Guys and Dads

An enduring image of Jack Nicklaus’s improbable Masters victory in 1986 was his embrace of his son, Jack II, on the final hole of the tournament. Jack II had served as his caddy for the tournament and watched as the Golden Bear fired a 30 on the back nine to surpass Greg Norman and Seve Ballesteros to capture his 6th green jacket. As they walked arm-in-arm to the scorer’s hut, all he could muster was, “That was awesome, Dad.” While I couldn’t hear him say that at the time, the visuals packed an emotional wallop, and I definitely felt a bit misty as I watched this scene.

The father/son dynamic in the game of golf is a major part of its history and romance, going all the way back to Old and Young Tom Morris of St Andrews. During the 1860’s and 1870’s, the two of them captured the Open Championship four times each.

Besides his prowess on the course, Old Tom left his mark as a course designer, building links courses throughout Scotland, England and Ireland. And while the Old Course in St Andrews claims no original designer, it was he who was instrumental in crafting the course into its current look by building new greens on the 1st and 18th holes and creating the huge double greens that are its distinguishing feature. The location of his home and shop remains on the street (named after him) that parallels the 18th fairway.

Young Tom (“Tommy”) was a golfing prodigy, winning the Open for the first time at the age of 17. His skills for the times were ungodly; he had the ability to hook or face the ball on demand, as well as to make it spin and stop on the green using a “rut-iron” (carriage tracks being a common hazard at the time), skills that were unheard of in his day. He was also a deadly putter.

Tommy and his father made for a formidable team; they played high stakes challenge matches against the best golfers in Scotland. Their biggest rivals were the Park brothers, Willie and Mungo, who hailed from the East Lothian town of Musselburgh and were both eventual Open champions in their own right.

It was after one such match against the Parks in North Berwick that Tommy received a telegram stating that his pregnant wife had taken ill during delivery; he and Old Tom caught the earliest ferry that they could to make their way back across the Firth of Forth to return to St Andrews. By the time they reached their destination, both wife and infant has passed away.

Four months later, Tommy would join them, the victim of a pulmonary aneurism. He was 24 years old.

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Milt and Brian Robin will likely never be confused with Old and Young Tom Morris, but their bond resulting from their love of golf remains strong, even in the aftermath of Milt’s passing. Brian, a sports marketing executive base in Los Angeles, talks a lot about his father, Milt, who, it is safe to say, could best be described as “colorful.” For example, Brian routinely refers to his dad as “The Stud Puppet,” a sobriquet foisted upon him by one of Brian’s friends who marveled at Milt’s prowess with the ladies.

On weekend mornings, Milt would pack up the then-young Brian, bring him to the course and have him ride in his cart as he played rounds with his friends. Brian’s recollection of those days was, “I was curled up in a ball on the seat, complaining about how cold it was” (NOTE: As this was taking place in Southern California, “cold” is a relative term).

When Brian was about five years old, his mother passed away from complications caused by a brain tumor. Soon afterwards, Milt met the widowed wife of an old friend and remarried – only to learn shortly after their wedding that she had colon cancer. She, too, died by the time Brian was eight.

At that point, Milt put down his clubs and stayed away from the game, until one day when Brian, now in college, called and asked him if he wanted to play. Brian had been bit by the golf bug.

This begat a long-running series of rounds involving father and son, largely played out on an executive course called Colton Golf Club, with the occasional foray to Palm Springs and other SoCal golf destinations. Brian marveled at Milt’s putting (“I could beat him to the green, but he would always catch up to me with that damned putter”), while Milt would offer encouragement and gentle admonishment when Brian’s game went south:

Milt: Do you play this game for a living?

Brian: No.

Milt: Then why are you getting angry?

Milt died two years ago at the age of 99. He was 91 when he played his last round with Brian, but would ride in the cart with him after he had stopped playing, continuing to consult with Brian over club selection and how to manage the course.

One day, the topic of Pebble Beach came up. It turns out that Milt had played there before Brian was born.

“You know, Brian, I birdied a par 3 there. A short one.”

“Hmmm – the 7th hole, Dad?”

“Yeah, I think so. The 7th.”

Brian turned 50 this year, and gifted himself a round at Pebble Beach. In his bag that day was a Tommy Armour 845 lob wedge, a club that had belonged to Milt (“I was visiting him and found it in his bag. I was playing a media day at Riviera the next day and knew I’d need this for that course, with all the bunkers. I asked him if I could borrow it and he said ‘Take it.’ I had it in my bag ever since”).

Brian, his caddy and the other players with whom he was paired arrived at the 7th. He pulled the Stud Puppet’s lob wedge out of his bag, teed it up, and knocked his shot about 12 feet away from his hole.

He was the only person out of his foursome to hit the green; he waited anxiously as the others hit their chips and/or pitches until it was his turn to putt. And . . .

“You know,” he told me, “that putt never left the line, Gary. Never left the line. And I almost lost it right there. I could just see The Stud Puppet somewhere in a bar, holding court and telling his friends about how he and I both birdied the same hole at Pebble Beach. That was his birthday present to me.”

One that will last for a lot of birthdays, no doubt.

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