In the beginning, there was Old Tom Morris and his son, Tommy, both of St. Andrews. The father won the British Open — the only championship then — four times and his namesake son won it four times, too. Yes, wet wool, 19th-century golf, in all its paternalistic glory. The men marched off the first tee and into a heavy sea wind and nobody knew when, or if, they would come back.
And ever since, fathers have been raising sons in the game, both generations dreaming of hoisted trophies. O.B. Keeler spilled barrels of ink writing about Bobby Jones and his little-boy-blue start in golf at the behest of his golf-loving father, Robert Purmedus Jones (also known as ‘The Colonel’) who was a prosperous Atlanta lawyer.
If Arnold Palmer said it once, he said it a thousand times: his father, Deacon, the course superintendent and head pro at Latrobe Country Club in western Pennsylvania, taught young Arnold how to grip a club once and only once. Palmer never changed it.
Jack Nicklaus’s pharmacist father, Charlie, a three-sport athlete at Ohio State, started his son, Jackie, as an oversized 10-year-old in Columbus, Ohio, in the summer of 1950, at their club, Scioto Country Club. Mid-country, midcentury — middle class, at its most northern tier. Donald Hall’s “Fathers Playing Catch with Sons” is largely about baseball but Charlie and Jackie on the course in the 1950s could have fit right in.
Twelve years later, Jack Nicklaus defeated Arnold Palmer in an 18-hole playoff at Oakmont Country Club and claimed the first of his record 18 major titles, the 1962 U.S. Open. It was Father’s Day. Since then (after a date change) most U.S. Opens have concluded on Father’s Day and most years the father-son relationship is an elemental part of the winner’s life story.
This next phrase is known throughout golf: Tiger and Earl. The green-side hug between father and son after Woods won the 1997 Masters Tournament is one of the iconic moments in golf history. It was Tiger’s first major as a pro and he won by 12 shots. Nine years later, Woods fell into his caddie’s arms, after winning the British Open at Royal Liverpool, 10 weeks after Earl Woods died at age 74.
But in 2014 Royal Liverpool became the scene of an evolving narrative when Rory McIlroy, 25-years-old and the lone child of working-class parents from outside Belfast, won the British Open. It was his third major title and in a lovely, old-fashioned gesture at the awards presentation, with thousands of fans ringing the 18th green, McIlroy dedicated the win to his mother.
“This is the first major I’ve won when my mum has been here,” he said. “Mum, this one’s for you.”
Rosie McDonald McIlroy, who helped pay for her son’s overseas junior-golf travel by way of her shift work at a 3M plant, was beaming. Later, she tentatively put several fingers on the winner’s claret jug as her son grasped it tightly.
Five years later, Woods won the 2019 Masters. It was kind of a shocker: he hadn’t won a major in 11 years. In victory, his mother, Kultida, born and raised in Thailand, was standing in a grassy knob about 10 yards off the 18th green. She couldn’t see her son’s winning putt, but she could hear the thunderous response to it. Her face was painted in pride. In victory, Woods spoke in a soft voice about how his mother would rise at 5:30 in the morning to drive Tiger in a Plymouth Duster to nine-hole Pee-wee tournaments, 90 minutes there, 90 minutes back.
Last year, when Woods was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, ‘Tida,’ known within Woods’s tight circle for being tough and direct, was in the first row, beaming just as Rosie McIlroy was in 2014.
Woods talked, without notes, about the many times his mother brought him to a par-3 course near Tiger’s boyhood home in Southern California, giving him 50 cents for a hot dog and 25 cents for the end-of-day call home. Woods staked his early and successful putting contests with those quarters his mother gave him. Tiger, telling personal stories about his mother, and Tida, laughing with cameras on her, was a rare personal moment for both.
This year at the Los Angeles Country Club the final round of the U.S. Open fell, as usual, on Father’s Day, but the day belonged to a mother and her son.
The winner Wyndham Clark had heard Woods talk about his own mother at Augusta National during the Masters and at the Hall of Fame induction. It stuck with him.
Breast cancer had ended his mother Lise Clark’s life 10 years ago, when Wyndham was still a teenager. He nearly quit golf after she died. He said his mother had a nickname for him, ‘Winner’ and had a two-word mantra for him: “Play big.”
The technical aspects of the game were not her forte. They weren’t for Rose McIlroy or Tida Woods, either.
When Clark was in high school, his mother came to one of his matches. She watched him make an eight-foot putt and clapped enthusiastically for her son.
“Mom,” Clark told mother as he came off the green. “I just made triple bogey.”
Mom didn’t know and mom didn’t care. Her son had holed a putt.
Minutes after winning the U.S. Open, Clark said, “I just felt like my mom was watching over me today.” Mother’s Day, in a manner of speaking. A wistful one.
And now the British Open is in high gear, once again at Royal Liverpool. After two rounds the English golfer Tommy Fleetwood was alone in second place, five shots behind the leader, Brian Harman. Everywhere Fleetwood goes on the course he is greeted as “Tommy-lad.” Even McIlroy went out his way to find Fleetwood, after an opening-round 66, to give him a “Tommy-lad!” of his own.
Fleetwood, one of the most likable players in the game today, grew up in modest circumstances about 30 miles north, in Southport, where his mother was a hairdresser. Fleetwood has a distinct look, an upturned nose that is often sunburned, blue eyes that look almost plugged in, and long, flowing hair. Sue Fleetwood longed to cut her son’s hair but Tommy-lad wouldn’t have it. Sue Fleetwood died last year at 60, two years after a cancer diagnosis.
“She took me everywhere,” Fleetwood said Friday night, on the one-year anniversary of her death. Rain was starting to fall and the air was cooling.
“She was always the driver. She would always take me to the range. To the golf course. To wherever I wanted to go. She was always a very supporting influence. She was a very tough woman but she never said no to taking me anywhere. She was great to me.”
There was nothing maudlin about his tone. Fleetwood was talking about golf and his mother and he was smiling. Another mother’s day, in a manner of speaking, was coming. Win, lose or otherwise, another mother’s day was coming for another golfing son.