Performers Seeking the Fairway, But Caught in the Rough: When You’re Not the Golf Prodigy Your Father Hoped You’d Be
“The first set of clubs arrived when I was seven, cotton candy-colored in pink and blue.”
My father bought me two sets of golf clubs when I was a child. The first set arrived when I was seven, cotton candy-colored in pink and blue. I distinctly remember looking at the clubs poke out of their matching bag as he hovered close by, awaiting my reaction. He pointed out the putter, the iron, the driver. The club heads were cartoonishly bulbous, made to appeal to a child’s eye. Whenever I passed them, I thought they looked like a huddle of flamingos, even after a thick coat of dust settled over them in the backyard.
The second set of golf clubs appeared when I was eleven. These resembled my father’s set but in miniature, with sleeker, graphite shafts and ergonomic grips. Giddy with renewed hope, he recounted a story about a Korean girl who’d recently received a full-ride golf scholarship to UCLA. It wasn’t too late, he claimed. If I put in the work, I could be the next golf prodigy. Who knew, I could even become a golf legend! He said this with a peculiar kind of gusto, like an Amway enthusiast seeking new recruits. “Full-ride,” he repeated. “They even paid for her underwear.”
Back then, my father worked six days a week as an auto-body mechanic, but in his every free hour, one could find him at the driving range thwacking his way through a basket of rented balls. We did not live in the world of country clubs, dress codes, or polite applause. Still, my father adored golf on his own terms, hooting at the TV whenever Jack Nicklaus drained a putt, twinning Tiger Woods’s victorious air punch after a hole-in-one. I cannot recall a single instance my father partook in an actual game of golf, though.
Perhaps in me he glimpsed his own future: our unstoppable alliance on the course, a rhapsody of matching pastel polo tees, flickering flashbulbs, aces in every hole. But rather than inspire, his golf gifts merely confused me. My father didn’t typically perform bold gestures in the spirit of bonding. Our family joked about how he could never remember my age or birthday. He was not cruel, but absent-minded—the type of man who disappeared the day before I was born, such that my mother drove herself to the hospital while in labor. He materialized in time for my birth, so the story goes, but with no explanation.
Inadequacies like these I’d learned to attribute to his mystery. My father was born in pre-war Seoul, to a unified Korea—a notion so far from me now, as if he’d survived a myth, stepped out beyond the page, to enter the world I knew: Southern California suburbs, Happy Meals, Saturday morning cartoons. I never learned Korean, his native tongue, nor Spanish, which he also spoke fluently. He embodied some marvelously strange cross between Korean immigrant and LA “vato.” And though he spoke English, too, I suspect he grasped far less than what I’d assumed as a child, for we never managed to truly understand each other.
In lieu of conversation with my father, I extended the occasional gesture to demonstrate I cared. For instance, five Valentine’s Days in a row, I bought him a jumbo Hershey’s kiss, which he accepted with the same humdrum ceremony as a utility bill in the mail. I took great pleasure seeing him consume the whole thing, usually in one sitting—as if this simple, wordless exchange proved our capacity to appreciate each other, however rare or imperfect the act.
The only gifts my father ever gave me were the golf clubs, which I ignored with the frank and casual indifference of a bored child. Golf was his hobby, not mine, requiring yet another language he could speak that I couldn’t—a curious lingo concerning birdies, bogies, doglegs, with a course built of equally unusual anatomy: no grass but rather fringe/apron/frog hairs, then the clean, mowed expanse known as the fairway, and further beyond, the punitive bed of unkempt pasture known as “the rough,” from which balls could not be easily salvaged. The driving range, a much plainer terrain, lured my father away from home even on Christmas mornings. And while I wondered what about this sport enticed him so, I never learned to play. I graduated high school, moved across the country to New York, and there, our distance at last felt comfortably capacious.
Then my parents divorced. My father had been unfaithful to my mother, and had kept that explosive lie quiet until he couldn’t anymore. And since little glued me to him anyway, my father and I unstuck permanently with surprising ease. We experienced no finite goodbye, merely released each other into the gulf of our already tumid silence. Twelve years have passed since I’ve heard his voice. When we ceased to communicate, I imagine he accepted what I did: that reaching out felt mutually irresolute, like knocking on the door to an empty room.
Recently, I attempted to track down the mysterious golf scholarship recipient of free underwear lore. My search led me instead to the 1998 US Women’s Open in Kohler, Wisconsin. It just so happens that a year after my father gave me his golf prodigy speech, a young Korean woman had become the legend I couldn’t. On the eighteenth hole at Blackwolf Run, Se-Ri Pak’s drive shot rocketed beyond the fairway into a water hazard. Her chances looked bleak as she waded in ankle-deep, and swung. The ball miraculously landed back onto the green, one stroke from victory, clinching a record first LPGA Majors win for South Korea.
The moment is now memorialized in statue at the entrance to Gongju Stadium, and has inspired a new dynasty of Korean golfers, like Olympic-gold medalist Inbee Park and the ten other Korean women currently dominating the Top Twenty in LPGA rankings. These young golfers can each recall watching Se-Ri Pak’s milestone triumph, which originally broadcasted in South Korea at one o’clock in the morning to approximately eleven million viewers. I’ve seen the footage: After she sinks the winning shot, Se-Ri’s father, a squat, square-faced man not unlike my own father, cradles his daughter in his arms.
He too had handed Se-Ri a golf club when she was eleven years old. But where my father failed, Joon Chul Pak succeeded. As an ex-gangster, Mr. Pak embraced an unorthodox training regimen with Se-Ri from an early age. Each morning, she ran up and down fifteen flights of stairs to build her strength. For bravery, he forced her to sleep many nights alone at a graveyard. For stamina, she practiced in the cold until icicles formed in her hair.
My father had been a thug in his youth, too, robbing Seoul teahouses in pursuit of slapdash riches. But by the time I knew him, he’d transformed into a benign churchgoer who sang on Sundays in a Presbyterian choir. He couldn’t even shake me down for a home-cooked meal. One night, when he ordered me to make dinner, I refused. I remember how his neck stiffened and the kitchen countertop trembled beneath his fist. “I am the father!” he shouted. “You serve me!” His sudden outburst had frightened me, but I might have frightened him more: his too-insolent, too-American daughter.
Se-Ri, unlike me, obeyed her father so as not to disappoint him. She didn’t even enjoy golf initially. But as she once said in an interview at the peak of her game, “I wanted to make him proud. And then I began to love golf.”
It did not occur to me as a child I might ever disappoint my father. Part of this may be due to the fact that he never taught me a single thing about golf. The only time we visited the driving range together, matching club sets in tow, I was twelve years old. He began without prologue and teed up along the trim green grass.
At home, I’d seen him practice his golf stroke many times before, wiggling his hips, planting and re-planting his feet on the living room carpet. He’d draw back his invisible five-iron with slow, calculated precision, mounting tension palpable, like an arrow poised for release. Once he hit the invisible ball, he would watch it sail beyond the bounds of our kitchen, garden, driveway—a success in an imagined distance.
At the driving range, the club in his hands was real, and swing after swing he pelted each ball into the outlying reaches of the course. I couldn’t hit anything but the tiny wooden tee, which plunked each ball to my feet in feeble thuds. My father continued in a happy cadence, as if he’d come alone. I eventually abandoned the session altogether and took to washing our clubs in a nearby bucket instead, until the two of us left and never returned.
My father has not called or written me in over a decade, and I haven’t contacted him, either. For a good while, I tricked myself into believing there was a kind of empowerment in this loss, that he didn’t deserve to know who I’d grown up to become. I treated the ambiguousness of his departure like an unsolved case, as if he’d taken a walk into the woods and never returned. This was much more comforting than the alternative: that he lived in the same old town, resumed his same old life undisturbed without me.
But reminders of his existence have slowly resurfaced. For a few months, I heard his voice every time the prep cooks greeted each other at my old restaurant job ( Qué onda, wey? ) And this past Valentine’s Day, I spotted a pyramid of jumbo Hershey’s kisses on display at the drugstore, glimmering in their shiny, foil sheaths. I realized, too, that subtle but key details about my father had begun to vanish from my memory. How did his laugh sound again? Did it crescendo and then tumble down the scales like my mother’s? Or did it leave him breathless and silently shaking?
Then, one spring afternoon, I stumbled upon an article: After twenty illustrious years of professional golf, Se-Ri Pak had decided to retire. This got me thinking about those golf clubs again, and suddenly I found myself aboard a train headed for Douglaston, a Korean neighborhood in Queens. An hour later, I arrived at an outdoor driving range.
As I rented a club and a basket of balls, I hoped that by playing the part my father had always wanted, I might finally shake free some hidden truth about him—us—that before, I could not seem to reach. Hand-painted signs marked the wide, green field in fifty-meter increments, halting at 250, where an enormous net hung, cinching the greater distance. On my way to an empty stall, I passed a Korean girl about the age I’d been when I received my first set of clubs. Her mother stood in the stall beside her, expertly smacking ball after ball in confident rhythm. The girl’s tiny clubs, which resembled her mother’s in a matching canvas bag, sat idle, nearby. She preferred playing with the golf balls instead, arranging them into a lovely, purposeless pattern along an Astroturf mat.
I nearly gave up to join her after my first fruitless hour. Little had changed since my last visit to the driving range. I still couldn’t seem to hit any balls, more often hurtling my preferred target, the tee, into clumsy flight. Half dispirited, half rankled, I stopped—until the image of my father returned, of his hushed trance in our living room, the way he wiggled his hips, adjusted his feet, marked his swing. I followed through in that spirit, in his image, and finally struck the ball.
It flew, again and again. The basket of balls thinned. There were no icicles in my hair, but my body shivered as I sent the last ball sailing, and watched it disappear into the night.
The timbre of my father’s laugh might be fading, but I have since learned a few new facts to replenish what remains of him in my memory. Before becoming a mechanic, he worked as a pizzaiolo, a jeweler’s middleman, a swap meet suitcase merchant; he’d hawked Italian gold chains, traded commodities on the Pacific Stock Exchange, and, despite a complete lack of professional black belt training, taught classes in his own Tae Kwon Do studio. He’d spent his whole life trying to land the perfect shot, somewhere along that fairway, to escape his streak in the rough.
I think this is why he preferred the driving range to any actual game of golf. There, he could hit as many balls as he wanted with no need to consider where they landed. Every basket contained fresh chances, new starts. It must have been satisfying, sending each effort far into the open green world, never looking back. Perhaps this makes him a consummate optimist. Maybe he’d once hoped I could learn the game he loved, and somehow that could repair us. Or perhaps, still hopeful, he thinks of me, too—if only for that one day when I might reach across our great distance and knock again, to find the room he sits in no longer empty.