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When acclaimed golf writer James Dodson leaves his home in Maine to revisit Pinehurst, North Carolina, where his father first taught him the game that would shape his life and career, he’s at a point where he has lost direction. But once there, the curative power of the sandhills region not only helps him find a new career working for the local paper but also reignites his flagging passion for the game of golf. And, perhaps more significantly, it inspires him to try to pass along to his teenage son the same sense of joy and contentment he has found in the game, and to recall the many colorful and lifelong friends he has met on the links.
This wise memoir about finding new meaning through an old sport is filled with anecdotes about the history of the game and of Pinehurst, the home of American golf, where many larger-than-life legends played some of their greatest rounds. Dodson's bestselling memoir Final Rounds began in Pinehurst twenty-five years ago, and now A Son of the Game completes the circle as it follows his journey of discovery back to where his love of the game began—a love that he hopes to make a family legacy.
|Publisher:||Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill|
|Product dimensions:||6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)|
About the Author
James Dodson's bestselling Final Rounds was named the Golf Book of the Year by the International Network of Golf in 1996. He is the author of six other books, including the acclaimed biography Ben Hogan: An American Life. He lives with his family in Southern Pines, North Carolina.
Read an Excerpt
A Son of the Game
By JAMES DODSON
Algonquin Books of Chapel HillCopyright © 2009 James Dodson
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePants That Just Say Pinehurst
At the end of Spring 2005, on my way to cover the 105th United States Open Championship at Pinehurst, I stopped off to buy a new pair of pants.
I realize how unexciting this sounds, but buying new pants is a rare event for me, something I do about as frequently as Americans go to the polls to elect a new president, which may explain why my pants, always tan cotton khakis, look as if they've seen better days.
In this instance, it was a perfect Sunday afternoon, twelve days before the start of our national golfing championship, and I'd just rolled into Pinehurst following a long drive from Maine.
Actually, when I arrived, I had no intention of buying pants. I was mostly worrying about locating the small log cottage in the middle of Southern Pines that I'd rented sight unseen via telephone from a local realtor named Ed Rhodes, who casually informed me the key would be waiting beneath a stone angel by the back door. I was also vaguely wondering if I'd made the dumbest career move of my life by agreeing to go to work for the Southern Pines Pilot, the award-winning community newspaper of the Carolina Sandhills.
Some guys, when facing a midlife crisis, roguishly splurge on a red sports car, or get hair plugs, or maybe even buy a secret condo in Cancún. Fresh from a year in which I'd traveled to Africa with exotic plant hunters and loitered at the elbows of some of the world's top horticulture experts, I'd merely yielded to the persuasive charms of The Pilot's enthusiastic young publisher, David Woronoff, scion of a distinguished Old North State newspaper clan. Almost on a whim, I'd agreed to write a daily golf column for the paper's ambitious Open Daily tabloid during U.S. Open week. There was also a friendly conversation about the possibility of my staying on to write a Sunday essay after the Open circus left town, though nothing had been formally proposed, much less agreed upon. That wasn't by accident.
Truthfully, I feared that I had little in the way of wit or current insight to offer The Pilot and its Open readers because, factoring in the four long years my brain had been focused upon the distant, well-ordered world of Ben Hogan and another kind of America, and adding two years for my absorbing romp through the garden world, I'd been out of the current game for a small eternity. Since the death of Harvie Ward and the dissolution of my longtime golf group back in Maine, in fact, I'd scarcely touched my own clubs or watched a golf tournament on television or even felt much desire to read about who was doing what in a game I'd loved, it seemed, forever.
Like some sad, burned-out bureaucrat from a Graham Greene novel, I'd even begun to consider the once-unthinkable possibility that my hiatus from golf and the golf world, rather than rekindling my desire to play and restoring interest in the professional game as well, had radically cooled my passion and turned my game to sawdust.
This realization had come during the drive, when I'd stopped off to compete with a friend named Howdy Giles in his one-day member-guest event at Pine Valley Golf Club in New Jersey. Though Pine Valley is justly famous for its strategic brilliance and difficulty, I often play the course surprisingly well for a casual player, typically managing to achieve my five- or six-stroke handicap. In this instance, I thought my lengthy time away from the game might even serve to boost my prospects of making a decent score - partly because I tend to play better golf on a difficult course and partly because some of my best rounds of golf have come following the long winter layoffs every New Englander comes to know.
Well, the golf gods must have needed a good belly laugh that day. By the fourth hole, I was six over par, and by the end of the first nine, I'd jotted a big fat fifty on the card - probably my worst competitive nine holes in forty years. The anger and embarrassment I felt made me want to grab my clubs and bolt.
"Don't worry about it," my genial host assured me at the halfway house, as I licked my wounds, guzzled Arnold Palmer iced tea, and wondered if perhaps I was through with golf or, more likely, if golf was through with me. "You'll put it together on the back nine," Howdy confidently said. I wasn't so sure.
Fortunately, Howdy was right. I shot a not-quite-so-horrific forty-five. As I left the grounds of the world's number-one-ranked golf course, my cell phone rang. It was my son Jack calling, curious to know how the old man had fared that afternoon. Originally Jack had planned to accompany me to Pinehurst to work as a standard-bearer with his friend Bryan Stewart at the U.S. Open. But late spring snows in Maine had extended his freshman-year high school classes all the way to the start of Open week. There was still an outside chance he might fly down on Tuesday of that week, however, and find a spot working in the National Open. This was my great hope, anyway. I wanted the time with my son, and I also felt the experience would be invaluable for him.
"Let's just say I left the course record more or less intact." I attempted to shrug off the disaster, fessing up to my woeful ninety-five.
"Gosh, what happened?" Jack sounded genuinely astounded and also a little disappointed. After all, one of the carrots I'd long held out to him was a promise to play shrines like Pine Valley, Pebble Beach, and Pinehurst No. 2 if and when his game reached a level those courses demanded. "Pine Valley must be really hard," he said.
"It is hard, Nibs. Make no mistake. But truthfully I was just awful today. I hit every kind of bad shot you can - hooks, shanks, even a whiff. I five-putted a hole from twenty feet."
"Maybe you should have played a little more before you went there," he said, politely stating the obvious.
"You're right. I should have," I agreed, wondering if the lengthy hiatus had done more serious damage to my game than I realized.
Despite my misgivings, David seemed to have no doubts about why he wanted me to work for The Pilot.
"Between you and me," David had confided at lunch in a crowded café overlooking Southern Pines' picturesque main street the morning after I said goodbye to Harvie, "we're eager to show the national media that Pinehurst is our golf turf, not theirs. We'd like you to help us do that."
David explained that during the 1999 Open at Pinehurst, The Pilot had broken new ground by being the first to publish a comprehensive, full-color daily tabloid newspaper, fifty-six pages in length, for the two hundred thousand spectators who attended the Open, a publishing feat for which Woronoff and his staff had collected a pile of industry awards. Now, he said, for the 2005 Open, they were out to reprise their effort and in the process double the output in pages and increase market penetration.
"This is where you come in," he said, sipping his iced tea. "I took a poll, phoned everybody I could think of in the golf world, and asked the same question: If I could get one nationally known golf writer to come write exclusively for us for the Open, who should I try to get? Your name kept coming up. I know we can't possibly pay you what the national media guys do. But on the other hand, I've read your books and know from Tom Stewart and others how connected you are to the Sandhills."
"This is where I learned to play the game - or at least to respect it," I admitted, thinking of the venerable Mid Pines Golf Club where I learned to quit throwing my clubs.
David smiled. "Exactly. That's why I'm hoping you might agree to come do this - on a lark, I don't know, for the pure fun of it. We can't pay you much, but I can promise you all the barbecue and sweet tea you want."
I tried to remember the last time I did anything purely for the fun of it. I believe Jerry Ford was in office then. Double knit slacks and Day-Glo orange golf balls were all the rage.
As it happened, being a son of both the Old North State and the newspaper business, I knew a little about The Pilot's illustrious past. The paper had once been owned by Sam Ragan, the poet laureate of North Carolina, and its unlikely literary roots reached all the way to New York's famed Algonquin Round Table, owing to James Boyd, a Southern Pines horseman and adventure writer whose best-selling books about the Revolutionary War, one of them illustrated by N. C. Wyeth, had sat on a bookshelf in my own boyhood bedroom. Boyd, who had run with a crowd that included Thomas Wolfe and Scott Fitzgerald, had owned The Pilot sometime in the 1940s and 1950s. That, however, was pretty much all I knew about the newspaper.
Then I casually mentioned something that sealed my fate.
"Here's a strange coincidence," I said to David. "My dad was a small-town newspaperman, like you. He once owned - and, through no failure of his own, lost - a weekly newspaper called the Gulfport Pilot and Breeze down in Mississippi. My first memories of life come from that little newspaper. Maybe I'll tell you about it sometime. It's quite a story."
"I'd love to hear it." David replied thoughtfully. He paused a respectful beat, then added, "Well, The Pilot is my dream. Remind me to tell you what I went through just to get this newspaper. Basically, I stalked the dying owner for two years and almost had to name my second daughter after him before he would agree to sell it to me. Imagine having to tell your pregnant wife that your infant daughter is going to be named Sam Ragan."
David Woronoff's congenial friendliness and small-town optimism struck a familiar chord. Then it hit me who he reminded me of: my own dad. The resemblance was, in fact, uncanny, and not a little disarming.
David smiled. "So, I guess we've both got printer's ink in the blood, huh? Sounds to me like you're almost destined to come write for The Pilot. In fact, if you want to, you can stay on and write for us after the Open leaves town. I'll bet your dad would like that."
For a moment I considered this unforeseen development, coming essentially out of nowhere, in the midst of my midlife career crisis. On paper, at this stage of my busy life, going to work for The Pilot didn't make sense. To begin with, the money he would offer was undoubtedly a fraction of my regular pay for magazine work, and it would mean somehow having to create two homes and be in two places at once, because I was fairly certain no one in my immediate family was eager to pull up stakes and on a lark move to North Carolina simply so I could reconnect with my redneck roots. My wife, Wendy, was immersed in teaching at-risk kids in the public schools and was active in community affairs. My children, Maggie and Jack, were enjoying high school. For a decade, their mom and I had shared legal custody of them, an agreeable arrangement that had them spending equal time at both their homes.
As if these factors weren't deterrent enough, I'd recently agreed to serve as writer-in-residence at Hollins University in Virginia for the spring 2006 term, a distinguished teaching appointment I was thrilled to have been offered but still had logistically to work out.
"Well congratulations," David said, not appearing to think that any of these obligations presented a roadblock to his ultimate aims. "If Hollins doesn't happen till next year, why, you could stick around and keep writing for The Pilot. We could make you our writer-in-residence, too!"
"I've never heard of a newspaper having a writer-in-residence," I pointed out.
"Neither have I. So we'll be the first," he said pleasantly. "We're famous for our firsts at The Pilot."
"I still have to figure out how I'm going to alternate two-week intervals between Virginia and Maine. I've developed a serious aversion to airports," I countered. "I can't imagine adding the Sandhills to the scenario. Then I'd have to be three places at once, or at least once a month."
"You could figure it out," he said mildly. "I can tell you really want to do it. Enthusiasm makes most things possible."
I studied David Woronoff. He looked scarcely old enough to attend an R-rated movie on his own. One thing was for sure, the boy publisher of the Sandhills didn't throw in the towel easily. But then, neither had my father, a man whose sunny persistence never failed him. "Our best days," he liked to say, "are ahead of us." In time I would learn that this was one of David's guiding beliefs as well.
Thinking all this over, trying to weigh the upsides against the downs, I glanced out the window of the restaurant just as a kid in a striped T-shirt pedaled by on an old-fashioned bike. I suddenly remembered being that kid.
In its own way, Southern Pines was even prettier than nearby Pinehurst, more of a working town, with a railroad bisecting its thriving Main Street area into two neat halves. With its handsome old houses, towering magnolias, and sensible grid of streets named for New England and Midwestern states, Southern Pines - which an enterprising Southerner created to lure wealthy Yankees south and disencumber them from their money - was like a New England town set smack in the middle of the sleepy South. As towns go, it felt like a place that combined the best of both worlds: small town Southern life and Yankee village ingenuity.
"You know," I said, suddenly embarking on a foolish trip down memory lane, "when I was a kid my parents had some friends named Howie and Brenda Butz. I think Howie worked with my dad at the Washington Post. They lived in a big old house on Massachusetts Avenue and had three or four kids, all girls - prissy, bossy, red-haired girls. We once went to visit them after playing golf at Mid Pines and stayed for supper. I was twelve or thirteen at the time. It was complete torture, till I found an old bicycle in their garage and escaped by pedaling all over Southern Pines. I decided this was the coolest town I'd ever seen and began to secretly wish we could live here instead of Greensboro, even if it meant I had to go to school with the ugly Butz sisters."
David smiled. "Man, did you ever blow it. I think they all grew up to be supermodels. We had a piece on the Butz girls."
I liked this guy. And I sensed I might enjoy working for him. I couldn't help wondering if he possessed a decent golf swing.
"Truthfully, I always had this crazy fantasy about someday living here," I confessed, "playing golf on weekends, writing about whatever passed in front of my nose. Kind of like Charlie Kuralt and E. B. White and Russell Baker rolled into one. That would be the life."
David smiled. "Well, I'm the guy who can make that kind of fantasy happen. We may be small town but we're not small time." He explained that The Pilot was full of refugees and talented bail-outs from wider spots on the information highway. This included the editor of The Pilot, the paper's ad director, even the circulation manager. "They either burned out or got sick of the bureaucracy and jumped at the chance to come live in a place where life is more sane and civilized - and the golf is great. They'll tell you that coming here has given them a new lease on life. Ask 'em."
"Maybe I will," I said, thinking I could use a new lease on life - or at least a fresh start of some kind.
"If you do come," David chipped in, "you could even play in our majors."
"You have majors?"
"A guy named John Dempsey and I ranked all the charity golf tournaments in town. Dempsey is the president of the local community college - a total golf nut. Your kind of guy. There's a charity golf event just about every week starting in October."
"I'm taking a sabbatical from all things golf," I felt obliged to inform him. "I'm not sure when - or if - I'll ever be back. Between you and me, I'm pretty fed up with the professional game right now. I can only bear to watch the majors these days. Haven't yet figured out whether that's because I'm such an old fogey or because the Tour has grown so colorless I can't tell one player from the next save for Phil and Tiger. I'm hoping a long break from the game will recharge my batteries."
"Not a problem. Everyone needs a break. I'll bet you'll come back raring to go - to play and write golf."
"I hope you're right," I said, thinking how few things in life had given me more enjoyable moments, or better friends, than this funny old game.
Excerpted from A Son of the Game by JAMES DODSON Copyright © 2009 by James Dodson. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This
“My good friend Jim Dodson seems to come up with one good book after another. But he produces something particularly powerful, something extra when he writes about his own life experiences, as in his first book, the highly acclaimed Final Rounds, and his latest, A Son of the Game. He is now the father, passing on to his son, Jack, the love and contentment he has rediscovered in golf and family. Once again, Jim touches the heartstrings.” Arnold Palmer
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Great read.... Thank you James Dodson
I gave this book to my brother, an avid golfer, and he said, he couldn't put it down! Highly recommend for golfing enthusiast!