Upon Reflection

A dad gets tough lessons from his daughter

We make the same face at the top of our backswings: eyes narrowed, lips pursed, chin tucked so that it nearly touches the left shoulder.

When I first saw it, I thought it was unique to her—the stern intensity of a little girl about to fire her hips and unwind her arms, her ponytail a blur at impact. Few things on earth have ever filled me with the mixture of warmth and wonder I feel when I watch my daughter rip a buttery draw with all the force a 10-year-old can muster. But it was my wife who recognized what I could not: My daughter’s golf glare is a reflection of mine.

We can’t pick and choose what our kids will inherit from us. Some of what we hand down, inevitably, feels more like a curse. Keegan and I have the same freckles, the same wry sense of humor, the same fondness for the Beatles. But our tempers run hot, and our self-doubt is often barely an inch deep, always threatening to resurface after a bad shot.

Her swing, though, is long and fluid, unlike mine. Even on a good day, I am more lumberjack than poet when I lash at the ball. She has an enviable tempo, the kind of flexibility I can only dream of. There are rounds when I catch myself studying her from across the fairway, when she’s brushing the grass with her beautiful practice swing, and I am briefly overwhelmed by her visage in the half-light of the afternoon. Most days, we are the only father-daughter pairing on the course.

23 Essay Upon Reflection
Photo by Christian Hafer

Why is that? I’ve spent the last few years mulling the question, and I don’t have a satisfying answer. But I do know fathers need to do more to welcome our daughters into that world, or else we’re part of a larger cultural problem.

I feel embarrassed just typing these words…but I’d hoped, before she was born, that she might be a boy. We already had her older sister, and as we awaited the due date, I secretly longed for a son. One of each would make my heart full, I told myself.

When I was instead blessed with a second daughter, I did not know how to react. I felt, secretly, like I had missed out on something.

Football had been the one language that both my father and I spoke during my youth. It was a bridge to understand each other, particularly in moments when we were otherwise distant. I played it in high school and college, then continued long past the arrival of adulthood, well after it made logical or physical sense. On Sundays, even into my 30s, I would rise before dawn and dart out of the house with cleats and jersey in hand, eager to play two (sometimes three) flag football games, all before noon. I owned every turf burn and sprained shoulder with sadistic pride. When I played against and on teams where fathers and sons shared the field, I was wistful. I wanted that connection with a child of my own.

It is difficult, even a decade later, to forgive myself for this. The anticipation of becoming a parent, once it gives way to reality, reveals naïvetés big and small. You quickly grasp how little anything matters beyond “Is my kid healthy?” and “Can I keep them safe and make them feel loved?”

Being honest with yourself, however, is as important when writing as it is when playing golf. And so I offer these words with a healthy dose of shame: My younger daughter and I did not bond immediately.

She was fussy, and I was impatient. It took us time to find our shared love language.

My battered knees and a set of plastic clubs put our futures in motion. My football days were numbered by the time she learned how to walk. I needed an outlet for my restless brain, and golf morphed from hobby into obsession. I ditched my cleats for FootJoys (a half-dozen pairs, to be frank), then bought a putting green. I hit balls at the range for hours with her perched next to me, strapped safely in her stroller.

I cannot pinpoint the moment I realized Keegan had internalized it, but by the time she was 3, she was launching plastic golf balls onto the roof of our house, beaming as I roared my approval. When I hit balls into the backyard net, I would catch her mimicking my movements, her pale-blue eyes soaking up everything (including my poor weight transfer). By the time she turned 8, we had begun referring to our weekly nine-hole excursions as “KVV Club” because, as she pointed out, we had the same initials. One morning, in the middle of winter, I was hustling to pack her lunch and get her out the door in time for school when I spotted her in the front yard, alone, without a coat or even a sweater. She had a 9-iron in her hands, imagining shots fired toward an imaginary pin, the club knifing through the grass and a thin layer of frost. Spring couldn’t come soon enough.

I know so little about the golf swing that I often worry everything I’ve taught her is inadequate. Get your right hip deeper; use your lower body to start; stay connected and try not to chicken wing at impact. All of it sounds good, but I’m mostly guessing, working on instinct instead of expertise. It isn’t dissimilar to parenting, when you think about it. The message that you care matters more than the content—or the vehicle used to deliver it.

One fall afternoon, after a particularly frustrating round that brought her to the verge of tears, Keegan asked as we were packing the car if I might be willing to play a few more holes. “I need your help,” she mumbled. “Can you please fix my chipping?” 

How do you express the right amount of gratitude when life gives you a gift you didn’t realize you needed? I haven’t figured it out just yet, even if I have found someone I want to play golf with for the rest of my life. We jogged from the parking lot to the first tee, hearts racing as we set off to beat the sunset. We had the course to ourselves.

On the second hole, after a brief discussion of tactics and strategy, Keegan sent a delicate chip skidding across the green. We both watched in silence as it rode a subtle slope, then kissed the pin and dropped gently into the cup. Her first birdie.

I felt tears begin to well up from somewhere deep inside me, but I had no time to cry. My daughter was sprinting across the green, poised to leap into my outstretched arms.

“You should see your face, Dad,” she said, giggling as we dashed to the next tee.

I told her I didn’t need to; I had seen the joy in hers. Mine was just a mirror.