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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 NoVa. Fan of 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 a newspaper journalist, editor of Golf Inc. magazine, then a PR professional specializing in golf people, places and things for 17 years, rising to Vice President in Billy Casper Golf's PR division. In 2018, Dan started his own company, Dan Shepherd Public Relations, LLC, catering to golf, travel, lifestyle, attractions of all types, and non-profits (www.operationsupportmilitarygolf.org).

10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. 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!

  2. 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!

  3. Debra

    Jun 11, 2018 at 8:15 am

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

  4. 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.

  5. 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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