By Chris Rodell
If my ball were any closer to the tree trunk it could reasonably be deemed bark. I'm at the base of a lush 100-foot Pennsylvania oak majestic enough to inspire artistically-inclined souls to burst into impromptu poems. But the only rhymes I'm capable of conjuring involve variations of a forbidden word that sounds like "firetruck." It's a round-ruining predicament and I know I'll have to summon all the creativity, experience and skill I've gained in nearly 30 years of golf just to save par.
"Or you could just kick it out of there."
It's the voice of my father. Deep in my head, I hear him urging me to cheat.
"Go ahead. Kick it out of there. Give yourself a shot. You can still make par from here. No one will see."
In these trying situations, I think we all hope to conjure an inner savant who will motivate us with the kind of Obi Wan Kenobi-like pronouncements that turned Luke Skywalker into a one man Jedi jihad against the Evil Empire.
"Luke, use the 7 iron. Skim the tree and let the ricochet carry you out into the fairway. From there you will achieve par. The Force is with you . . . and so's the wind."
One voice urges me to use the Force, another the foot wedge.
I'm aware of the absolute difference between right and wrong. It's just that whenever I'm on a golf course I have to overcome years of instruction to disregard that bold line. You see, I was raised to cheat.
And I know I'm not alone. For too many otherwise honest golfers, a good lie has more to do with the permissiveness of the scorekeeper than whether or not a ball comes to rest in an agreeable position. A revealing and widely reported 2002 survey by Starwood Hotels & Resorts found that 82 percent of 401 high-ranking corporate executives admit to being less than honest on the golf course. They indulge in multiple mulligans, nudge balls away from pesky obstructions and cheerfully shout, "That's 5 for me!" when the scorekeeper saw them take six just to get it to the dance floor.
For Pete's sake, if we can't trust America's corporate executives, men and women to whom we entrust our retirement savings, who can we trust?
And it seems to be everywhere. From low- to high-handicappers, many golfers engage in elemental violations that smudge the integrity of the game. How did we get here?
First, a word about my father. My indelible image of him is that of golfing gunslinger. For each and every duffed drive, the man can magically produce and fling a replacement from his pocket as deftly as any quick-draw artist can produce a holstered six-shooter.
What's truly amazing is that I could dump 20 consecutive balls into a nearby pond and he'd fire off 21 -- "Dance, pilgrim! Dance!" -- before the splashes subsided. He could do the same for all the guys in our group, all without ever having to return to the cart.
It's like the miracle of the loaves and fishes only done -- hallelujah! -- with XXXed-out Top Flights and bargain bin lake recovery balls.
He's a man who's never written any number higher than an "8" on a scorecard. He believes the act of writing -- heaven forbid -- "9" or higher will result in an unholy alchemy that will transform a simple pencil into a lit stick of dynamite.
"The scorecard pencil will explode if it's ever used to write any number higher than an 8," he contends. Instead of a 9, he corrupts simple mathematics into an incomprehensible algebraic expression by writing "8X."
And it's always been fun. Golfing with my Dad, my brother, and our many friends is one of the great joys of my life. The confession may be sacrilegious, but I always feel closer to God golfing with family and friends than I ever do in church, where I spend a sinful amount of time thinking about screwing the church organist. I think God will forgive me for that because the church organist is my wife and we were married in that very church, so it's all on the up-and-up, but it could be construed as a gray area, so I may be in for some divine scolding.
But there are times when I'm sitting in church being preached to about right, wrong and the eternal salvation of my miserable soul when some of it will actually penetrate my sex-consumed skull. That's when I'll think, "Hey, maybe I should start taking stroke and distance on a lost ball instead of just a stroke!" Sure, it's probably not the soul-searching sort of revelation the preacher's hoping for, but the USGA would probably give it a reverential, "Amen, brother!"
I once asked my father if he'd ever played an entirely honest round of golf.
"Once," he said, to me a startlingly frank admission. "It was at Oakmont in 1992. It was with you and your brother. I had an 89. It was the best round I've ever shot."
I mentioned it to my brother, Eric.
"That's a lie," Eric said. "They'd aerated the greens, remember? He said, 'All right, the greens aren't in good shape. We'll all take two putts each green . . . unless you knock one in.' Has anyone ever played Oakmont without a single three putt?"
Dad's explanation for cheating makes exasperating sense: "I play golf for my health and I always feel better when I can tell people I had a lower score."
We are all the products of our parents. Mine raised me to be kind to children and old people, to replace my divots, and to never try to win an argument by shouting thoughtless interruptions. My brother and I were raised with love, caring and a joy to appreciate life's little victories.
I thought about this as I stood all alone at the base of that mighty oak. I could have heeded the voice of my father as it casually urged me to kick the ball from behind the tree. Instead, I took a 7 iron and with a steely glint in my eye and a firm grip on the shaft, I drew the club back. I remember feeling a flush of righteous independence as I brought the club down in a confident arch.
I'd like to say the ball vaulted off that tree into the fairway. I'd like to say I went on to make a heroic par. But that would be a lie. The truth is the ball kicked straight out-of-bounds. Then it took me two more shots to get to the green, which I then three putted.
When the scorekeeper asked for my total, I told him to put me down for an 8X. I didn't want him writing down a 9 and having that exploding pencil blow his hand into bloody smithereens. I couldn't have that on my conscience.
I was raised better than that.
Note: T&L Golf published the following letter from Chris Rodell in the issue immediately following publication of the above article:
My wife dropped off a copy of the "Sins of Our Fathers" article along with some other stuff to my Dad on Monday morning. I called later that day to tell him I'd written an article about his low character. As I expected, he was thrilled. He loved attention.
We'll never know if he got to read it. I suspect not. He would have called. But maybe he did.
My mother found him dead on the couch at 4 p.m. Monday. His cremation was yesterday. He'd not spent a night in a hospital in 36 years and was in good health for an elderly gentleman. Sunday night he began complaining of a sharp pain in his back. He thought it was a pulled muscle. Later he began dry heaving, which he attributed to some bad buttermilk.
They say it was an aortic embolism and he died quickly and was probably surprised to discover the day ending much differently than he'd expected it would.
My brother said it would have been funny if he'd have been found with a look of agonized betrayal on his face and the magazine lying in shreds at his feet. I'm glad it didn't happen that way.
I'd be surprised if "Sins of Our Fathers" earns any letters of praise or comment, but if it does, please note that Paul Rodell, 76, died Jan. 12, 2004. He was much loved and will be missed by many. Thanks.