Hell or High Grass

Even at a father and son’s worst, the game (and not one, but two ball retrievers) brings out their best

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Photo by H. Armstrong Roberts/Getty Images

The worst fight my father and I have ever had was on a golf course. We were at Legends on the Niagara in Ontario, Canada. Legends isn’t Pebble Beach, but it’s the sort of place neither of us would normally play, because we’re too cheap and too lousy to justify it. Our home track at the time looked like an abandoned gravel pit. But I’d been asked to review splashier courses for a magazine, and I saw an opportunity for us to play somewhere special together, enjoying some father-son time in a place we might both remember.

Unfortunately, my father—we call him Dodo—had developed a terrible hitch. He was incapable of playing golf without hunting for balls “while he was at it.” More truthfully, finding balls had become less a diversion and more his principal objective; he carried two ball retrievers in case he broke one mid-round. The hunt was the real reason he played, and the more elusive the discovery, the better. Dodo was never happier on a golf course than when he was crashing through the trees like Bigfoot.

I’d given him strict instructions not to ballhawk at Legends. (He was in his mid-60s at the time, and I was in my mid-30s, which meant our roles in one another’s lives had fully reversed.) Much to my surprise, he behaved for the first few holes. Then he hit a ball dangerously close to some woods. He picked along the edge of the trees before the call of the wild grew too great: He plunged between the branches in an instant, as though he’d been sucked into a whirlpool, vanishing from view. I could only hear the telltale sound of his searching. It was the same noise people make when they’re trying to find some lost Mayan temple in the jungle.

A pair of golfers showed up behind us, waiting to tee off. I grew more anxious and began to call for my dad as discreetly as I could. Finally Dodo emerged, covered in scratches, pockets bulging, smiling from ear to ear. Golfers who golf at places like Legends don’t bother looking for their lost balls. Dodo was delighted: “It’s like finding money lying on the ground!” 

I gestured at the golfers behind us and hissed, “You can’t do this here. I’m WORKING. We’ll get kicked off the course.”

“I’m not hurting anyone,” he said. “Why can’t you let me enjoy this?”

“Why can’t you play golf like a normal person?”

We both knew the answer: Dodo is not a normal person. It’s not his fault. He grew up poor, in a cliff-side village in Wales; his biological father was physically abusive, once splitting open Dodo’s chin with the butt of a gun; the man his mother married next preferred psychological torture. At last my father found love, escaped with my mother to Canada and built a new life for himself, and for us. But his scars remain, and the old wounds they represent are easily reopened. He is still poor in his heart. He doesn’t like waste. He is sensitive to anything resembling criticism. And he finds comfort in the most basic routine.

I tried to pretend as though I belonged, and my dad didn’t dream of being anyone other than himself.

He is the only person I know who will go to McDonald’s and order the Filet-O-Fish—I mean, that alone makes him a weirdo—and then he’ll ask for it with no sauce and no cheese, “just fish on a bun,” and then he’ll take a bite and say something like, “That’s bloody delicious.” He will delight in it because it is exactly how he wants it, and he will savor his unshakable dominion over the small slice of territory that is his lunch. I suspect his addiction to finding golf balls is a symptom of the same condition, and I should know by now that it is permanent. I can either yield to him or I can lose to him. Those are my options.

But at Legends I dug in. His garage was filled with Rubbermaid tubs the size of steamer trunks, overflowing with thousands of balls. He had amassed so many—the way ravens have an insatiable appetite for shiny objects—that he could lose a ball every hole for the rest of his life and never run out. Just once, just today, could he have not looked for balls? Could we have just played golf?

He could not, so we could not. He threatened to walk off the course and go home. I told him that would be fine with me. We both knew we were telling lies to one another, but our anger was genuine. We fell silent for several uneasy holes, enjoying nothing.

I had to be the one to make amends. It’s just how it is, and how we are. “Are we really going to ruin this?” I think I said. No, he did not want that. Dodo agreed to stop looking for balls whenever we played, or at least look for them less. In turn, I promised to be more understanding if he spent a little too long beating back tall grass.

There’s a quote about poverty in a movie I love, Hell or High Water: “It’s like a disease. Passes from generation to generation. Becomes a sickness…but not my boys. Not anymore.” Today, I’m 47 and my dad is 78, and I remember that fight with him from a more distant perspective: There we both were, somewhere above either of our stations, and I tried to pretend as though I belonged, and my dad didn’t dream of being anyone other than himself. That I could even feign the illusion was because of his work, not mine, proof that he had won the battle to spare me the sort of childhood that had so damaged him. Now, years removed from that afternoon, and years closer to the day when he will leave me forever, I know I will tell the story of our fight at Legends in his eulogy, not to remember the place, but to remember him, and how secure he was in himself, and the pleasure he took in simple things, in finding a golf ball and imagining it were a pearl. And I know too that I will wish very much in that moment to see him reappear, one more time, from the trees.