My dad had been a pretty good baseball player in his day, and I inherited his athletic ability. In the early years, before the corporate entertainment aspect of his career began (and the heavy drinking and chain-smoking that went with it), Dad got me interested in golf and baseball. We had probably twenty kids in the neighborhood who were close to my age, and there was always some kind of game going on: baseball, football, what have you. In the winter, when it was too cold to play ball, we got together with our baseball cards and had tournaments—I guess it was the low-tech forerunner of fantasy baseball.
I also spent a lot of time wandering in the woods near our house. Looking back, it seems to me that I was out there searching for something—or someone—to believe in. I think that in some way, I was searching for God. I sure know I needed Him.
There was also a little nine-hole Elks Club golf course about a long par five away from our house near Indian Lake Country Club, and as I walked through the cornfields around the course, I would find balls that golfers had sprayed off the fairway and never found. I learned that I could stand at the fences lining the fairways and sell the balls to golfers for a dime or a quarter apiece. I was always looking for a way to make a buck in those days; that included everything from trapping muskrat and minks in the winter to selling fishing worms in the summer. But selling golf balls seemed like a lot more fun, so I started spending more and more time around the golf course. Eventually, I became friends with some of the golfers. I started caddying, and I guess that was when I started getting hooked on the game.
I got to know Duke Dupree, the club champion, and started caddying for him. For some reason—I suppose it was God’s grace—this man saw something worthwhile in me. It was the first time an adult male had ever acted like he believed in me, and it was like somebody had given me an oxygen mask. I started getting serious about golf. Eventually, I became the number-one caddie at the Highland Country Club, an exclusive club on the other side of town. I got the best bags, followed the top players in our area, and really started to get a feel for the game. I played a ton of junior golf tournaments in those days, and I thrived on the competition.
Even then, though, I wasn’t free of the burden my dad had placed on my shoulders. As I committed myself to concentrating on golf in high school—eventually winning an individual state championship and a partial scholarship to the University of Florida—I remember thinking, “If I get good enough and win enough tournaments and maybe get a full ride, Dad has to admit I’m worth something.” I put more pressure on myself to excel, to succeed—to prove to my dad he was wrong about me.
That just never seemed to work.
I remember coming back home one summer from college, driving on Sunnyside Road toward our house. There was a covered bridge near the last turn, and I was telling myself, “This summer, I’m not going to blow it. I’m going to change, get better, and Dad is going to notice.” But in Dad’s mind, the deck was always stacked against me. It might go something like this: “Wally, why aren’t you out there playing in tournaments? You’ve got a big scholarship at Florida; you should be playing, keeping up your game during the summer.” So, I’d enter some tournaments. Then, after awhile, he’d say, “Wally, what are you doing, playing golf all the time, you little prima donna? You think life is some kind of game? You’d better get a job that pays money, get out and do some real work.” So, I got a construction job—at a local golf course, naturally—thinking that would make him happy.
“Wally, what’s wrong with you? You’re on a golf scholarship at Florida! What the ______ are you doing? Get out there and get in some tournaments. Keep up your game.”
There was no way to win.
The cruel irony is, my dad really did take pride in my accomplishments. Years after he died, I ran into some of his old customers—the people he was with during the week, when he wasn’t at home. Nearly every one of them told me essentially the same thing: “Wally, your dad was always talking about you. He was so proud of you.” Even though he could tell them, somehow he could never tell me. An even greater tragedy is that through the years, I have found out that I was not alone in this experience. I can’t tell you how many other men my age confided in me that they went through the same heartbreaking experience as I did. So many of us spend our whole lives working hard to receive the affirmation that never comes, only to find out too late that the person we most wanted to please had already loved us all along. But the damage has already been done: the cycle of performance has begun, and its momentum courses through our lives with greater force than we can see.