the future of golf improvement.

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

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Mondays Off: U.S. Open wrap-up | Steve plays against the new assistant pro

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Would Woodland have won the U.S. Open if he had to hit driver on the 18th hole? Knudson doesn’t think so. Steve loved the U.S. Open, but he didn’t really love the commentator crew. Also, Steve tees it up with the new second assistant pro at the club, how did he do?

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

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