My father and namesake, Harold G. Phillips Jr., passed away Saturday, Aug. 27, after a 15-month battle with lymphoma, and so I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about him this past week. Most of this bittersweet rumination has nothing to do with golf, but some of it surely does. He’s the guy who introduced me to the game, taught me the game, claimed to do most of his “fathering” on the golf course, and took great satisfaction in the fact that I once played the game well and have ended up making my living, to a certain extent, writing about it.
Golf differs from most sporting and recreational pursuits for its heavy reliance on venue. Unlike those playing grounds accommodating tennis, baseball, soccer, football or whatnot, golf courses are all unique and, like a fragrance stuck in the deep recesses of the mind, they summon things that other stimuli cannot. I can’t possibly remember each round I played with my dad, but if I think about where we played, the memories — some fully formed, some mere bits and pieces — come flooding back. Indeed, I can begin to appreciate and readily recall, in quite extraordinary detail, the long coincidental relationship he and I had on courses stretching from the sands and forests of New England and the Northeast, to islands in the Caribbean, to the Mull of Kintyre and Ring of Kerry. Here are a few that come to mind:
• Powderhorn GC, Lexington, Mass.: This joint is where I started out in the game, at my father’s side. I was 8 or 9, and we had just moved to nearby Wellesley from northern New Jersey. Powderhorn was a par-3 course, but that unfairly belittles it. There were 18 holes and while some were no more than 100 yards, others measured well over 200 and none were flat, rinky-dink or boring. I remember my dad and his game seemed sort of god-like back then, in that I played a lot of these holes like par-4s and -5s and there wasn’t a single hole he couldn’t “reach”. Powder Horn stood us in good stead for at least two years, and I remember playing there with my grandmother, a steadfast player in her own right (for some seven decades). I recall that I once pitched a mighty fit here after butchering the uphill 11th hole. There were tears. I recall her being sort of perturbed at my behavior but my dad, as per usual, never was… We picked up games with all sorts of people at Powderhorn — another lesson learned early: that one always invites people to join him, even when one might rather not. Made my first-ever birdie on the 17th hole there, a 130-yarder over water. We were playing with a fellow named Mr. Jolly; when that ball dove into the cup, he was nearly as excited as we were. Powderhorn is gone now, converted to a condo development in the early 1980s, which is a shame because I’ve often wanted to go back — and play it like a god.
• Stow Acres CC, Stow, Mass.: We were public golf vagabonds, my dad and I, never belonging to a private club, at least in these early days. We played all over Eastern Massachusetts at places like Juniper Hill, Sandy Burr, South Natick CC and Saddle Hill. South Natick was just nine and survives today as a mere driving range surrounded by housing; Saddle Hill has since gone private and goes by the name of Hopkinton CC. But when we wanted to play somewhere truly fine, we ventured 45 minutes north to Stow Acres, home to a pair of really fun Geoffrey Cornish/Bill Robinson designs. They didn’t take tee times and I recall hanging around that clubhouse, sometimes for an hour or more, before finally going off. From the time I started playing until the time he turned 55, some 20 years, my dad played off anything from 7 to 10. A good player and very steady; did nothing super well but nothing at all poorly. One day at Stow North, when I was 14 or so, he went out in 33. I self-destructed at some point on the back nine, went into a funk, but managed to pull myself out of The Dark Place about the 17th hole, at which point I consulted the scorecard. “Hey dad: Par 18 and you shoot 72!”
“I know!” he shot back, clearly wishing I had continued to pout and leave him alone with his demons. He made that par and I’m pretty sure it was his best round ever, though I know he shot 73 in competition a couple times during high school matches at Fort Monmouth CC (I’ve seen the newspaper clippings). He had a great story about the one year he played collegiately, at Lehigh University. He scrabbled his way onto the varsity as the 8th and last man for a match at Penn State, apparently, and managed to put together a 79. The guy dropped 71 on him. “The 8th guy! And it could have been 69!” he would later explain, still amazed that there were seven Nittany Lions better than that. Thereafter my dad resolved to concentrate on his studies.
• Pleasant Valley CC, Sutton, Mass.: My dad and his business partner, Harvey Howell, owned a polystyrene manufacturing operation south of Worcester, Mass., and they commuted an hour each way from Wellesley and neighboring Dover, every day, my whole growing up. There wasn’t much great golf to be played out that way, not back then. But there was Pleasant Valley, which for years hosted one of only two PGA Tour stops in New England (the other was The Greater Hartford Open, now The Travelers; PV hosted its final Tour event in 1998). So, while it was no design masterpiece, Pleasant Valley was sort of a big deal club among Massholes, and because my dad was a local business guy of some standing, he could arrange games for us there. He arranged a lesson for me there, too, the only formal one I ever had as a kid; the teacher was Rick Karbowski, quite a good player out on satellite tours back in the early ‘80s… I played a match there once in college, vs. Assumption College. I was playing no. 1 for Wesleyan that day and drew a guy named Frank Vana, who would go on to win a bunch of Mass. Amateurs. We were dead even on the 12th or 13th hole when I spied my dad walking along the fairway; he had snuck away from the office, which was just a few miles down the road. I remember being pleased he was there, though I promptly doubled the next hole and bogeyed two more. My dad had played enough golf with me to know what sort of volcanic response was coming. He got out of there pretty fast.
I had all sorts of blow-ups like this as a kid, as a young adult… okay, as a full-on grown-up, too. My dad’s temperament, on and off the golf course, is really nothing like mine. A very mellow dude, he was. The worst he would ever say after botching some shot was, “Oh, Hal…” He was surely embarrassed sometimes by my behavior but he never really called me on it, beyond a quiet-but-stern, “That’s enough now.” When I heard that, it was time to pull myself together.
• Pine Valley GC, Clementon, N.J.: When one serves on any sort of course-rating panel, the inevitable question is whether one has played Pine Valley. Thanks to my dad, I’ve played it twice, both during my college days. He had business contacts at Dupont, and whoever it was (Hugh something?) invited us down during the fall of my freshman and sophomore years. They have a bet there, at PVCC, as you readers may know, that guests can’t shoot within 10 shots of their handicaps. I never came close to cashing in. My dad won that bet twice. In his day, he could shoot 84-85 pretty much anywhere. This was pre-cell phone, of course, and it would’ve been quite bourgeois to bring a camera, so no pictures exist to mark
our visits. But I do have the paper placemat (a nice map of the layout) from our luncheon, which I framed and have hanging in my office. One of the years we played Pine Valley, it must have been the first, we followed up the round there with another just a few miles west, in the Philly suburbs, at Merion. This was only a year or so after David Graham’s win there at the 1981 U.S. Open. My dad closed me out on the 16th hole, the famous Quarry hole, where I four-putted, snapped my putter in two and left it in the little waste-basket below the ball-washer on 17 tee. I parred in, putting out with my 2-iron. We were not invited back… However, the Merion legacy proved long-lasting: My dad picked up a commemorative U.S. Open hat there, and he would wear it for years on golf courses and soccer sidelines far and wide. The entire time I knew him, my dad had a head of hair not unlike Albert Einstein’s. And so he always wore a hat on the golf course or anywhere the wind might make for unreasonable coiffure-maintenance. He rarely wore baseball caps, always some sort of bucket hat with the brim turned down on all sides. Before he procured the Merion model, he had a green one that he wore for years. I dabbled with it for a time. Wish I knew where that thing was… In later years he went to the wide-brimmed straw model which my mother, half in jest, claimed made him look like a fruit vendor.
• Old Orchard CC, Red Bank, N.J.: This was the course my dad grew up on, where he learned the game at the knee of the pro there, George Sullivan. My grandparents would play with my dad, along with me, and they’d often marvel that he still had “that same, smooth George Sullivan swing.” It was indeed smooth, quite effortless. He never, ever overswung (unlike some of us). Of course, my dad also learned the game from his own father, my grandfather, Harold Phillips Sr., in his prime a high single-digit player in his own right,
a lefty who had a penchant for aces. Poppy would post 5 or 6 over the course of his days, at least two while he lived at Shadow Lake Village, a N.J. retirement community that boasted a par-3 course. I remember going to visit there as a lad, by which time Pop had become a bit dotty. He was bragging to me on a hole-in-one he’d just made and I looked over at Gram with circumspection — “No, it’s true,” she exclaimed. “He had another one!”… In any case, one time during the late 1980s, my dad and I went back over to Old Orchard; it had been decades and he really got a kick out of going round there again. He had caddied there, too. Apparently there were several gangland figures whose bags he toted in the 1940s and 50s. Good stories were related that day. Plus I shot 76 and totally torched the Old Man on his own turf… I would love to have gotten him back down to the Jersey Shore in later years to play Hollywood GC in Deal, which is supposed to be a great old Dick Wilson design, recently restored, and where Pop had been a member in the 1930s. Thereafter we’d have scooted west across the Pennsylvania border, on Route 22, to play Saucon Valley, Lehigh’s home club, where my dad hadn’t played since college. But we never did find the time. File that one under “Regrets”.
• Nehoiden GC, Wellesley, Mass.: This is the 9-hole, private club across the street from which my family lived for 20-odd years. It’s owned by Wellesley College and while it’s nothing stupendous from a design standpoint, it was notorious in the 1970s and ‘80s for having a 10- or 15-year waiting list. Why? Membership was open to college faculty and staff, to folks who worked for the Town of Wellesley, and it was cheap compared to the swanky clubs all around us (Wellesley CC, Woodland GC, Weston GC, Dedham Golf & Polo, Brae Burn CC). So, my dad didn’t gain membership at Nehoiden, and didn’t really play the course at all, for the first several years we lived literally across the street from the 8th green. However, I played the course all the time: My friends and I would sneak onto Nehoiden constantly, in addition to playing in the sprinklers there on hot summer nights, looking for golf balls, sledding, playing hockey on the 7th fairway, and generally treating the place like our own personal playground which, from sundown to sun-up half the year, and 24/7 the rest of the year, it was. Oddly, when my dad did become a member, in 1980 or so, he
started playing a golf course that he hardly knew but his sons knew intimately.
My dad was sort of shy socially and by that I mean he didn’t seek out social situations. Once in them, however, he was famously genial, almost courtly (a quality his NOLA-bred father exhibited in spades). So it’s no surprise that he became an active and, I think, extremely well liked figure in club activities across the street. He served on committees and enjoyed regular games with different sets of guys; he was a sought-after partner in the various scotch foursome events — because he was courtly, because he would never make a woman or any lesser player feel badly about being lesser, and because he played off 7. Though I had a big head start on him, the universe of our shared experiences at Nehoiden would prove vast. We were together there the first time I broke 80; the time he pegged that car crossing the 9th fairway; the time I aced the 4th hole (my only hole-in-one; the poor man never did post one); the many times one of us would hit what appeared to be a perfect, blind approach on 6 only to see the ball bound back into view after hitting the unforgiving pavement on Route 16; and the time he came closest to winning the club championship — finishing second, with me on the bag for the final round… He let his membership lapse over this past winter, as he didn’t think he’d be well enough to play. My brother and I called the powers-that-be in June, seeing if we could arrange what had become our regular Father’s Day game. They bent over backwards to make that happen, even hooked him up with a riding cart (which are banned at Nehoiden), something for which we’re all eternally grateful. It was the last time he set foot on the property.
• Western Gailes, Ayrshire, Scotland: For all his travels, my dad was 60 or so before he ever played any golf in the U.K. My brother Matthew and I sorted that, in 1998, when we arranged a mini-tour of Scotland’s west country: Gleneagles, Turnberry and Machrihanish. However, our very first game took place at Western Gailes, and it stands out for me because 1) it really was an eye-opener for the man, walking and playing amidst the dunes as opposed to watching them on TV during the British Open; and 2) my dad, for all his wonderful traits, was one of the slowest men on earth. I’m not talking a slow golfer,
which, to be fair, he surely was. Physically, he did everything slowly and deliberately. This just naturally spilled over into his golf game: always the last one to his ball; never altering his pre-swing routine or undertaking it before it was his turn to play (partly because he was so frequently the last one to his ball); always coming over to look for your ball, but often disappearing into the woods/rough and having to be coaxed out. Surrounded by Scots, his game proved positively glacial. We had prepped him on this, telling him that we had to keep the pace good, that there would be precious few yardage markers, and, of course, no riding carts. I remember walking up the first fairway at Western Gailes and there was my dad, behind me, standing over the ball, looking around: “What do you think I’ve got from here?” Dad, there are no markers; eye it and hit it. Of course, he continued to ask this same question over and over during the trip, never registering the new reality. During some later round, when I was just finished admonishing him to move his ass — and to stop asking me where the 150 was — I turned to my brother and said, “You know what? I sound just like mom.”
• Lahinch GC, County Clare, Ireland: In retrospect, the timing on this trip couldn’t have been much better. In 2008 my dad was 71 and, so far as we knew, in pretty good nick. But even in fair health he’d arrived at the stage of life where walking four rounds in 4 days was too much. And little did we know that in less than three years, he’d be gone. So, this trip to Ireland really was a godsend and we made the most of it (see video capsule from that trip below). The round at Lahinch was our first, the one we played fresh off the plane, in brilliant sunshine and 70-degree weather, with rented clubs (my brother’s had been misplaced by the airline), around one of the peerless links on God’s green earth. It’s not fair to single out Lahinch at the expense of our rounds at Doonbeg, Ballybunion and Tralee; they were lovely all three and we even wangled a cart for dad at the latter. Indeed, the day before he had been able to walk only 14 holes of Round III, at Ballybunion. We met him that day back at the clubhouse where he was chatting up a group of fellow Americans in the bar, pint in hand, grinning ear to ear. “This Guinness is really pretty good,” he said. My God, Dad: How old are you? You’re just figuring this out? Not much of a drinker, my dad.
I remember asking him once — when I was quite grown-up, working in the golf business, and ever more curious about courses, design and travel — exactly where he had played his golf when we’d all lived in northern New Jersey. This would have been the early 1970s, before we moved to Greater Boston, when he was still in his golfing prime (30-35 years old) but when I, his eldest son, was too young to have played with him.
“Oh, I didn’t play much of anywhere really.”
What do you mean?
“Well, I had a wife and kids and a job. I didn’t play much at all until you were old enough to play with me.”