By Stephen Woolworth
Growing up I used to watch my mom hit golf balls off the hill behind our house. She would bring out a worn blue leather bag half full of old balls and start hitting one after another, usually with a seven or eight-iron. After each shot she would lean over and pull the next ball into position with the club face without ever moving from her stance. Ball after ball seemed to sail straight and true with only the occasional errant shot earning a muffled laugh, dejected sigh and, “oh, c’mon Elaine.”
When the balls were gone, she would take the yellow ball shagger and, followed by our three dogs, walk down to pick up the little white dots scattered on the field below. I used to delight in watching her, although I couldn’t tell you why exactly. Perhaps it was just the laziness of late summer afternoons or laughing at the geese that scurried away in surprise when a ball landed nearby. Looking back, I’d like to think it was because I got to watch Mom do something she privately enjoyed. While I was growing up she never played with others but I knew she once had, long before I was born.
A Topflight Lady Golfer
My mother was well known throughout the golf world in the mid-1950s even though she never toured nationally or competed much outside Southern New England. In 1956 her profile was boosted significantly when at 24 years of age she won the Women’s Eastern Amateur Championship by four strokes and shortly thereafter was featured in Sports Illustrated as one of the “topflight young lady golfers” in the country with “powerful driving and fine iron play.” She might still be known today had she not walked away from the sport less than two years later to have and raise children.
I remember golf as a kind of decorative backdrop in our home, an aesthetic more than an actual way of life. Trophies on shelves, pictures of golf outings on the walls, porcelain ashtrays and tile tables featuring painted images of her backswing; bags of initialized golf tees and various golf themed knickknacks were scattered throughout our house. On summer Sunday evenings golf was often on the small kitchen television when she cooked. Amidst debates about who would make a run on the back nine my mother always offered up her choice but typically qualified it with a backup or two, knowing golf could be a game of chance determined by a single unlucky bounce or fortunate lie. More often than not she called it correctly even when the commentators saw it differently.
And about those commentators. It seemed like she knew them all. NBC fixture Bob Goalby, the winner of the controversial 1968 Masters, had once been a regular playing partner. ABC’s Dave Marr, the winner of the 1965 PGA championship, had given her his putter after many rounds at Winged Foot when he was an assistant pro to 1948 Master’s winner Claude Harmon, her coach and golf mentor. Mom greatly admired Harmon and considered him the definitive authority on the game. Many years later when Tiger Woods took the golf world by storm winning eight of his 14 major tournaments under the tutelage of Claude’s son, Mom used to reminisce about “little Butch” hanging around the range while his father worked.
Listening to my mother analyze golf was like watching her dab her toe in the waters of her former life. She liked to know it was still there but harbored no secret desire to dive back in.
My mother’s estrangement from golf didn’t start to bother me until I reached 13 or 14 years of age. By then I had followed one of my brothers onto the course and began to take to it, even though I showed no particular talent for the game. We played mostly with our father, who had separated from my mother, and late afternoon rounds became a way of spending time with him.
Coaxing Mom onto the course was an entirely different matter. I remember her walking alongside me once, because she showed no interest in teeing up herself. Other times she would play an occasional hole but would take mulligan after mulligan if the result was not to her liking. She never kept score but was quick to ensure I followed proper protocol for a penalty drop or allocated the correct number of strokes after I sent my drive over into the neighboring town. Even being afforded mere glimpses, it was obvious how good she was, or had once been, but her utter lack of interest was maddening to me as I battled continuously with the disappointment and disgust that accompanied the irritatingly high scores of a developing teen-age golf game.
When my swing had completely come off the rails, she would remind me of how her first instructor had told her to synchronize the rhythm of her swing to the name Louise Suggs. “Remember,” she would explain, “L-o-u-i-s-e,” as she slowly motioned the backswing with her right arm, “S-u-g-g-s,” as she followed through.
At one time Louise Suggs was the most well-known female golfer in the United States. One of the founders of the LPGA, she won 58 professional tournaments, including 11 major championships. When she motioned the follow through accompanied by “S-u-g-g-s,” I always laughed because to me it sounded like “s-u-c-k-s.” I still kind of wonder about it.
These memories of my mother’s private connection with –- but public estrangement to — the game of golf would be forever altered a few years later when the doors of time unexpectedly opened and I stepped back with her into the world I had only heard about in stories.
The Return to Wee Burn
I was 16 in the summer of 1986 when I played with my friend John for the first time. The symbolism of our pairing wasn’t lost on us because John’s grandmother, Barbara Montgelas, was a perennial runner up to my mother in numerous club championships.
When my parents moved from New York City to New Canaan, Connecticut in the early 1950s, they joined the Wee Burn Country Club in nearby Darien. Named by Andrew Carnegie, Wee Burn was not only one of the first golf clubs in the United States, but also one of the more renowned courses of the first half of the Twentieth Century. In its first few decades three-time Masters Winner Jimmy Demaret, 30-time PGA tour winner Harry Cooper and 11-time tour winner Bob Goalby all served (among other notables) as club pros. Put simply, Wee Burn was intricately woven into the fabric of early-to-mid-Twentieth Century American golf.
Designed by Devereux Emmet, the pioneering golf architect who laid out many of the initial New England club courses, Wee Burn would go on to play host to Connecticut Opens and three US Women’s National Amateur Championships. In the second of Wee Burn’s national amateurs, in 1958, my mother shocked the international golf world when she upset tournament favorite, 10-time Irish national champion and former British national champion Philomena Garvey, in the first round. Earlier that same year Garvey created quite a stir when she withdrew from the biennial Curtis Cup team (Britain and Ireland) to protest the exclusion of the Irish flag from the team emblem, which was added two years later.
Down by three strokes to Garvey with four holes to play, Mom fought back and sank a six-footer on the 18th to send the match into extra holes. She won on the second hole after Garvey went wide with her drive. So memorable was this upset that 30 years later while visiting Ireland Mom unassumingly walked into the pro shop at the Old Head course in Kinsale, when an old-timer looked up from behind the counter and remarked for all to hear, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph if it’s not Toni Woolworth!”
As it turned out, Mom would go on to lose in the fourth round of the national championship that year (amidst a field of 195 golfers) to Eastern Canadian title holder Rosemary Nuendorf, as Washington State’s Ann Quast defeated defending champion JoAnne Gunderson in the semis and then former champion Barbara Romack 3-2 in the final round. Gunderson would later go on to become JoAnne Carner, winner of 43 LPGA tournaments, including two US Opens.
National championship notwithstanding, Mom owned the course at Wee Burn. She won the club championship for five consecutive years from 1952-1956 before deciding not to compete so others could have a chance. A three-time champion herself, some thought Barbara and Mom rivals. However, Barbara was a good 10 years older and their matches were never that close. They also had strong affection for one another, as indicated by Barbara asking Mom to serve as godmother to her daughter Michelle, my friend John’s mother. They even paired in tournaments, once highlighted by the New York Times when they won the Westchester-Fairfield Golf Association’s 36 hole best-ball tournament at nearby Apawamis in Rye, New York.
After playing together earlier that year, John and I hatched a plan to coax them into a mother/son versus grandmother/grandson challenge match. “Oh, that would be fun,” said Barbara when we presented her with the idea. “Let’s do it at Wee Burn, it would be so great to see your mother again.”
I had never played the legendary links at Wee Burn and so brimming with excitement I approached Mom with the idea, now an invitation. But to my chagrin, she was mortified at the mere thought of it.
In retrospect I probably should have known. My parents’ difficult divorce was moving forward, which textured her life with an enduring sadness. She had pulled back on her public life and wanted no part of the gossip and rumors that permeated the status conscious community we grew up in. The once fierce competitor now devoted her time to close friends, going to church, cooking at a local soup kitchen and launching a women’s clothing store. Returning to Wee Burn, considered at that time to be one of the “10 stuffiest” clubs by a major golf magazine, was therefore not high on her list.
Despite her adamant refusal, I persisted, my disappointment visible. She gave off pained looks and contorted expressions as she considered it but I was impervious to her reasons for not wanting to play. Rarely had I ever stated my wish to do something more strongly. A few days later, amid a flurry of qualifiers about how she had no interest in keeping score and this should just be a casual outing among old friends, she eventually relented. A date was set.
“Are We Having Fun Yet?”
When we pulled into the Wee Burn parking lot and approached the clubhouse with its distinctive Spanish tile roof, Mom could not conceal her dread. After warm greetings, my mother, still looking for an exit strategy, asked, “couldn’t we just have lunch and call it a day?” Thinking she was joking, Barbara replied with “oh, this will be fun” and we headed toward the terrace overlooking the course for a light lunch. At one point I remember turning to John and nervously laughing. Not only was there no one else our age around, but our disposition leaned far more toward Caddyshack than Wee Burn.
After lunch we headed to the practice range, which my mother insisted upon. But once there, things headed south quickly. I knew that Mom hadn’t held a club all year, her blue leather bag of balls long discarded and dust covered. However, where she had always made it look easy in the past she was suddenly flubbing balls, one after another. She had some nice shots here and there but way too many were sent dribbling into the grass accompanied by sighs and “oh, c’mon Elaine.” She seemed unsteady and on edge. Barbara noticed too and could not conceal her surprise. At one point my mother turned to me and irritatingly asked, “Gee Steve, are we having fun yet?”
This was not how I had scripted the day and it was about to get a lot worse.
A Drive Through Time
The first hole at Wee Burn is a 415-yard slight dog-leg to the left with a wide fairway that slopes left to right. There is no reason to hold back or play it safe. Looking down the hole I felt a solid drive was all that was needed to set up a straightforward approach to the green.
But then it happened. As we waited for the foursome in front of us to hit their second shots, word had gotten out. I noticed diners on the terrace get up from their tables, wipe their mouths and head for the stairs leading to the tee. The pro shop emptied. It was as if someone pulled the fire alarm in the locker rooms. I even saw some people walking toward us from the parking lot. The quickly gathering crowd was in some places two-to-three people deep behind the white tees where John and I nervously took practice swings.
I felt nauseous not to mention devastated at this turn of events. How could I have done this to her? How could I have put her in this situation? I thought to myself. Of course, she must have known something like this could happen but not wanting to disappoint me, she came anyway.
John teed up first. He was a big guy, already over six feet, and he approached his ball with confidence. He hit it hard only to have it hook sharply deep into the rough under the trees obscuring his line to the green. I followed, my hands so sweaty I could barely grip the club. Two awkward practice swings and I stepped up to take my medicine. It was a thunderous slap, more up than out, floating at the most 60 yards, just inching onto the right front fairway. I immediately turned my back to the crowd, frozen in disappointment and disbelief.
From the women’s tee Barbara led off swift and sure — a solid drive for a woman her age, about 175-yards down the center of the fairway. After all these years her game remained intact and in form.
As Barbara walked back to her bag my mother approached the tee. At 55 years of age she had retained her athletic figure due to her daily exercise regimen. She still looked the part. But I could not imagine what she must have been feeling inside. I wondered if she was thinking about Louise. “She sucks, Mom!” I wanted to yell out to lend support in some small way.
My mouth had long gone dry as I contemplated whether I had set her up to be golf’s equivalent of the mighty Casey of the Mudville Nine. Surely in the crowd of onlookers lurked those who would snicker at an epic flub, perhaps finding humor in the day Toni Woolworth returned to mow the grass on the first hole.
In the end, however, it proved foolish even to consider some salivating hyena might feast on such a day. For in the next moment, amidst the thick humidity and mesmerizing hum of Cicadas, I saw what up until then I had only imagined from pictures, trophies and private wonderings.
I saw her.
I saw all that was her — fire ignited — iron sharpened and resolute — poetry in motion.
After her final practice swing, she walked up and stood over the ball. Her feet shifted in her shoes as she settled in her stance. Her hands closed around the grip and then tightened. The club started slowly backward and then lifted as her weight shifted, her trademark locked left leg stiffened, just like in the pictures. With her backswing completed, her head remained still, eyes laser-like targeting the ball and left tricep perfectly parallel to the ground. Like a pressurized coil unleashing, her body snapped forcefully, driving her hips forward through the ball. It rocketed off the clubface sailing upward and outward, hundreds of yards down the middle of the fairway — straight, long, perfect.
She didn’t even watch her ball come to a stop before she reached down and picked up her tee. Then she turned and walked back and put her club in the bag. She grabbed her hand cart and walked toward her ball without ever once looking back.
The weight I was suffering under immediately lifted. I turned and faced the crowd as I reached to pick up my bag. My humiliation now transformed into a stuck out chest, a head held high, and an exaggerated teenage swagger meant to communicate, “I may not be much but you see that woman right there? That’s MY MOTHER!”
Basketball coach John Wooden once observed that character is what you do when no one is watching. I’ve always liked that notion because it defines us for ourselves and somehow cuts right to the heart of the matter. But I’d like to think Coach Wooden would also agree that character can be revealed by what you do in front of others and for others. When I think back on that day, and on that moment on the first tee, I realized what I saw and felt was not just the presence of a talented athlete rising up to meet the challenge in front of her but character personified in a mother who, above all, just really loved her son.
Mom passed away unexpectedly last year. Watching the final nine holes of major championships just hasn’t been the same without our customary exchange of predictions. Even in her eighties she still, more often than not, called them correctly.