- Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN and is executive producer of TrueSouth and co-executive producer of Backstory. He is the author of New York Times bestselling The Cost of These Dreams.
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on June 13, 2007.
MOST EVERYTHING MAKES me think about my Daddy, and this morning, of all the stupid reasons to fight back tears in public, it’s chipped beef on toast. I’m sitting at the corner table on the clubhouse veranda, waiting for Arnold Palmer to hit the ceremonial first shot of the Masters. Man, my father loved watching Arnie. To do it from the veranda with a plate of chipped beef? Hotty Toddy, brother. Only, the excitement of incredible moments like this is muted for me now. I’ve learned in the past three years that I did many things solely to tell Daddy about them later.
The crowd stands on Washington Road, waiting for the gates to open. For a moment, the course is quiet. Birds chirp. Mowers drone. Soon, another lucky diner asks if he can join me. His food arrives first. As we talk a bit, bundled against the chill, he looks at the empty space in front of me.
“What did you order?” he asks.
“Chipped beef on toast,” I say. He laughs. “Breakfast of champions,” he says.
“It was my dad’s favorite meal,” I explain.
“Did you ever bring him here?” he asks.
There is a silence. “No,” I say, turning away.
Daddy watched the Masters every year. He dreamed of attending just one, and he’s always on my mind when I come here for my job. Indeed, for all of us lucky enough to actually walk through these gates, we cannot leave without having thoughts of our daddies, for Augusta National is a place for fathers and sons. Davis Love III navigates the same fairways as Davis Love Jr. New fathers carefully hold toddler hands. “Can you see?” you’ll hear them say. Strong arms tenderly steer stooped backs. “Look out, Dad,” you’ll hear them say softly. That is Augusta.
When Jack Nicklaus finished his final round ever at the Masters, his eyes welled on the green. He glanced at his son, who was caddying for him, and repeated his own father’s last words, “Don’t think it ain’t been charming.” As Jack ended his relationship with this special place, he looked at his son and thought of his father. That is Augusta.
When Tiger Woods won for the first time, his eyes searched the gallery near the scoring shed for Earl Woods. They hugged, Tiger’s head cradled on his father’s shoulder. And when he walked off the green almost a decade later, and Earl Woods was no longer there, Tiger remembered that shoulder and he mourned. That is Augusta.
This, too, is Augusta: me, needing a daddy more than ever, finishing the chipped beef on toast, walking the grounds in search of fatherly wisdom. Me, a 30-year-old man, who failed in my promise to bring Daddy to this place he longed to visit, unable to control my emotions when I see a father and a son standing by the first fairway. The boy is a half-head taller and growing. Both wear blue Penn State gear. I see myself in that boy, standing with his father, both thinking they have all the time in the world.
WE WERE A father and son in my dad’s imagination before my parents even knew I was a boy. On the day I was born, he sat down and wrote a letter to himself, cataloging his thoughts as his first child came into the world. He called me his son, with daughter written each time in parentheses, just in case. When I arrived, before my mother even cleared her head, he had already filled out the birth certificate. There was never even a discussion of what I would be called. “Walter Wright Thompson, Jr.,” he wrote.
Walter Wright Thompson, Sr. had grown up in the Mississippi sticks with three brothers. Many of the traits my friends would recognize in me came from him. He loved to be the loudest guy in the room, and he loved telling stories, and hearing them, too. He loved his favorite places to eat beyond any normalcy and the sound of the ocean and the hum of late-night conversation. He loved working hard.
His own dad was a tough man with unfulfilled boyhood dreams. Nothing was good enough. When my Daddy, a star quarterback, would run for three touchdowns and throw for two more, Big Frazier would be waiting after to ask why he’d missed that tackle early in the third quarter. Daddy decided that when he had a son of his own, he’d do it differently. He’d give his whole heart, shower all the love and attention and approval he could muster. He would be a good daddy. A sweet daddy.
I remember tailgating before Ole Miss football games, him throwing passes just far enough away that I’d have to dive. I remember Destin, Fla., when I dropped my favorite stuffed animal, Sweetie, and didn’t tell him until we got back to the condo. He spent hours looking for that rabbit, and he found it, too. I keep it around, but I don’t ever tell anyone why. When I look at it, I can feel how much he loved me. I remember skipping school to go fishing, and I remember promising not to tell Mama. I remember him always reminding me that “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” and “if it feels wrong, it is.” I remember him taking me to see “Superman III” the night it opened, even though I was in trouble; I remember watching “The Guns of Navarone” a thousand times with him. And I remember, as clear as if it happened yesterday, that April day in 1986 when Jack Nicklaus charged toward his sixth green jacket.
I was playing in the other room, probably with that G.I. Joe aircraft carrier, when he called my name. I didn’t want to go. He called again. So I went into their bedroom. He was lying on his stomach.
“Jack Nicklaus is going to win the Masters, son, and you’ve got to watch this. You will remember this for the rest of your life.”
So we lay there, my feet only coming to his knees, watching. I was 9. He was 40, six years younger than Jack, and he cried when the final putt went in. I can’t remember now if I’d ever seen him cry before.
The years slipped away, but every April, we lay down on our stomachs – tumbuckets, he called ’em – and oohed over the azaleas and aahed over Amen Corner. Each time, he’d smile and mention that, one day, he’d sure like to see what such a place must look like in person. He grew older. I went to college and, as a freshman, called him to ask if he was watching this kid named Tiger Woods. He was. I sat in the Phi Delta Theta house three states away. I could picture him lying on his stomach.
Home didn’t feel so far away.
IT HAS BEEN 10 years. I no longer watch the Masters on television, and I pinch myself each time I get the credential, though I try to hide it. Sportswriters are supposed to act jaded, right? I’m sitting right now with colleagues in the press center interview room. Tiger Woods is at the dais, no longer the kid he was a decade ago, either. Normally, he’s full of boring blather, using a lot of words but carefully saying nothing. Only now he’s talking about fathers and sons, about losing one and gaining another. I lean in a bit. He talks about regret, and the things he wishes he’d done. He talks about what kind of parent he’d like to be.
“Here I am, 31 years old,” he says, “and my father is getting smarter every year. It’s just amazing. But hopefully, my child, down the road a little bit, will say the same thing.”
That, to me, is the definition of growing up. There comes a time when every son starts the slow transition to father. Mine began four years ago. My dad felt pain and went to the doctor. A scan revealed cancer. He was 57 years old, with marriages to attend and grandkids to spoil. Instead? He was in a fight for his life. He pulled into a parking lot on the way home and read the report. It said something about the pancreas. He understood he was in trouble. Up a creek without a paddle in a screen-bottomed boat, he’d say.
But the man had never backed down. Once, in college, he knocked out an All-SEC football player for messing with his brother. He attacked this disease just as viciously. After the first chemo session, he stopped at a greasy fast-food chain to get a sack of sliders, an f-you to the poison. To walk through a hospital with him was to understand his gift for life. All the nurses and doctors and patients – especially the patients who sat through the treatments alone – called him by name. For each, he had a kind word and a smile. He raised the energy level of every room he entered.
We took a fishing trip he’d always wanted to take. I knew there wasn’t any time to waste. We spent a glorious few days on a river in Arkansas, filling our cooler with trout, talking late into the night. “I’m not afraid,” he told me. Before leaving the fishing camp, I made a reservation for a year later. This, he said, we had to do again. “We’ll be here,” he said, almost whispering. “I guarantee it.”
Back home, he spent hours alone, at his spot behind the house. There was a canebreak out there, and a brick wall, and tall oak trees and a creek. He’d sit there, long past sunset, and he’d think about his life. It’s where he prepared to die. Once, my mom pointed out toward his silhouette, tears filling her eyes and running down her cheeks, and said, “It just breaks my heart. I think he’s scared.”
Still, he read the right books, by preachers and by Lance Armstrong, and he’d make damn clear he didn’t want to know the odds. So we didn’t tell. But we knew. And they weren’t good. I wept the first time I Googled pancreatic cancer. What would I do without a daddy?
Only, sometimes, it does happen like in the movies. He responded to the chemo. The doctors saw the tumors shrinking and, finally, a scan revealed he was cancer free. We couldn’t believe it. He didn’t act surprised.
Of course, I was at the Masters when we got the news.
Daddy and I made immediate plans for a vacation. We’d go back to Destin, where he’d found my stuffed animal. I bought the tickets and, the day after the tournament, I drove to Atlanta, met him at the airport and, together, we flew south. In the air, I gave him my Masters media credential. He collected them, kept them hanging by his bathroom mirror to remind himself that his son had gone places. He treasured the parking passes, too, and, faithfully affixed them to his truck after I left Augusta.
In Florida, we sat in lounge chairs by the ocean. We ate quail and grits, and Daddy talked the place into giving us the recipe. We drove in a Mustang convertible with the top rolled back, and we made plans. His reprieve made him realize that he needed to stop practicing law 16 hours a day and do those things he’d always dreamed of doing. He wanted to visit China, stand above those gorges. He wanted to see Tuscany, rent a villa.
Mostly, he wanted to go with me to the Masters.
“It’s a done deal,” I told him. “Done deal.”
We celebrated his birthday. I picked up dinner, the first and only time I ever did that. We laughed, and I gave him a present: a black Masters windbreaker. He held it up before him, glanced at me, words failing. He slipped it on and went outside to read. I shuffled off to bed. With the cancer gone, time was no longer precious; we had all the time in the world. But something made me take one last look, seeing him sitting on the balcony, thin and pale, the waves crashing somewhere out in the blackness, a thin ribbon of smoke rising from an ashtray.
THREE MONTHS LATER, I got the call. I was in Pittsburgh for a Chelsea-AC Roma soccer game. Mama was crying. They’d run some tests and the results were in.
“It’s cancer,” she sobbed.
Two months later, he felt bad and went to the hospital. The doctors weren’t too worried. Mama and Daddy asked, “Do we need to call the boys?” Love is a strange thing – you go from a fraternity dance to the altar of a church to a cold hospital room, asking: Is one of us about to die? The doctors said no.
They were wrong.
As I sat in Kansas City, watching the movie “Miracle,” my father passed away. It was only a few days away from our return fishing trip. My mom didn’t want to tell me until I got back to Mississippi, so she made what had to be the toughest phone call of her life. After watching her husband of 34 years take his final breath, she called me and said it didn’t look good and that I needed to bring a suit. I refused to pack funeral clothes, holding out hope.
The next morning, I landed in Memphis and took the escalator down to the baggage claim. I saw my brother, William, at the bottom. I smiled and waved. He just shook his head. At that moment, my mother stepped out from behind a sign. I knew.
“Your sweet daddy died,” she said.
I dropped my suitcase and cell phone. Someone got them, I guess. The next moments are fragments. A parking garage, a silent car, relatives, pats, looks away, driving, buildings, thirst, I’m really thirsty, could someone please get me some damn water, traffic, interstate on-ramp, off-ramp, driving. I could only get out one question.
“Was he scared?” I asked.
Mama shook her head no.
The funeral week was a blur. When we picked out his favorite Zegna sport coat, I went into his bathroom, holding those Masters credentials in my hands. I took them out, slipping them into the jacket pocket. If there was an Augusta National in heaven, I wanted him to get in.
“I’m sorry, Daddy,” I said to the air, “you didn’t get to go.”
Seven months later, I was back at Augusta. It was a hard week. I wore a pair of his shoes around the course, trying to walk it for him. I wrote a column about it for my newspaper and, as I’m doing now, tried to find some closure. Then, I believed my grief ended with the catharsis of the last paragraph. I was naive, as I found when I returned to Augusta in the coming years, finding my pain stronger each time.
Exactly a year after he died, my family gathered at home. We had a baby tree, grown from an acorn that came from the sturdy oaks in Ole Miss’ legendary Grove, where Daddy spent so many happy afternoons. We gathered at the spot where he’d sat, where he’d made his peace, and we dug a small hole, filling it in with the roots of the sapling and potting soil. I carefully patted down the earth around the stalk. Then it was done.
That night, I couldn’t sleep. Outside, rain poured down, soaking the tender roots. It rained an inch, then two, then more. The creek rose. I worried about my Daddy’s tree, so I went to stand guard. Soaked, cold, shivering, I stood by the tree, protecting it as I’d been unable to protect him.
I stared out past the canebreak and the brick wall and the creek. The sky was black. I wondered if Daddy was looking down on me, watching me, seeing my successes and failures. I wondered if he was proud of me. I wondered if there was a way I could still ask questions and he could still give me answers. I’d always counted on him for the answers.
“Daddy,” I said aloud, “are you out there?”
I waited, but I heard no answer, just the shattering windows of water falling from the sky.
MAYBE I’LL FIND those answers out here, at this place he loved so much. Is that crazy? Nothing seems crazy to me anymore. The grass shines like polished green mirrors. The flowers explode with a rainbow of shrapnel: pinks, purples, whites, yellows. Mostly, though, I see the fathers and sons, like the Livelys from Charleston, W.Va., sitting in front of me, watching the par-3 tournament. For 15 years, he’d entered the lottery for practice-round tickets. This year, he won, and he took his two sons out of school for a day. I wanted that to be us.
Down by Ike’s Pond, television reporter Jim Gray interviews players as they leave the course. He asks what I’m working on, and when I tell him, he nods, pointing to a white-haired man sitting in the sun by the water. It’s Jerry Gray, his father, and for 16 years, he’s come with his famous son to Augusta. “It’s the only week we spend together all year,” Jim tells me, and, again, I’m jealous. It doesn’t seem fair. Sometimes, a boy needs a daddy.
I just got married about a year ago, and I knew he’d have loved to stand up at the front of that church. In a way, he was: In the pocket of my tuxedo, I carried his yellow LIVESTRONG bracelet and, as Sonia started down the aisle, I rubbed it once, just to let him know, if he was watching, that he might be gone but he wasn’t forgotten.
I just bought my first house, and I knew he’d know whether I wanted a 15-year balloon. What’s a good interest rate? How do I pick a neighborhood? What is PMI?
I’m thinking of starting a family of my own someday, and I want to know how to be a good daddy. What should I let my son do? What should I tell him about crossing the street? About sex? How do you remove a splinter without making him cry? How to make him love you more than life itself? I know he’d know the answers, especially to the last one.
So I’ve been looking. I try to find messages, things he might have left behind to lead me down the right path. I know he thought like that. For months after his death, my mother found flashlights in every room of the house. Big ones, small ones, medium-sized ones, all with fresh batteries. Then she realized: He’d put them there for when he was gone, in case she got scared in the dark, all alone.
Every now and then, I’ll discover something prescient. I have the note he left me when I visited him for what turned out to be the last time. There is a quote: “To influence people, appeal to their dreams and aspirations, not just their needs.” He wrote in blue ink: WWT, Jr, We are so glad to have you home for a few days. Love, Daddy.
Or the prayer he read at his last Thanksgiving, when we all still believed. Maybe he knew differently, for he wrote, to himself at the bottom: “What a great prayer for all of us this Thanksgiving day, and for all the tomorrows none of us can take for granted.”
But those small whispers and nudges are rare, so I try to find bits of wisdom and the comfort of his presence in the places he loved. I eat at The Mayflower Café in Jackson, Miss., I stay at the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington, D.C., and now, I’ve come here, to this wonderful, ageless cathedral, walking up and down the perfectly manicured fairways, hoping to find a father. I walk up No. 10, crossing 15 near the grandstand, working back and forth through the pines, making my way toward Amen Corner. He first told me about it. The most amazing place in golf, he’d say reverently. Maybe he’ll be here. Maybe he knows his son is lost.
I climb the bleachers, find a spot to sit alone. As I did standing on that rainy night by the small tree, I try to talk to him. There are things I need to ask. How do you be a father? Are you proud of me?
“Daddy,” I whisper, “are you out there?”
Something amazing happens. Understand that I don’t believe in stuff like this and am certain it is a coincidence … but, as the words are leaving my mouth, from across the course, a roar rises from the gallery, breaking the silence, the voices collecting into throaty applause, moving through the pines until it fades away, silence returning to Amen Corner.
GOLFERS COME AND go. As the sun warms my face, Jim and Jerry Gray climb the bleachers. They watch a few groups move through and, as they walk away, Jim carefully holds the rope up so his father can slip beneath it. It’s a touching moment, something a good son should do for his dad.
Watching this, I realize something. Although I relate to Jim, I also hope that someday, my boy will do the same for me. It’s the way with fathers and sons. The hole in your chest after losing your daddy never gets filled. You don’t get a new father. You become one yourself, and my transition from son to father is nearing completion.
I walk back. As the clubhouse gets bigger on the horizon, I see a dad and his boy standing near the 10th fairway. Both are wearing golf clothes. I see myself in that father, hoping he can mold his boy as his own daddy molded him.
It occurs to me that all my questions have already been answered. I’ve been shown how to be a daddy. I just need to throw passes a little long so he’ll have to dive. I need to make sure he doesn’t lose his stuffed animal, and I need to take him fishing and I need to make him promise not to tell Mama. I need to make sure he knows that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar and that if it feels wrong, it is. I need to watch “The Guns of Navarone” with him. And I need him to lie next to me, on our tumbuckets, as I explain about a golf tournament in April in Georgia, about Amen Corner and Jack Nicklaus and I need to tell little Walter Wright Thompson III that his grandfather was a great, great man.
The Clubhouse is in front of me now, and I have one final task. Once I bought my Daddy shirts and windbreakers. On this afternoon, I have something different in mind. I hurry into the cavernous golf shop, past the framed posters and women’s clothes to the back of the store. This is unfamiliar territory. I search the wall for the things I want, and I ask the clerk to take them down.
I buy a tiny green Masters onesie, then I pick out a small knit golf shirt, for a toddler. I have one just like it, so, someday in the next few years, when I finally become a father myself and continue this timeless cycle, my son (daughter) can have a connection to this place that’s meant so much to me.
At the counter, the woman takes off the tags. When she sees the cute little clothes, she coos. Her words make me hopeful.
“Oh,” she gushes, “good daddy!”
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