First there was Old Tom Morris and his son Tommy, both from St Andrews. The father won the British Open – the only tournament then – four times and his namesake son won it four times as well. Yes, wet wool, 19th century golf, in all its patriarchal glory. The men walked off the first tee and faced a heavy sea wind and no one knew when or if they would return.
Since then, parents have been raising children in the game, and both generations dream of soaring prizes. OB Keller poured barrels of ink writing about Bobby Jones and his boyish, bluesy start to golf at the behest of his golf-loving father, Robert Bormidus Jones (aka “The Colonel”) who was a successful Atlanta attorney.
If Arnold Palmer said it once, he’s said it a thousand times: His father, Deacon, course supervisor and head pro at Latrobe Country Club in western Pennsylvania, taught young Arnold how to rule the club only once. Palmer never changed it.
The father of pharmacist Jack Nicklaus, a three-sport Ohio State athlete, Charlie started his son, Jackie, in golf when he was 10 years old in Columbus, Ohio, in the summer of 1950, at their club, the Scioto Country Club. Downtown, Mid-Century – Middle class, at its northernmost point. Donald Hall’s “Fathers Playing Catch with Sons” is about baseball, but Charlie and Jackie on the course in the 1950s would have been a good fit.
Twelve years later, Jack Nicklaus defeated Arnold Palmer in an 18-hole playoff at Oakmont Country Club and captured his first of 18 major titles, the 1962 US Open. It was Father’s Day. Since then (after the date was changed), most US openers have concluded on Father’s Day, and in most years, the father-son relationship is a central part of the winner’s life story.
This next phrase is known throughout golf: Tiger and Earl. The greenside hug between father and son after Woods’ victory at the 1997 Masters is one of the defining 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 the arms of a caddy, after winning the British Open at Royal Liverpool, 10 weeks after the death of Earl Woods at the age of 74.
But in 2014, Royal Liverpool became the scene of an evolving narrative when Rory McIlroy, the 25-year-old only child of working-class parents from outside Belfast, won the British Open. It was his third major title and in a pretty old-fashioned gesture at the awards show, where thousands of fans ringed the 18th green, McIlroy dedicated the win to his mother.
“This is the first major I won when my mom was here,” he said. “Mom, this is for you.”
Rosie McDonald McIlroy, who helped pay for her son’s junior travel abroad by working a shift at a 3M factory, was elated. Later, she tentatively placed several fingers on the winning claret jug while her son gripped it tightly.
Five years later, Woods won the 2019 Masters. It was kind of a shock: He hadn’t won a major in 11 years. In victory, his mother, Coltida, who was born and raised in Thailand, was standing in a grassy knob about 10 yards from the 18th green. She couldn’t see her son’s winning stroke, but she could hear the thunderous reaction. Her face was painted proudly. In victory, Woods spoke softly about how his mother at 5:30 a.m. drove Tiger in a Plymouth Duster to Pee-Wee’s nine-hole championships, 90 minutes there, 90 minutes back.
Last year, when Woods was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, Theda, known within Woods’ inner circle for being tough and direct, was in the front row, just as cheery as Rosie McIlroy was in 2014.
Woods spoke, without notes, of the many times his mother brought him to a third-rate course near Tiger’s childhood home in Southern California, giving him 50 cents for a hot dog and 25 cents for a call home at the end of the day. Woods bet his early and successful contests with those places his mother gave him. The tiger, who was telling personal stories about his mother, and Theda, laughing with the cameras at her, was a rare personal moment for both of them.
This year at the Los Angeles Country Club, the last round of the US Open fell, as usual, on Father’s Day, but the day was for mother and son.
Winner Windham Clark had heard Woods speak about his mother at Augusta National during the Masters and in the Hall of Fame. I stuck with him.
Breast cancer ended the life of his mother, Liz Clark, 10 years ago, when Windham was still a teenager. He almost quit golf after her death. He said his mother had a nickname for him—”Winner”—and a two-word motto: “Play big.”
The technical aspects of the game were not its forte. They weren’t like that with Rose McIlroy or Theda Woods.
When Clark was in high school, his mother came to one of his games. She watched him hit an eight-foot force and clapped excitedly for her son.
“Mom,” Clark said to his mother as he pulled off the green. “I just made a triple bogey.”
My mom didn’t know and my mom didn’t care. Her son had an eyelid pierced.
Minutes after winning the US Open, Clark said, “I felt like my mom was watching me today.” Mother’s Day speech. sad.
And now it was the British Open again at Royal Liverpool. Two rounds later, 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 of his way to find Fleetwood, after an opening round 66, to give him a “Tommy boy!” spontaneously.
One of the most beloved players in the game today, Fleetwood grew up in humble circumstances about 30 miles north, in Southport, where his mother was a hairdresser. Fleetwood has a distinctive appearance, an upturned nose that is often accompanied by a sunburn, blue eyes that appear almost squinted, and long, flowing hair. Sue Fleetwood longed to cut her son’s hair, but Tommy Ladd wasn’t going to get it. Sue Fleetwood passed away last year at the age of 60, two years after being diagnosed with cancer.
“You took me everywhere,” Fleetwood said Friday night, on the one-year anniversary of her death. It started to rain and the air was getting cold.
“She was always the driver. She always took me to the range. To the golf course. To where I wanted to go. She was always a very supportive influence. She was a very tough woman but she never refused to take me anywhere. She was amazing to me.”
There was nothing maudlin in his tone. Fleetwood was talking about golf and his mother and he was smiling. Another mom’s day was coming. Win, lose, or otherwise, another mom’s day was coming for another golfing son.