One True Thing
Golf was the last remaining activity a father and son were able to do together, during the final years of the father’s failing health
By Jim Senescu
Some of my greatest memories in life are when my dad and I would wake up early, pair up with two other duffers that we may never see again at the local muni but with whom we would spend a memorable morning playing golf, and sweep the dew off the course. We would get back home before my mom and sister woke up.
Later, after some golf outings, I would get the “Don’t tell your mother” reminder from dad about how much we paid for a round of golf, especially at some of the resort courses we played.
As long as I can remember, my dad (a lifetime 30 handicap) was equipped with every imaginable golf toy, shoe, clubs, balls, swing jacket, etc. You name it, he bought it. He was a golf junkie, and happily so.
For myself (a six handicap most of my life), I just lived off his hand-me-downs and felt I was the luckiest kid alive.
Countless times we would sneak away from family vacations to play golf on the Oregon Coast (our home course was Gearhart Golf Links back in the 1980s, where dad had his lone ace on No. 15) or at various locations in California (near Disneyland or in Palm Springs, visiting family).
We both were able to attend the Masters, and we both went to the 1998 PGA Championship at Sahalee Country Club. Our dream was to one year go to a British Open and play at the birthplace of golf. We spent countless afternoons rooting on Tom Watson and Freddie Couples, and we were Phil fans over Tiger.
During my college years in Seattle he would get us on local country clubs, and even while I attended law school in Spokane he would fly over and we would stay the night and play at Coeur d’Alene Resort.
We had a good 30-year run of golfing together.
But my dad, as it turned out, developed a type of dementia (frontotemporal lobe dementia, to be specific) at a fairly young age. In his late 60s he lost his speech and his ability to understand or communicate, but his body was ironically healthy as a horse, and so was his memory and recognition of us (which we only learned later from a brain study).
He knew he was spending time with us and he knew that we were playing golf together. His condition slowly deteriorated in one form or another over the final seven years of his life.
While he was losing most all his activities of daily living, there was one thing he could still do. He could golf. And we could golf together.
Retired and having moved to the Vancouver, Wash. area, he and I had a weekly game with his two neighbors (both in their 80s, one of them was deaf and the other wouldn’t stop talking, and of course, my dad couldn’t talk – how’s that for a foursome?).
We were a motley crew, but the pro shop made sure we got around the course together and had a blast just playing. We managed to play our local Fairway Village Golf Course every Wednesday like clockwork for many years during his decline.
Toward the end, I had to tee up his ball, drive the cart, tell him which club to use, and sometimes even point him in the right direction. But for some crazy and wonderfully ironic reason, his muscle memory of swinging a club was one of the very last things he lost.
In fact, his handicap went down the last few years he played, as he stopped “thinking” about his shots.
For many years I played in the Oregon Coast Invitational at Astoria Golf and Country Club. And every year, until 2015, my dad would caddie for me. He couldn’t talk or speak or understand, but he still knew to stand in the right spot and smile at the right time, and he hoofed it around the course every round until he just couldn’t understand what was going on any longer.
Another example of how his executive functioning (and speech entirely) was totally gone, but the game of golf somehow stayed in his memory bank. Physically, he was strong as an ox until the end.
We were never able to make our trip to Scotland together. I was able to attend a U.S. Open before he passed, and while he couldn’t make the trip, he was there in spirit, and afterward I told him all about it several times over.
Three out of four majors is nice, but the memories of us golfing together for the past 40 years are priceless.
Golf gave us that gift amid such a horrible and bewildering disease. We were able to squeeze in another three years of our Wednesday golf outings, and for that I am forever grateful for the game.
A few years ago, my dad passed away, with his wife of 52 years and my sister and I, all at his side. We lost his mind first and then eventually his body, but we will never forget, even into his last few years, how much the game was able to keep us together, for just a little while longer. It is remarkable that the only thing he could do at the end was play golf.
He was my best friend, best golfing partner, and a wonderful and humble man. And he quite simply loved the game of golf.
(In memory of Larry Senescu, from his son, Jim Senescu.)