John Daly's extraordinary blast from the depths of the Road Hole bunker on the 71st hole of last summer's British Open may well be framed in time as the shot that enabled golf's most exciting player to finally put some powerful ghosts to rest. In a slightly different and more private way, the shot performed something of this final rite for me, too, because a little bit of who I am is spread in that sand trap.
Earlier last year I walked up to that bunker, untied a velvet knot and sprinkled a satchel of my father's ashes in and around the bunker where so many greats and near greats and total unknowns have gone down in flames. The three friendly Australians I was playing with, strangers only a few hours before, put down their clubs and pumped my hand. One of them slapped me on the back and said, in that funny sideways way Aussies have of cutting the baloney, "Guess every time you see this hole on the telly, you'll get a right old blast out of Pop."
My new mates didn't know the half of it. I did get a blast out of my pop, especially on the golf course. One afternoon 30 years ago, in the soft upland hills of North Carolina, my father put a golf club in my hand, showed me the Vardon grip and explained that this confounding game could take me on a wondrous journey. Those were the exact and somewhat perfumey words he used: "a wondrous journey." I had no idea it could take us so far together. Golf became our means of communicating through the Gobi of adolescence into the forested terrors of young manhood, the way we found balance in an unbalanced cosmos. We played the day I went off to college. We played a few days after my high school sweetheart was shot dead, incomprehensibly, by a 17-year-old with a ,38. We played on holidays and birthdays and on hundreds of no-name days that nobody but us would remember.
One day in Washington, D.C., somewhere in the mid-'80s, I got tired of being a political reporter and suddenly, almost grievously, missed the game. I hadn't played two rounds in six years. My chest ached every night. So I called my dad from the vice president's office and asked if I could just come home. He picked me up at the airport in Raleigh and hauled me straight to Pinehurst. We played like old times, except that I couldn't break 100. He didn't ask what was troubling me. All he said—exact words again—was, "Do something you love." Simple and sweet, like his golf swing. I became a golf writer, and the chest pains ceased.
We talked about making a sentimental pilgrimage. During the war, when Dad was a sergeant in the Eighth Army Air Corps, he learned to play while stationed in England near Royal Lytham, site of next week's Open. The epiphany occurred when he took a train to Scotland and played the great linksland courses there, especially the Old Course at St. Andrews. He said nothing in the world compared to the glory and pain of the Road Hole.
Somehow our journey always got delayed. Then he called to say he had weeks to live. An old nemesis, cancer, had come back with a vengeance. So we dropped everything and went. We started at Royal Lytham and ended up in St. Andrews, where we sat for three days hoping our names would appear on the daily ballot sheet. They never did. Dad steadfastly refused to let me use my connections to get us on. We settled for a final 36-hole putting match on the Himalayas and a stroll around the course on the evening before Dad returned home.
At the Road Hole, as the haints of the Old Course swirled in the darkening sea wind around us, I learned he once made birdie in the most extraordinary way—blasting in from the infamous bunker. He assured me it was dumb luck, but I'd been around this game, and him, too long to accept that. His short game was his strength. I never quite matched it, but his love for the game became mine, and that's enough.
When I returned to scatter his ashes, there was only one spot to finally commend him back to dust. It was good to see Daly bury some of his own ghosts there, too, in the company of a gentle man I know would heartily approve.