Lang III Classic: Golf loses ‘World’s Greatest Putter’

(This column was written for Father’s Day, 2004)

Unless there is a playoff, someone will raise the silver trophy at the U.S. Open on New York’s Long Island today. With the final round slated for its usual spot — on Father’s Day — it’s a sure bet the winner’s acceptance speech will get emotional when reminiscing about how his father introduced him to the game of golf.

So many father-son teams — from pros to Sunday hackers — have developed special bonds because of the wonderful game and its traditions. And this day offers a great opportunity to reflect on them.

I am grateful for the fact I played more than 1,000 rounds of golf with my father. But, unfortunately, I took every single one for granted. And after spending three years wanting an opportunity to take just one more trek over 18 holes with my dad — one I’d make sure to appreciate — the hope came to a disappointing end Tuesday. My father succumbed to a battle with cancer at 79.

It was his time.

Undoubtedly, the golf world will not blink — not only was my father not a professional, his handicap never dipped below 10. However, my dad was golf’s most passionate member. He not only loved to play the game, but he cherished its rich history and took pride in being an ambassador of the steep traditions.

Golf wasn’t just a sport or a game to my dad — each and every swing became a learning experience. He took to heart golf’s title as a “gentleman’s game.” To him, golf taught etiquette, forced self-control and inevitably would humble any person who attempted to chase the little white ball. He appreciated how everything learned in golf could be applied in many areas of life.

I unknowingly learned so much during our time together on the course — about life, about my dad and about golf. My father often said his favorite thing in the world to do was play golf with his son. Thanks to my shortsightedness — despite his age — I always believed there would be thousands of rounds of golf to come for the both of us. Now, more than 20 years into my golf career, I am finally beginning to realize how much the game meant to me and my relationship with my father.

From Day 1, Dad made it clear he would support my chase for a real golf career — whether it was traversing each fairway I played in competition or coming up with entry fees. At the same time, I never felt pushed to play — something from which many parents of children in athletics could learn plenty.

I played the sport because I loved the competition — that began at about the age of 10 thanks to the $2 Nassaus with my dad. The man who possibly watched me play more rounds than we actually played together always had fun on the course.

It was the one place I was allowed to curse in front of him. He did not tolerate throwing clubs or pouting, but inconspicuous swearing was 100-percent acceptable. He thought the world of the game, but knew the frustration and pain it often unleashed. Despite the multiple generation gap, he’d act like the child when I was in the early stages of my then-blossoming career.

His enthusiasm was contagious. He thought it was the greatest thing when my competitors would come up to him during a tournament and ask “What’s Roy?” He wouldn’t have to say a word, just hold up (or down) a few fingers. Three upside-down fingers meant I was 3-under. We never needed an electronic scoreboard; we had my father. He knew what hole everybody was on and where they stood.

One thing I didn’t get from my father was his golf swing. He was a human metronome and as consistent a player as I’ve ever seen. Although his handicap always stayed between 12 and 17, he broke 80 just twice — an even-par 72 in the early 1970s and a 78 with me about 15 years ago. With each par he made down the stretch that day en route to his 78, for once, my score became irrelevant.

I finally realized the joy he had felt all those years while standing in my corner. I suddenly became the biggest fan of my biggest fan.

His round concluded with another dose of the best advice he ever gave me on the golf course. Before sinking his final putt, he muttered his trademark phase, “I’m the world’s greatest putter.” There was no putt he couldn’t make — or so he thought. His confidence paid off. He was one tremendous putter.

During his 50-year golf career, the only thing he didn’t do was make a hole-in-one — boy how he wanted one of those. Of course, I haven’t had one either; maybe it’s not in the Langs’ cards. When I do make one, my celebration will be bittersweet and extremely emotional.

While my professional golf career never materialized, he made it quite clear how proud he was. Instead of looking for me on the leaderboards on the Internet, he read my stories. Golf is still a huge part of my career and he said, “There’s always the senior tour.”

Despite a frustrating absence from the course the past few years, golf meant so much to my father until the very end. “Golf is a great game,” was the last thing he said to me when I saw him for the final time. And fittingly, a Florida golf course will be where his journey on this planet ends.

After giving up the grind of competitive golf over the past few years, I have not been able to enjoy a round of golf. I guess it’s no coincidence considering I haven’t had my mentor in the passenger seat of the cart or there coming off each green.

Hopefully, I can take some of his love for the game forward with me, because when I introduce the wonderful game and all it has to offer to my sons or daughters, I want to be as good a spokesperson for golf as my father. I thought the days of having a gallery were gone when I gave up tournament golf, but that’s not true.

I’ll forever be disappointed we never got to play that final round, but in my mind there’s no doubt he’ll be with me — for every shot I take.

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