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Wednesday, 09 December 2009 15:13

Of golf, relationships and life

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A Son of the Game: A Story of Golf, Going Home, and Sharing Life’s Lessons by James Dodson. Algonquin Books, 2009.

The way we lead our days, wrote Hollins graduate Annie Dillard, is the way we lead our lives. The northern golf season was history, and sudden endings and unexpected paths seemed to be everywhere I turned that week.”

The above quotation is from James Dodson’s A Son of the Game: A Story of Golf, Going Home, and Sharing Life’s Lessons (Algonquin Books, ISBN 13-978-1-56512-506-3, 2009, $24.95). These words sum up both Dodson’s life and his book, for his memoir of his golfing life, which is also an account of his return to North Carolina and to the Sandhills, is indeed a tale of sudden endings and unexpected paths.

Dodson, who has written six other books on golf, including the highly acclaimed Ben Hogan: An American Life, and who for many years wrote an award-winning column for Golf Magazine, found himself in the spring of 2005 faced with several endings in his own life. Harvie Ward a close friend who had as a young man beaten the likes of Arnold Palmer to win two U.S. Amateur Championships but lost his titles when it was determined that he‘d taken money to play, then fell into a whiskey bottle and years of obscurity before becoming a golf pro at Pinehurst had recently died of liver cancer. Dodson’s own career at Golf Magazine had come to a bitter end, when the management of the magazine changed hands.

But A Son of the Game is more about the “unexpected paths” and indeed, beginnings, than it is about endings. When Dodson comes south to cover the United States Open Championship at Pinehurst, he finds himself falling in love with the places of his boyhood. Dodson had grown up in the rolling hills of the Piedmont, learning the game of golf from his father and the craft of writing from both his parents and his teachers. He had worked his way north during his years of employment, eventually finding his home in Maine, which may seem an odd place for a golfer to settle down. Despite his deep affection for Maine, he felt a longing to return to his roots in Carolina.

In A Son of the Game, Dodson tells us how his longing became a reality, how he rediscovered his home state and reignited his love of golf. His finely-written book serves up a feast consisting of several different courses.

Dodson gives us a tour of Pinehurst and of nearby Southern Pines, explaining how golf came to be established there and tracing the history of the region from that time to the present. Invited to serve as writer in residence for The Pilot, a newspaper owned at different times by Sam Ragan, a poet laureate of North Carolina, and by James Boyd, famed for his novels about the Revolutionary War, Dodson finds himself taken into the heart of these communities.

Dodson’s love of golf, his affability, and his reporter’s beat give him a way into the hearts and minds of the townspeople and the visiting golfers. Consequently, he serves us up portraits of his neighbors, the local innkeepers, golf pros and players, writers and local educators, including John Dempsey, the head of the nearby community college.

Dodson also gives us insight into his family life. Though he clearly loves his wife and retains great affection for his deceased relatives, it is for his son Jack that Dodson displays here his deepest concern and feelings. His son is finishing high school and is seeking his own place in the world. He is torn between staying in Maine to finish high school or following his father to North Carolina; he is confused, too, by his place in the game of golf and how much it means to him. Dodson’s affection for Jack, even when they quarrel, comes across in every sentence in which the young man is mentioned.

In his “Acknowledgments” at the end of A Son of the Game, Dodson recollects how once, when he interviewed Richard Petty, the “King of NASCAR,” the stock car driver told him how important our “raisins” were. When Dodson asked him what these “raisins” meant, Petty smiled at him and said, “Never forget where you come from, son — the important values and people who raised you up. Those are your raisins.”

In this same short section, in a single paragraph, Dodson pays homage to those who now help him in his own life. He writes:

“I must thank my wife, Wendy, who had the good sense to hand me my car keys and shove me out the door to say a proper goodbye to a dying friend; and my son, Jack, who capped off this journey home by helping his old man rediscover what is most valuable and precious about life’s most enduring and revealing game: the relationships we make along the way.”

•••

Joseph Mitchell, another North Carolina writer who worked for decades at the New Yorker, once wrote about Joe Gould, a street philosopher and writer who claimed to have written an oral history of New Yorkers. Mitchell eventually came to realize that Gould was a fraud in terms of his writing, but that he was perhaps a genius in his views on living.

In the movie “Joe Gould’s Secret,” Ian Holm as Joe Gould and Stanley Tucci as Joseph Mitchell combine to give us a wonderful take on New York in mid-century, on writing, and on relationships. Holm’s portrayal of the irascible Gould — he is either asking friends for money for the “Joe Gould Fund” or else is exploding furiously at the trials of life — is beautifully done, and may provide bloated moviegoers with an antidote to the saccharine movies of the holiday season.

The movie is available on disc.

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