By Francine Mathews
My father had his first heart attack when he was forty-seven. The year after that, he had me.
I was the last of eight children, six of whom–all girls–survived. After the heart attack, my dad’s doctor told him he needed consistent and moderate exercise. This was the Sixties, before stents and bypass surgery and the medical advances that have made coronary disease survivable; exercise was our family’s magic bullet. So my father took up golf. He was late to the game: the best golfers learn the skills in childhood. But what he lacked in time, he made up for in enthusiasm.
I was born into Arnie’s Army.
For those of you less familiar with the sport, this is the massive crowd of fans who followed Arnold Palmer around every golf course he tackled, over roughly sixty-five years. It’s also the name of Palmer’s charitable foundation, which seems apt–a call to turn that fan ardor into something meaningful. But to get back to my childhood: it was an indoctrination into something beyond sport, something that came to define my family’s ethos, my passionate love for my father, and ultimately my view of America–as an honorable testing ground for people of skill, who could lose their hearts’ desire on the drop of a putt, a gust of wind, a slight miscalculation, or the seeming whim of the gods, and yet shake hands and throw their arms around each other as they walked toward the clubhouse, ready to battle another day.
Golf dominated every weekend of my young life. If we were not watching Arnie face his arch-nemeses Julios Boros or Gary Player or, Heaven Forbid, that upstart Jack Nicklaus, the Golden Bear, we were out on a range or a golf course ourselves, hacking away at those infuriating white balls. The drink of choice for watching tournaments was my father’s Old Fashioned, whipped up according to his private recipe that no one has been able to quite replicate. Golf became the litmus test for my devotion to my father. By the age of eight, I had learned how to drive a cart correctly up to a green without leaving tire tracks; how to rake a sand trap by walking backwards toward the lowest part, rake in hand, to disguise any hint of my footprints; how to delicately fix a ball mark with the tip of a tee in the turf, and how to replace a divot. I was reverent as I pulled the flag at the stroke of my father’s Ping putter, making sure the shadow did not fall across his line and never, ever, dropping the flag on the surface of the green. I knew each green cost tens of thousands of dollars to construct, and that they were shaved daily.
I grew up in the leafy privilege of Congressional Country Club, one of the most hallowed golf grounds in the country. By the age of twelve, I was a member of the girls’ junior golf team. When I was thirteen, Congressional held the 1976 PGA, one of the four major tournaments every top golfer lives to win, and Arnie was of course in contention. My father was a marshall that weekend in August, dressed in regulation bicentennial red, white, and blue clothing. One of his jobs was to stand at the fairway rope and hold up the Quiet, Please sign when players were about to hit. I have a vivid memory of him silhouetted against the silent gallery as Arnie swung an iron on the eighteenth hole. I had broken my arm that summer. As Arnie finished his round, my dad stepped up to him and said: “Arnie, would you sign this little girl’s cast?”
And Arnie did, offering his roguish smile and a scrawl of magic marker. His hands were enormous.
A year later, when I was fourteen, my father died–of a heart attack. A gust of breeze, the ball rims the cup, and life changes on a whim of the gods. We quit Congressional, and I quit golf. I would return to the club as a waitress each college summer, earning tuition. But I have remained a lifelong member of Arnie’s Army, particularly on Majors Weekends: those four-day stretches of the Masters, in April at Augusta National; the US Open in June; the British Open in July; and the PGA in August. I put up my feet, pour a drink, place a pliant dog on my lap, and analyze every stroke. I’m rooting for Ricky Fowler today–he’s one off the lead–but I would not be unhappy with any outcome. The leader board this weekend in Augusta is epic.
|Ricky Fowler at Augusta National, April 8, 2017|
Arnold Palmer used to open the Masters each April with a ceremonial tee-off, alongside Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus. It was always a throat-choking moment for people who love the sport and its heroes; these warriors of the past, increasingly frail as time goes by, their backs and joints aching, their faces weathered. This year, Jack and Gary stepped up to the tee alone. Arnold died this past fall, at the age of eighty-eight. His green jacket, the symbol of Masters glory, lay folded over an empty chair.
For the soldiers in Arnie’s Army, however, he lives forever in this moment: shrugging history over his shoulders for the very first time.
A part of my past lives with him.