Balancing a passion for golf and a love of spending time with your children – especially when they’re young – can be what friends of mine call “a trick and a half”. There’s only so much time, and kids and golf both require a lot of it.

A late starter in so many things, I was 44 and 48 when our girls were born, and 45 when my relationship with golf evolved suddenly from enjoying a few rounds a year with my uncles and shooting in the low hundreds, to an all-out fanatical devotion to the game. Lessons, a handicap, new clubs, men’s league, hours of practice, tournaments – the works. The convergence of those elements – new fatherhood and golf addiction – would ordinarily lead in one of two directions: divorce or an enforced abstinence from the links. But I was determined to avoid both those fates, determined to find a way to keep playing golf – often – without depriving my wife of her sanity or depriving myself of the joy of watching our daughters grow.

The plan I came up with, not especially original, was to introduce our girls to the game and hope they grew to enjoy it. My wife, Amanda, likes to play – a big advantage in this balancing act – and though she has never become addicted, doesn’t hit balls, doesn’t take lessons and doesn’t read instructional books, she appreciates the joy that can be taken from a round of golf and, in those early years, would often encourage me to go and play.  

We weren’t much for buying plastic drivers and whiffle balls, but once Alexandra, our older girl, reached a reasonable age – 3, I think it was – I had a friend make her a shortened driver, and I’d sometimes take her to the range with me. This didn’t always work out perfectly. I remember one August day, with the sun blasting down on the practice tees, when she was so miserable that I ended up putting her over a shoulder, carrying our clubs in the other hand, returning the nearly full bucket and heading home for nap time.

But, little by little, she took to the game. I heeded Johnny Miller’s advice and once or twice let her smack old balls into a water hazard. (As Johnny understood, the thrill of this, for a small child, is the exact obverse of the pain endured by the adult golfer performing the same feat.) 

I was still very much a hacker then, learning to play at a wonderful nine-hole track way up in the hills of western Massachusetts, Worthington Golf Club. With its unostentatious white-clapboard clubhouse, sweeping hilltop views, tiny greens, friendly members and daytrippers, WGC was a great place to be a beginner. And, because there were stretches of every weekday with an uncrowded timesheet, it was also the perfect place to bring kids.

I took it slow. First just the older girl. First just putting on Worthington’s practice green. First teaching her to care for the course and observe good etiquette – not to run on the green, not to damage the surface with her putter, not to move or make noise while golfers were on the nearby first tee. Then some chipping. Then a ride in the cart with Dad, or a slow walk down the flat first hole. “Stand still when I’m hitting, OK, hon? And when we get near the green, I’ll let you drop a ball and get it into the hole, OK?”

Time passes quickly, and soon, Juliana, three years younger, was able to swing a club, and it wasn’t long before all four of us were on the course together. Amanda and I were careful to choose the quietest hours of the week; very careful to glance behind us every few minutes, to stand aside and wave other players through; and extremely careful to instill the girls with an understanding of the physical risks involved. This, too, wasn’t always easy. A curious 5-year-old will naturally chase after her golf ball, even when it rolls dangerously close to her 8-year-old sister, who is taking practice swings in a place she shouldn’t.

Gender distinctions aside, when there were four of us, two adults and two kids, it was manageable man-to-man coverage, as opposed to zone defence – which is another matter entirely. Full disclosure: there were times when I had both girls with me, and Amanda was elsewhere occupied. Times when I was trying to keep them safe, make sure we weren’t holding anybody up, convince them that it actually worked better to grip the club with hands together (not separated by a foot of shaft) and even maybe make a swing or two myself. Times when I slipped over the edge of my fatherly patience. We had, as the girls clearly remember, a few less than pretty moments, the occasional angry “We’re going home”, mid-round.  

But I always felt it was an investment. Not so much in my golf future as in theirs. I knew I’d never be an excellent golfer, but by then, thanks to rounds on my own or with friends, the lessons, the hours on the range, I was shooting in the 80s on that short course, and once in a while breaking 40 for nine holes. What had started as an infatuation had turned into a full-blown love affair, and I wanted that for them, at least wanted them to know the etiquette and the basics well enough so that, later in life, they could hold their own with business colleagues, or just be able to play with friends and experience the joy of it.  

I suffer from a particularly painful form of systemic arthritis (same as Phil Mickelson’s) which, every few years, will go wild and light my tendons on fire, and, even with medication, close down any hope of golf for a month or two. During a summer marred by one of those outbreaks, I recall walking along with the girls at Worthington, carrying their bags up the hills, one on each shoulder, kneeling down like a 100-year-old to pick a ball out of the cup, wandering into the weeds to chase an errant Pinnacle or Noodle. Encouraging, advising, making sure they didn’t get hurt or hold someone up. Pretending my joints weren’t screaming. I was on the course at least, even if I couldn’t swing a club. I was with my girls, and outing by outing it was a thrill to see them learning the complicated dance that is golf, hitting a great shot, sinking a long putt.

A few more years and I moved to an 18-hole course, the Crumpin-Fox Club, a longer, more difficult, and somewhat busier shrine to the game. From time to time, the girls and I would still play at Worthington, but once a week or so I’d take them to Crump, rent a cart instead of walking, and let them chip and putt. We had a family membership, and soon I was having them play a few holes from 50 yards in. Then from 100 yards in. Then from 150. Amanda and I paid for a handful of lessons with a teacher who specialised in teaching young girls. On spring school vacations we’d drive down to Myrtle Beach, stay at the beautiful Nicklaus course at Pawleys Plantation, and Alexandra and Juliana were accomplished enough by then to be able to play 18 holes from the forward tees, to need only the tiniest bit of advice (sometimes strongly resisted!), and to be aware of safety, pace of play and etiquette without being reminded.

By then, although I’m mainly a novellist, I was also making a little money writing for golf magazines, and I’d find ways to combine those assignments with family vacations. The girls and Amanda couldn’t play the courses I was writing about, but we’d at least have a vacation, all four of us together, and we’d sometimes find a decent local muny by the side of the road on the way home from my assignments at Prince Edward Island or The Balsams. 

By the time she reached high school, Alexandra had developed a beautiful smooth swing and was captaining the girls’ golf team, and she and Juliana (more into soccer, but also with a swing to die for) were beating their old dad a few times a season. On the annual trip south, they’d team up against both parents and thoroughly trash us, taking such pleasure in the victory (winners got to decide where we would stop to eat on the three-day drive home) that it was impossible to watch them without thinking back to the early days at Worthington, the two of them lugging their half-size clubs in half-size bags but walking down the fairway as if they’d been born to it.

They hadn’t been. Though there is a sort of golf legacy involved, we’re not a country-club family. Amanda’s parents played tennis, not golf. I was introduced to the game by my dad, who’d slip away for nine holes on a Saturday with his brothers, smoking a pipe the whole time, throwing up great clods of earth with his ancient Hogan 4-wood, swearing in Italian, laughing at himself, enjoying the outing on a cheap public course as much as any single-digit handicapper enjoys any exclusive club anywhere in the world. My mum, a superb athlete, had been introduced to golf at Greater Boston nine-holers by her father – a factory foreman – in the days when girls weren’t encouraged to appear on the course. He’d have her pretend to be caddieing, then put a club in her hand when they were out of sight of the first tee. She’d forsaken the game for decades to raise three rambunctious boys, then taken it up again in her 60s, become the perennial nine-hole champion at her club, and retired at age 84 with this comment, “I want to go out on top.”  My dad died young and never knew the girls, but Ma would play golf with us sometimes, and it was she who handed a club to Amanda, pre-kids, and said, “Try it.” Amanda tried it, parred the first hole she played, and the rest is history.

Amanda and I didn’t have the beautiful luxury of being able to park the kids at the country club pool or in the junior golfers’ program and head over to the first tee with another couple. But, after trying for 20 years, I did finally have the luxury of making a living only by writing books, of working mainly at home, of being able to help Amanda be a full-time mum after she’d worked for three decades and given birth, twice, in her 40s. Still, fine a life as we had, Amanda and I made certain trade-offs to teach our daughters the game. We could have hired a babysitter and gone off to play alone and, though we did that once in a while, most often we took the girls with us. I could have played more rounds with friends, probably become a better golfer. But I would have spent less time with Alexandra and Juliana, and now that they’re grown and out of the house, I feel so fortunate to have made the right choice.

A dozen or so times a year I get asked to speak at various places where readers gather – churches, libraries, bookstores, community groups – and often during the Q&A that follows my talk, the subject of golf will come up. Every now and then, one of the women in the audience will say something like, “I hate golf! How can you enjoy that awful game?”  

 “How can you hate the greatest game on earth?” I’ll answer, and she’ll say, “Because when I was growing up, I never saw my father. Every weekend he was off playing golf with his friends. Every single weekend, spring, summer and fall. I’ll resent that for the rest of my life!”

Times have changed, of course. The old model of dad playing 36 on weekends while mum minds the kids is, thankfully, fading to history. Whatever their adult relationship to golf turns out to be, I’m certain my daughters won’t resent the game and won’t complain that it took their father away from them every weekend when they were growing up. I’m lucky, I know that: the understanding spouse, the flexible work schedule, the time at home, the kids who like to play. But I also had a choice to make all those years ago: less golf or less time with our daughters. I managed to find a third way and, with Amanda’s help, made it work, and I’m grateful for that. Grateful, lucky, the beneficiary of two great loves – golf, and fatherhood. 

Have you introduced your daughter to golf?


Two words… two three-letter words that provoked so much thought within golf circles.

Of all the telling points made by new Golf Australia chief executive James Sutherland in our exclusive interview that appeared in the November issue of Australian Golf Digest, none hit the mark more than his questioning of dads who may have inadvertently failed the game by neglecting to foster their father-daughter bond on the golf course.

“As we know, about 80 per cent of club members in Australia are male,” Sutherland said. “But if we love golf, it’s actually our responsibility to help golf to be a sport for all. And if 50 percent of those 80 percent have daughters, then I’d be asking them: does their daughter play golf? And have you introduced your daughter to golf? Because if you haven’t, why haven’t you? Because you need to understand the joy of playing a sport you love with a person you love, whether it’s your son or your daughter.”

Sutherland added that as tradition would have it, the natural inclination in golf has been for fathers to take their sons to the course, not their daughters. But that has to change, he said.

“Inspiring the next generation and understanding the joy of spending time with your daughter and playing the sport that you love is something really special. I’ve had that experience with cricket and I’m experiencing it now in golf with our daughter and my wife. It’s actually a mindset… it’s a male mindset thing. And what happened with cricket over the course of the past 10 years is there’s been a gradual mindset shift from the people that control the game. And like it or not, most of the people who have control and significant influence over the game of golf in Australia are males. And if they don’t have that mindset to welcome women to the game and encourage them and to say, ‘Well, I love golf and I want my kids to play golf whether they’re a boy or a girl,’ then the game won’t change.” – Brad Clifton

• Have you taken great joy in introducing your daughter or daughters to golf? Share your experience via e-mail at [email protected] and the best one, as judged by Australian Golf Digest’s editorial panel, will win a set of Callaway REVA clubs for the lady golfer in their life.