When my father realized he was going blind he took up golf.
Empirical evidence of his loss of vision was plentiful — the run-in with a pickup truck that nearly decapitated my dozing mother in the passenger seat of the car; the Patrick O’Brian novels he could no longer read; the eye drops that never did any good; the dreaded ophthalmological pyramid of letters projected in a dark room in a dark world growing more occluded every day.
But, he did not accept the brutal, unwavering diagnosis — Macular Degeneration — until the guys in his regular tennis game, the guys he’d been playing with every Sunday for 30 years, told him not to show up again. The realpolitik of sport, every sport, at every level of competition, is cruel and uncompromising. Even he could read the writing on that wall.
He had a set of golf clubs, rusting, clanking, shunned clubs, which took up residence in a corner of the garage in the house my parents bought and never left after 1951. Acquired one winter when the elementary school my sister and I attended organized evening golf lessons for dads in the gym, he helped the fathers destroy the acoustic ceiling tiles, then abandoned the clubs to the garage with my red Roadmaster wagon piled with cases of his favorite cream soda. The stoic, leather-trimmed bag, its canvas punctured with the occasional moth hole, endured a decade of solitary confinement.
Then, a cellmate arrived. The great green Army coat that kept my father from frostbite during three frigid winters in the Aleutian Islands was banished from the front closet when my mother acquired her first mink coat. She couldn’t have loved her trophy coat any more than my father loved the fur-lined Army parka, which was as indestructible as he (and I) believed him to be. To wear it was to be engulfed by his virility. It stood sentinel by the door to what was still called the “New Room” when we sat Shiva there for my father in 2003.
He had spent three long years on that God-forsaken chain of islands, steppingstones across the Bering Sea toward the land of the Rising Sun. He worked as a cryptographer in the Signal Corps, learned to hate Halibut, and became the Ping-Pong champion of Alaska.
He had taken up the game at City College in New York, where he was a prodigy in that and other studies, and was the youngest man to graduate in the class of 1934. “At 18 He Heads CCNY Class Of 2,000 at Commencement,” a headline in a New York broadsheet declared. “He wants to be a lawyer and has intentions of entering Harvard in the fall.”
He didn’t go to Harvard. He took the only job he could find, working as a magician’s assistant for a Broadway review called “Continental Varieties.” His job was to translate audience requests for a Belgian Svengali who swore he could turn water into anything potable. One night someone demanded sauerkraut juice and my father couldn’t think of the word. The next day they made him stage manager. In that capacity he was tasked with presenting a bouquet of long-stemmed roses to the French singer, Lucienne Boyer, who closed the show every night with “Prenez Mes Roses.” His first day on the job my father forgot to remove the thorns. She clutched the bouquet to her breast and screamed.
It was the end of his career in the floodlights and the beginning of compassion. After he was released from the Army, he became an entertainment lawyer, taking care of business for vulnerable artists, and occasionally showing them a thing or two. He beat the songstress Anita Bryant in Ping-Pong before she became a crusader for orange juice and homophobia. She never realized he was playing left-handed.
Tennis was his game after the war. He moved about the court with unexpected élan, given his 5-foot-5 frame and his girth, which fluctuated between wide and wider. He cut quite a figure, his Brooks Brothers boxers somehow extending both above his waist and below his shorts. But when he followed an approach shot to net, I saw the cross-country runner he had been at City College. He had soft, strong, quick hands, which he never let me forget, cracking my knuckles when he squeezed my hand in his. It was a gesture of camaraderie and intimacy — an acknowledgement of our tough-love athletic bond. He called me Jane-ela and Pussycat. I called him “Mort the Sport.”
His full name was Morton Leonard Malcolm Leavy. He acquired his second middle name after surviving the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. He was as beautiful — voted prettiest baby in the annual Asbury Park, N.J., parade — as he was sturdy. As a towheaded toddler he served as a decoy for his rumrunner father, who stationed him on the rumble seat of his car and sailed through customs at the Canadian border.
They lived in upper Manhattan near Coogan’s Bluff, that rocky perch hovering above the Polo Grounds, which afforded a grand if distant view of the playing field below. In 1927, my father descended the heights and took his place as the newly appointed water boy for his beloved New York football Giants. No doubt, other libations supplied by the Leavy family helped to secure the position.
On winter Sundays when I was a child, we waited for my father to return from his tennis game with bagels and sturgeon and for my mother to object when the 1 p.m. Giants game began. Al DeRogatis and Marty Glickman were also banished from her living room. My Dad and I cruised the back roads of Long Island chasing fire engines and a clear AM signal while debating the merits of Charlie Conerly and Y.A. Tittle.
Tennis became my game, too. I inherited his flat, one-handed backhand and an addict’s craving for a perfectly struck ball. I also inherited his serve, which is to say I didn’t have one. His inability to hold serve was legendary. One summer, while visiting his friends and clients, the eminent documentary filmmakers, Hal and Marilyn Weiner, at their beach house in Delaware, there was a singles match never forgotten in my family or theirs. My father was serving. It was apparently an important point. He called his ball in. Hal Krentz, the lawyer whose autobiography was the basis for the movie Butterflies Are Free, was the umpire. “That sounded out,” Krentz said, overruling my father.
“Couldn’t get a serve in with a blind ump,” Hal Weiner says.
He was ferocious at the net and in contract negotiations. John Gregory Dunne, the writer, once wrote that he was “a Jewish Dr. Doolittle — crossed with a pit bull.” An inability to decide who would get Mort in the divorce was one reason Dunne said that he and his wife, the writer Joan Didion, remained married until John’s premature death. One Sunday morning, when a vicious crosscourt forehand found the sweet spot below my father’s ample waist, my new driver’s license and I were dispatched to the pharmacy for emergency supplies. I believe I made several trips; none of elaborate contraptions I procured assuaged his pain.
Three decades later, a severe case of dry macular degeneration had robbed him of all but the most peripheral vision. The visual acuity that had allowed him to see the court so well was confined to the outer rings of perception. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the long abandoned bag of golf clubs and began looking for a coach. He thinking was reasoned and clear-eyed: At least the golf ball sat still.
Every little girl thinks her daddy is the bravest man in the world. At age 50, I was still learning about courage from my 80-something dad. On a totemic scale of risk, taking up golf when you’re going blind isn’t exactly like disarming IEDS in Afghanistan. But it requires a particular kind of steeliness to refuse to succumb to the yips of the soul, to reach into a bag of rusted instincts and diminished skills because it’s the only way to keep a grip on who you are.
He found Sue Marino at the North Shore Country Club in Glen Head, N.Y., in April 1999. He could still see enough to see that she was cute. She could see enough to see the athlete he had been, the athlete he still needed to be.
When I found her a few weeks ago, she was still teaching at the North Shore Country Club. She said she had just been thinking about my dad, which is the sort of thing you say to someone’s daughter a decade after the fact. But I believed her. “He said he played a lot of tennis. He loved tennis. His friends were, like, deserting him. I remember telling him, ‘In golf you gotta feel like you’re playing alone anyway.’
“It was phenomenal. I’m thinking, ‘he’s losing his sight and here he is.’ I wanted him to feel what a good shot felt like. It’s a feel sport. It’s nice to watch a shot, sure, but there is nothing better than hitting the ball on the club. I told him, ‘Seeing it go in is for the gallery.’”
She helped him buy new clubs — Ping irons, Callaway woods — outfitting him from the visor down. “He looked the part,” she says.
The last club in his new bag was a relic retrieved from the garage — a “Golden Touch” wood-shafted Otey Crisman bull’s-eye putter. His new clubs were lady’s clubs; he wasn’t happy about that. He was diminished in height, not stature.
He and Sue began to build a game shot by shot. They hit off the tee and out of the bunker. They practiced approach shots, chip shots, sand shots, and putting, which was hardest of all.
“He had fairly small hands,” she remembers. “They were working hands, you could tell. He really moved his body. For a short, stocky guy he was able to get it around. He could nail a drive. For an 80-year-old guy he had some juice behind it. I could see the coordination. I knew he was an athlete.”
And she treated him like one. “I didn’t give into him when he felt bad.”
And he wouldn’t give in. He showed up every Sunday at 9 a.m. — he was never on time for anything else. When the weather was bad, the guys in the pro shop would ask, “Is Mort coming?”
“Rain or shine,” Sue said. “Everybody got to know him. He became a regular.”
Which is what he wanted most to be.
That summer, when he came to visit in Cape Cod, I took him to a driving range. I even hit a couple of buckets of balls. He was intent and disgusted and undeterred. The next summer, he was still hard at it. I decided it was time for him to play a round of golf. We all knew it was the only one he’d ever play.
“When he told me you had arranged this, I said, ‘Oh, we got to get on the golf course,” Sue says. “It was a big thing for him, preparing for this. He was kind of apprehensive, nervous, but looking forward to it. I think he wanted to show you, to be honest. He worked hard. He wanted to be respectable.”
He improved and regressed, his progress thwarted by a progressive disease and his failure to consider retiring from the practice of law. His fractured vision made it hard to get himself parallel to the target. “He was always 20 to 30 yards off,” she says. “He always aimed right of the target. I would set him up. I would put a club down in line with the target and he would set himself parallel to it.”
When he got frustrated, she told him, “Go for the feel. Savor the feel. Stop worrying where it’s going. When you hit a really good shot, it doesn’t matter where it goes. It’s going where you intend it to go.” She wanted him to have a miracle round, a whole round, but knew he wouldn’t be able to play 18 holes when he struggled to play three in an hour.
I recruited two good, patient, and generous souls, Hal Weiner and Marilee Stafford, my tennis coach, to be his playing partners. I was the putative fourth. I knew that Hal, a good golfer and a better friend, possessed just the right touch for this occasion. I knew that Marilee, who possesses a coach’s fierce optimism, would also see the best in my dad. She arranged a tee time at Little Bennett, a lovely, undulating public course built on the site of a farm established in 1752 in Montgomery County, Md. According to a historical marker planted by the fifth tee, it is “a fine example of a pre-civil war farmstead.”
The land, donated to Montgomery County in 1972, is 28.02 miles and a world away from Congressional Country Club, where the final round of the U.S. Open is being played.
Marilee brought enthusiasm and a ready cackle. Hal brought a smelly cigar and an all-in-one “Super Stick” manufactured by a company in Akron, Ohio. The clubface adjusted to the demands of the moment and so did Hal. He played the worst nine holes of golf of his life. In fact, he played as if he was blind, a gesture of uncommon decency. “I played down, which wasn’t hard,” Hal says.
My father brought his spikes and his game face. I drove the cart. Little Bennett has three Par 3 holes, short and diabolical, each featuring a precipitous drop from tee to green. “C’mon, baby, play a hole,” my father said, handing me a club I couldn’t identify.
This is how much I know about golf: The first and last time my editor sent me to a golf tournament I had to ask someone to explain the difference between a wood and an iron. I managed to cover Jack Nicklaus’ triumph at age 40 at the Memorial Tournament in Columbus, Ohio without embarrassing the Washington Post.
So, I stepped to the tee at Little Bennett and whaled away with beginner’s luck and a desire to make my father happy. My ball landed perhaps four feet from the hole. From there, I believe I eighteen putted. It was not intentional.
Yesterday, I came across the photos taken that day. My father appears exactly as I remembered: hunched over a putt with a wooden stick, intent and oblivious. He wasn’t a guy going blind. He was a guy in a pair of what we used to call walking shorts with a wooden stick in his hands.
I had more trouble recognizing myself. But, there we are arm-in-arm, after my one good golf shot, with the same asymmetrical calves, the same pasty white skin, and the same generous back nine. “Oh, my God,” I thought, “I’ve got my father’s ass.”
In my shorts, which looked a whole lot like his gotkes, the resemblance was unmistakable. They went into the garbage as soon as I got home.
For most of my adult life, I dreaded the day I woke up and saw my mother in the mirror. It never happened. But, I had grown into my father. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Everyone always said I was the son he never had.
The one round of his life was not the round he wanted it to be. He played nine holes, not 18. I looked away each time he topped the ball, wincing when his irons turned to scythes. But when it was over, there was still a 19th hole to visit, shots to remember, and stories to tell. “He was energized by the whole damn day,” Hal says.
He continued to take lessons throughout the summer of 2001. On 9/11, my parents were floating down a river on an Italian barge when two planes slammed into the Twin Towers. Sue wouldn’t see him again until October.
She figured he had quit. She thought he had given in. But, going over her date book now from the fall of 2001, she realized that memory and supposition were wrong. “Geez, he’s in the first Wednesday of November. Went to November 10. No, he went through December 1 and 2. Took one December 8. He was determined if he went through December.
“We suffer in this game for a long time. We bleed before we get it. Mort bled but he did improve. It takes six years before the light goes on. He ran out of light and time before he could put it all together. But he was getting it together. He hit a lot of good shots.”
Sometimes, he’d ask, “How good was that?”
“There would be a smile. He’d say, ‘I hit a good golf shot. I can go home.’”
A month before he died, he took my family to Peter Luger, his favorite steak house, to celebrate my daughter’s 15th birthday, his last outing to any place other than a hospital. He picked up the check even though he couldn’t see it. As we were leaving the house, he saw his Army jacket hanging by the door. “I forgot to put the coat in the will,” he told me.
I promised to make sure his wishes were honored. He hadn’t put his clubs in his will either and told me to take them home to Washington, in case some day I discovered a need for his new passion. A week later, he changed his mind. He wanted his putter back. He was feeling good and wanted to hit some balls.
Two weeks after that, he slipped on the hard brick floor of the “New Room” and broke his hip. He was lying on the floor, negotiating a deal for a client on the telephone when the paramedics arrived. He was dead two weeks later. He was 87 years old.
The night he died I reminded my mother to give the great green coat to my son, who retrieved it from the garage, arriving in the “New Room” room swathed in my father’s warm, green embrace. A month or so later, he tattooed my father’s initials — MLML — on his calf.
My father’s clubs now reside in a corner of my garage. Undisturbed, they gather dust and wait for me to notice them.
Jane Leavy is the author of the New York Times best-sellers The Last Boy, Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood and Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy. She is a former staff writer for the Washington Post. This is her first piece for Grantland.