On Tuesday, May 24, my father, Larry Ekberg, died of complications from his long-standing diabetes. Though in relative health for most of his life, the last 17 years had been a seemingly unending string of health-related setbacks, surgeries, and a slow deterioration of the man whom I was proud to call my hero. He died peacefully in his home with my Mom nearby.
It was easy for a stranger to look at my father—frail and shrunken in his wheelchair—and see someone whose life had been taken over by his disease. But just as none of us are entirely defined by what we do, or where we come from, or even what games we play, my father was never defined by his sickness. It was happening to him but it was never him. And that's why, even though his death and my family's collective grief are the foremost thoughts in my mind, it's not at all how I choose to picture Larry Ekberg.
My father was a golfer. A gifted athlete in high school and mostly self-taught, he took an early interest in the sport and played it for as long as his body allowed him to.
When I was young, I'd accompany my Dad to the local course and play along with him. In the earliest years, I was too young to appreciate golf's intricacies and too carefree to be impressed by either my father's natural ability or his careful instruction. At that age, it was fun simply to be outside or to be in charge of driving the cart from one shot to the next. One of my most vivid early memories is my father and I running an impromptu race to see who could reach the garage that held our golf cart—by the time we reached the building we were both sweating in the humid south Alabama heat, laughing so hard we were both already exhausted, and with a full, fun day of 18 holes still ahead of us.
As I got older, my outlook on golf changed. What at first seemed like a fun chance to spend time with my Dad eventually became a chore, as I became more and more frustrated by my lack of ability on the course. Perhaps there was a bit a jealousy there—I couldn't do what came so easily to my father.
Even as I shied away from the real thing, golf was always a common thread between us. We watched tournaments together and talked about our favorite players on the phone. We marveled at the spectacular rise of Tiger Woods in the late 1990s (and more recently, commiserated over his meteoric fall, both in his public perception and in the degradation of his physical skills).
And, endlessly, we played golf games together. First and foremost, we were Links guys. The long-running PC golf game was our go-to game, mainly because of the extensive course collection. These were the days of floppy disk drives and, somewhere in my house, I still have the massive collection of expansion course disks that my Dad and I collected over the years. We each had our favorites—for me it was courses like Banff Springs, with its impressive mountainous scenery and challenging layout. My Dad gravitated towards courses he had played in real life—Pinehurst, Harbour Town and, of course, the famed Pebble Beach.
It got to the point where, deep in the Alabama summers when I would be home from college, we would spend more time in our basement playing Links than actually going outside and braving the heat on the actual course. We were together, enjoying a beer, some conversation (or none at all), and spending hours taking turns on the mouse to make a shot.
In the real game, my Dad's skills were light years beyond mine. On the PC, things were a bit more lopsided in my favor. We loved to compare stats over time—my Dad had a thing for printing our post-round statistics so he'd have time to analyze his performance later. Now, I find myself desperately wishing we had kept those printouts; they would have been a tangible link to some of my fondest memories.
Our shared love for golf—whether virtual or the real thing—has proven to be increasingly important for me in the past few years. Naturally, I'm still a huge golf game fan—there's not a year that goes by that I don't buy EA Sports' Tiger Woods series. But I've also come back to the real game with a renewed vigor, if not any more natural ability that I had when I was younger.
These days, I often think about how my father played the game. I think about how he would have handled certain situations on the course—both in terms of the physicality of setting up the shot, as well as the mental aspect of dealing with that shot's result. That Dad was a natural player did not mean he didn't hit plenty of stinkers on the course. The difference was that he had a maturity and a good-natured spirit that easily dealt with insignificant failures… and, as a lifelong perfectionist with the soul of a sore loser, that's the part I'm still working on.
Due to his failing health, my Dad "retired" from golf a long time ago. The last round I ever played with him was a decade ago while I was home for my sister's wedding. He didn't play much that day; instead, he joined our foursome as we played and took only a few swings of his own. Riding along with him as we played, and seeing such a sense of longing in his eyes—I think he knew that he would never again be able to play the game he loved—was perhaps the saddest thing I've ever seen.
But was it really sad? I think back to that time now and I don't remember him being bitter. I don't recall him complaining. I remember him laughing and telling jokes, and making fun of my bogus swing. I remember him teasing my soon-to-be brother-in-law, and laughing with my cousin about some ridiculous occurrence from 20 years past. I remember that beautifully graceful stroke he took on the first tee and thinking, "Damn, I wish I could do that." I remember the ball sailed straight and far.