The Game, Finally, Gave Me Something Back - 27 East

The Game, Finally, Gave Me Something Back

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Dylan lining up a shot at Goat Hill on Shelter Island. TIM MOTZ

Dylan lining up a shot at Goat Hill on Shelter Island. TIM MOTZ

Dylan lining up a shot at Goat Hill on Shelter Island. TIM MOTZ

Dylan lining up a shot at Goat Hill on Shelter Island. TIM MOTZ

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Stories from the South Fork

  • Publication: East Hampton Press
  • Published on: Jun 28, 2022
  • Columnist: Tim Motz

I’ve been spending more time than is healthy at the golf range lately, and my 23-year-old developmentally disabled son has been spending more time alone in his room, and these two facts crashed into each other recently in my not always reasonable mind and produced this odd notion:

I’ll take him golfing!

If you’ve read my Dylan columns, you may be wondering how this is possible. You may recall that when he’s upset, he’s prone to random violence. And that he’s been known to scream F-bombs at the top of his lungs. And that, without warning, he’ll throw various objects indiscriminately.

Of course, it occurred to me that all three of these things have applied to me on a golf course, and as recently as last week.

Yes, this game I love dearly can do to my psyche what life, too often, does to his.

I’ve been kicked in the teeth by this game for longer than I can calculate. On the course, I’ve lost my dignity, patience, what passed as faith, my keys, clothes, countless clubs, even a playing partner to too many beers and an apparently very comfortable looking bunker.

My friend Chris and I, a year or so ago, brimming with confidence from hitting a couple of shots at the range that didn’t go sideways, took on his dad at Westhampton Country Club. The two of us played best ball for one score, were given two strokes per hole … and were slaughtered. Mr. Francescani has got to be near 80.

And yet I love it and come back and back and back. Enough to take on the rush hour traffic of both New York and Philadelphia — twice — for a day trip to play at Huntingdon Valley with my equally golf-mad Aunt Susan (who actually is 80, and also kicked my ass). Enough to feel a sense of genuine loss at losing Brooks Koepka to the Saudis.

Whatever the reason — for me, or for him, or for the both of us — I became obsessed with getting Dylan onto a golf course, despite the behavior challenges, his general (and growing) inclination to avoid other people, and the fact that he’d never played golf before.

We had been practicing, though. I had already had a bit of a breakthrough with him, getting him out to very carefully managed trips to the ranges at Poxabogue and Southampton. At the latter, he was fascinated by the gizmo that props your ball up automatically, smacking one after the other 20 to 40 yards, hunched over, hands halfway down the club and backward for a righty.

Was he happy? It can be hard to say. But he was occupied and determined, and for maybe the first time in my life, my heart swelled with the feeling that I wasn’t just looking after him. We were just guys enjoying each other’s company, taking turns hitting golf balls. He even had a few sips of my High Life.

It felt like it was going to actually happen.

And then I screwed it up.

We were at the range at Poxy the day before I planned to take him to play real golf at Goat Hill on Shelter Island, the benevolent amusement park of golf and one of my favorite places on Earth. He had hit two balls just a couple of feet in front of him and, without thinking, I grabbed them for him, since he had run out of balls.

After topping a couple more, he followed what I did, retrieved them and tried to line them up right next to each other on the grass. I, of course, had to tell him he couldn’t go out onto the range for his safety. Before I knew what was happening, half my clubs and my bag were flying in different directions, and I was wrapped around him on the ground, trying to hold him down.

I got him to the car, found all the clubs, absorbed the curious looks … and then realized my keys were missing. I had an image of myself dancing around on the range like a demented game of human Frogger, dodging balls while searching for the keys. But they were in a patch of grass not far from the car.

I’ve been on a quantum physics and relativity jag lately, and I think the work of Einstein — perhaps not surprisingly for a guy who essentially solved the universe — is applicable in a very interesting way to Dylan’s situation.

When Dylan is allowed to essentially operate at constant velocity — doing what he wants, on his terms, without interruption, a steady flow — he’s usually fine. It’s when the pattern is interrupted — in relativity terms, when acceleration or some kind of disruption is thrown into the mix — that things tend to go south.

But sometimes, we have no choice. Even if he’s mainly at peace listening to music in his room, he needs to take his medication. He needs to eat. And parents who love you can only take so much of their son not moving for 10, 12, 16 hours at a time. Out of compassion, you try to bring him into your world, even when you know in your heart he just wants to be in his.

Golf would be disruptive. But it also engrosses him, so if we could try this with as little disruption as possible, just maybe we could pull this off.

And just maybe there’d be a magical moment in there. The memory of the Southampton range and his fascination with the auto-ball gizmo and him holding my beer the same way I do was now driving the bus.

“The Goat” was the natural place to try.

We went to the beach that morning, he had another mini meltdown, and I called them up looking for the remotest tee time a Monday afternoon on Shelter Island could offer.

I was honest about the situation. Sort of.

“I’m playing with someone who’s never played golf before,” I told the friendly woman on the phone. “Any big gaps in the schedule?”

Do you have any idea how many places would use this opportunity to suggest you take up tennis, and at somewhere very far away? But not this place.

‘It’s pretty open after 12:30,” she said. “You should be fine.”

And so at 1:30 p.m. on June 20, I stood atop the magnificent hill by the restaurant, bag in cart, trying to catch my breath, witnessing something I wouldn’t have believed possible only a week before: I watched Dylan draw my 6-iron back on the first tee, aiming at the fairway below.

I score like an ayatollah. And so when Dyls put his tee shot on No. 5 into a bush, I assessed him a one-shot penalty, just like anyone else. I note this as a point of pride for my son, because he was playing pretty damned well for someone who had no real concept of what the game was or how to play, and with limited motor skills. And I wanted to know what he could shoot legitimately.

That first shot on the first tee? He had no reason to be nervous, so just hit it like always. Only this time, he had the benefit of gravity (or, as I now know it to be, the warping of space-time). The ball bounded down the hill about 45 yards. We hopped into the cart and moved on.

By the time we reached the hill looking down about 50 yards to the flagstick, he had maneuvered himself into position to hit near the green on this ridiculous, sideways par 4 with a minuscule blind green.

He was sitting at 11. I had no idea what to expect, but it wasn’t this good. He reared back with his beloved 6-iron and put it right on the fringe, and then three-putted for 15.

To my astonishment, he grasped, without prompting, the concept of putting. Dyls — and this can be good or bad — has a memory like a steel trap. When a bad memory from school or elsewhere pops up, as it does fairly regularly, he’ll repeat it over and over until the memory, mercifully, dissipates.

In this case, my guess is that he remembered our miniature golf outings from what seemed like 100 years ago.

A 15. I’m sure I’ve scored worse, and likely not on my first hole ever.

At this point, I decided to push my luck. I had promised him he could drive the cart, figuring it may click in for him, thinking back to the little electric jeep he would drive around the backyard endlessly as a kid.

On the way to the second tee, he got behind the wheel. He put one foot on the brake and one on the gas and tried to use both simultaneously.

We ended up in a bush. We’ll get it right next time. I know he can do this.

On No. 2, we were heckled by a couple of yahoos on Route 115, a tradition at the Goat, but he didn’t notice.

On 3, I was reminded of his literal nature, an outlook on life utterly absent of nuance. When he was younger, we’d whisper upstairs to check on him.

“Dyls, are you asleep?”

“Yes,” would come the answer, thinking it was what we wanted to hear.

And so, when I realized with a stabbing pain in my heart that even after about 30 shots into the game, he still had to be directed to the ball each time before every shot, I reminded him to go up and whack the ball, a bit distracted by my own shot. While my back was turned, he lined up at the golden, ball-shaped tee marker, and creamed it about 10 yards.

I didn’t count that one.

It was a bit like polo, but with every single shot all day, he approached the ball, focused on what he was doing and struck it — which is more than I can say about my own concentration and focus.

And we moved along; I told two cheerful guys behind us to pass us at any time. They never did.

At the end of the round, I tallied it up: a legit 130 on nine tough, hillside holes. On four of them, he hit from the tips. He would have shot better had I not given him some chipping advice, which, again, goes to the lack of nuance: If I said to try to hit a little more softly, he’d hit it 2 inches.

And not one negative behavior — nothing. Total focus, determination and, I think, peace.

I can’t remember every being so emotionally overwhelmed as we pulled up the final hill left of the ninth green.

“Do you have any idea how proud of you I am?” I managed to get out.

“Yes.”

It would have to do. He’s going to say what you want to hear.

But there are other ways for him to genuinely express what he’s feeling. A few hours later, giving him a bath, I asked him if he wanted to play golf again. And he started giggling and gave me a sweet, playful look.

That is a YES.

And then this: We were leaving the beach this past Sunday evening, and just to (hopefully) give him something to look forward to next weekend, I said, “Dyls, if you ever want Daddy to take you golfing again, just tell me, okay?”

Immediately: “Daddy, I want you to take me golfing.”

I wish we could’ve gone right then.

Epilogue:

If this were a work of fiction, that would be the end. But, in truth, the following days were his toughest in a while. He hardly left his room and responded angrily to virtually any level of communication. It came to a head first with him slamming the door to his room so violently that it shook the entire upstairs, and with his dinner of ham, Mexicorn and pasta with pesto decorating most of his bedroom walls.

And with me letting out a scream of exasperation in my living room likely heard on the first tee at Montauk Downs.

A few days later, on the way to the beach, my car radio was suddenly filled with water, and my steering wheel and dashboard were decorated with the components of two egg sandwiches. With extra ketchup, no less.

But at Goat Hill, I spent the day at a spectacular setting on a glorious day with great company and left, perhaps naively, filled with hope.

And if that’s not the best description of the allure of golf, would you tell me what exactly is?

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