Some of the best golf instruction I received came from a Catholic Priest named Father George Reilly. Father George has presided over our communions and confirmations and weddings and – alas – now our funerals. He was also an avid and quite a good golfer who provided me with my earliest instructions in a myriad of life’s challenges, golf the greatest challenge of them all.
The contracts between my father and his best friend, Father George, could not be more pronounced. And they came into relief when Father George would come with us on our two week vacation to the Adirondacks each year. Father George had familial duties to the entire race, while my father, the good Catholic, had only 8 young children. My father also received a two weeks’ vacation, during which his abysmal golf game was testimony to a hardworking and busy life. Father George’s game was a testimony to, well, having a connection with the Big Man (or Woman) upstairs. He could drive, he could hit irons, and he could putt, and he had the coolest black, leather golf bag, which I secretly coveted.
Their friendship played out through the years when Catholic Church largely collapsed, under the weight of sexual scandals and a straying of the flock toward the allure of scientific explanations for the universe, and our . . hmmm. .. Let’s say widening moral landscape. Through all this, Father George was true to his mission. For not only our family, he presided over the momentous occasions of many lives with a calm and spiritual purpose. He wasn’t a holy roller. He was practical and created a space where we were joined by love, of family and each other and . . . if the calling took us. .. to exploring our connection to the god through the ancient club and ball game – golf.
There are a lot of memories about Father George on the golf course, but three stand out: The first comes from a grammar school outing at Paramus Country Club: He had given us instruction on how to bring the club back behind our heads. I was playing with a whippet of a boy – Tommy Glenn. We had waited for Father George to get to the green ahead of us. In my boy’s memory, we were a good 400 yards from the whole, but it was more likely 25. The green was elevated and a blind shot. In fact, Father George disappeared behind a berm, and so – unschooled in the finer etiquette of golf – I let fly and hit one: A ball in good flight, high and tight to the flag, and landing center of the surface. A moment later, Father George’s smiling face appeared. He stared back at his charges and asked, delightedly, “Who hit that?” I think now that he was delighted that someone had listened to him, as – as we don’t have to look far to see– the moral teachings of the church often go unheeded. We had listened and that was good.
The second memory is more painful. In the Adirondacks we played at a burnt patch of a course called Green Mansions, where my father would take all of his 5 young boys and 3 young girls to golf. Again, my father worked for the half pay captain (a church) and while he would have liked to be and deserved to be at The stately Sagamore, a few miles down the road, we sinners were relegated to the more modest Green Mansion.
At one tee, I was flailing away at the sphere, but my father stepped in just as I was about to take another whack, and my back swing caught him in the forehead. A fist of persimmon met solid bone. My father never cursed, or very rarely, and held his tongue though I had clearly stung him. Father George stopped forward and said, “Mark, you’re chopping wood. Golf is not chopping wood. Take the backup back slowly and swing as if you’re a pendulum . . . of a clock.” He then turned and cared for my father, brushing the ball on my father’s forehead and making sure he would make it through the round. This memory is very vivid because it is such a painful demonstration of my father’s patience and discipline, as well as Father George’s ability to care. As for me, I still occasionally chop wood.
The last memory I’ll mention is about etiquette. We were playing a round, my father and George and my brothers and sisters, when a single player came by. He did not ask to play through, and gave no indication of his plans, but rifled a shot right at our party, hitting Father George’s gorgeous black bag with his ball, which ricocheted off the fairway. We were all stunned to silence. But when this player reached us, he and Father George exchanged heated words. He had put us in danger, hadn’t done the right thing. I recall the man’s clinching, ungrateful face. He simply picked up his ball and walked on. No apologies, nothing. In the clubhouse over sassafras sodas, we all discussed this matter at length. That awful man had not only put us in danger, but left a sour taste in our mouths about our round.
As has been written before, golf is not only about being outside in the woods and having a ‘good walk ruined.’ The teachings of golf are many and inexhaustible: On the course and beyond, Father George taught us to listen, to be grateful for our parent’s sacrifices, and to pay heed to etiquette, to say something when someone does something egregious. I am more a student of golf than the church at this point. In some ways, for some hours each week, golf is life, played out of the center of my being’s desire to improve. Michael Murphy’s teaching in Golf in the Kingdom are more to my liking than the bible: “Life is tough, then you die. The sooner you accept this and move on with your life, the better off you’ll be”
But there other ways of seeing. At my father’s funeral, Father George presided, and his words about my father and about the faith still ring in my ears: He recalled my father’s attempts to be all things to all people and said, “Sometimes he achieved that.” As to whether he would see his dear friend again, Father George said, “That is the mystery of our faith.”
The lessons I received from Father George are still with me when I take to the tee box and again try to better my life and my game. In fact, at times, Father George could parallel the teachings of Murphy’s encounter with the spirit world in Golf in the Kingdom: “Then he began to speak. “Golf recapitulates evolution,” he said in a melodious voice, “it is a microcosm of the world, a projection of all our hopes and fears.” Father George embodied the hopes and dreams of many of us in our community. And my faithfulness to golf I hope he would see as my prayer that the mystery of faith, that life can come from where it has ceased to exist, is for real.