A Son of the Game
By James Dodson
Algonquin Books, 292 pp.
With Father's Day coming up and the U.S. Open starting tomorrow, it's a good time to consider the game of golf and the dad-ly men who play it. These are the subjects addressed by James Dodson's A Son of the Game, a book that is revealing, if perhaps in unintended ways, about both.
Dodson, prodigal scion of an old Carolina family (the 18th-century homestead, Dodson's Crossroads, he tells us, is located on Buckhorn Road between Chapel Hill and Hillsborough), has played his way around the world while writing for golf and travel magazines. He's written a biography of Ben Hogan and co-authored Arnold Palmer's memoir. But as this book opens, on the eve of the 2005 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, Dodson's caught in the grip of a mid-life crisis. He's tired of writing about the pros, he says, because they're all—Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson excepted—so robotic and fixated on the money. His own six-handicap game is in the toilet. Damn.
But Dodson, who lives in Maine—or did at the time—thinks a return to his roots, and to the Pinehurst fairways he first trod with his dad, may rekindle his love for the game and help him impart it to his teenage son, who prefers hockey. Dodson's even accepted a short-term writing gig with The Pilot, a thrice-weekly Sandhills newspaper, sick as he is of writing for the corporate boneheads who've bought out his magazines. Eventually, everything works out great for him, and he relocates his wife and kids to the Sandhills.
Dodson's book will make a fine Father's Day gift for any dad who, as Dodson did, yearns for the country club life, gives the wife "guilt gifts" so he can spend endless hours golfing with the boys, and has no idea why his first wife left him. Indeed, such a dad might favorably recite, as Dodson does, what his friend said on the subject of fathers and sons: "Can you think of anything better to pass along to them than the simple joy of playing golf with a buddy?"
Well, sure I can.
And so can Dodson, since the same friend has also related how his life turned around when, during a time-out from competing on the Asian tour, he spent two months working in the slums of Calcutta for Mother Teresa. After that, he wasn't so spoiled and self-indulgent, the friend says. While in Michigan working as a club pro, he even became "an activist for the poor" and ran for Congress as a social-justice liberal (if still a fiscal conservative). Without a stitch of irony, Dodson goes on to describe how his friend's mid-life crisis caused him to move from Michigan to Pinehurst, where his friend owns a gift shop.
Apparently his activism is now of the "fix your ball marks" variety?
Now, don't get me wrong. I like golf. I've even played No. 2, though it was years ago, when $50 would buy you 18 holes and a caddy. (Today, multiply by 10. By the way, I shot an 87.) Golf's a terrific social game. It's a lesson in the vagaries of life. It's all about tradition. I play just as soon as I can, after, that is, I've managed to forget how badly I played on the previous occasion.
But let's face it, golf played well is a huge time-eater, is seriously expensive unless the course you're playing isn't equipped with grass, and is unfortunately—because yes, it's a fun game—one of the most elitist endeavors on the planet.
This is the side of golf Dodson either doesn't get or doesn't care about as he tells his tale. His rich daddy taught him the game, and he's determined to pass it on as a gift to his sweet-swinging son. But his son doesn't love the game. Or maybe he does! But he can't play under pressure. But maybe he can! Omigod, what a soap opera this thing is. Don't these people have anything else on their minds besides a smooth takeaway?
Meanwhile, Dodson moans about how commercial golf has gotten. (His only funny line: By renaming it the Cialis Western Open, sponsors gave new meaning to golf's old maxim, "never up, never in.") It's not the same pure game he learned back when Pinehurst was the preserve of "true amateurs," who didn't need to win any money.
Rich white guys, in other words.
Actually, Dodson's book is also a good gift for dads interested in the history of Pinehurst and how it became a golf mecca, but who'd rather not hear about the racism involved or the possibility that Pinehurst might just tend to attract the totally self-absorbed.
As told by Dodson, Pinehurst is rife today with ex-movers and shakers who enjoy being in each other's company so they can avoid serious subjects and can concentrate on bad jokes, their putting, and convincing their children that this is how real men behave when they "follow their heart." Interestingly, it's only when Dodson talks to the occasional woman that anything interesting is said.
And we wonder why our patriarchal country is in the trouble it's in? Happy Father's Day.