Learning a sport from one's father is a common theme that runs through families -- whether playing catch, shooting hoops, riding a bike or baiting a hook. But perhaps golf, more than any other sport, serves as the extension of the father-taught life lessons -- integrity, fairness and healthy competition. And the reasons may lie in the inherent roots of the game.
Life Lessons Through Golf
From my perspective, regardless of how many Open wins and all that, that doesn’t even register on the meter when it comes to winning something with your son or daughter.
- Hale Irwin, three-time U.S. Open champion
Through the years, golf has been synonymous with the term “gentlemanly sport,” and with it has come integrity and sportsmanship. Unlike other sports, golf doesn't have an official throwing a flag or blowing a whistle, or sending players to the penalty box or foul line. Golfers police themselves. There have been some issues, but for the most part, golfers have followed the rules, setting a tone and example for others to follow.
“I think that’s what I have tried to do with the kids I have been around, particularly my son," says Hall of Fame golfer Hale Irwin. “I wanted Steve to learn those values, and I think he’s done well with that.”
The younger Irwin was a golf standout at the University of Colorado, his father’s alma mater, and competed for several years on the PGA satellite tours. But it is their time together on the golf course, where they competed side by side and shared the range of emotions of the game that helped cement those ideals.
Father-Son PGA Team Competition
For 14 years, from 1995 through 2008, the lessons and golf merged in high-level competition with fathers and sons working as teams in the Father/Son Challenge. During a March 2012 news conference, golf legend Arnold Palmer and PNC Bank CEO James Rohr announced the event's December 2012 return -- after a three-year absence -- with PNC as its sponsor.
"When we think of teamwork, respect, life balance and integrity, which are four core values of PNC, it fits right in with the nature of golf," said Rohr. "It is really a unique situation where golf takes integrity to the highest level of any sport, and most of us first learn that value from our father, which then carries over when they help introduce us to the game. The players absolutely love to play here because it is with their kids."
Palmer teams up with his grandson, Sam Saunders, each year. In the news conference, Palmer explained the significance the event holds for them. "For many years," he said, "we talked about how the Father/Son Challenge was one of our favorite events to play in all year, not only because it featured a field filled exclusively with major or Players Championship winners, but because it allowed us to share a moment in our career and our passion for the game with those that we love the most."
Saunders turned pro in 2009 and has competed on both the Nationwide Tour and the PGA Tour.
The Importance of Shared Success
How important is it to these world-class players to compete and succeed in this event with their sons?
“My dad says point blank -- and you ask any pro, they will tell you the same thing -- that it is the most special," said Ray Floyd Jr., whose father won four major championships. "This is what these guys do for a living. This is their livelihood. We went to tournaments as kids, but now to be inside the ropes, to be so close to what your father does and (for them) to share that with their sons, that is what I hear not only from my dad but the other father pros in the event. “
Ray Floyd, a winner of 22 PGA Tour events, and Ray Jr. have won the Father/Son Challenge three times. The father and his son Robert Floyd have won the event twice -- with Ray Jr. serving as their caddie.
Says Ray Jr., who still competes in USGA events and won the Connecticut State Mid-Am in 2011: "You also add in the fact of being paired with guys that have won multiple majors. It is amazing. It is a thrill for me, and my dad will tell you it is his favorite event. You ask the Hale Irwins, Johnny Millers and guys like that. They’ll say the same thing."
Three-time U.S. Open champion Irwin said: "From my perspective, regardless of how many Open wins and all that, that doesn't even register on the meter when it comes to winning something with your son or daughter."
Irwin, the all-time leader in victories on the Champions Tour with 45, and his son Steve won the event in 2003 after several runner-up finishes.
"It is a moment in time, albeit a snapshot, of not only being with my son, but also the other kids we saw grow up while on the PGA Tour with their fathers," Hale Irwin said. "It is just great fun, but I will tell you I am more nervous in that event than anything because I know how important it is to everybody.
"It is right up there at the top of the list as far as I am concerned," he said. "Being able to share something like that. It was important to (Steve Irwin). It was equally important to me. Through all the years since he was born, I have been very reluctant to push competitive golf at him with my being a professional. I didn’t want him to feel he had to follow in those footsteps. But I did want him to learn about the game, and through the game he could learn about himself."
Steve Irwin acknowledges that a win with his father -- the man who taught him the game -- means a great deal, but that the fiery competitive genes still burn, as father and son get into some "intense putting competitions for family bragging rights to this day."
Other teams that have won the Father/Son Challenge are Bob Charles and his son David, Bernhard Langer and his son Stefan, Larry Nelson and his son Drew, Nelson and his son Josh, Jack Nicklaus and his son Gary, and Craig Stadler and his son Kevin.
The sport of golf uniquely lends itself to sharing a lot more than a scorecard between father and son.