ORLANDO, Fla. — Not every golfer has a father who plays the game, but many dads do. Mine came to golf in middle age after I took it up as a kid, and it was the best gift I ever gave him. We played a lot but competed together only once, when I was 18, on the same foursome during a one-day, A-B-C-D scramble organized by my father’s tavern of choice, a place where the beer was cold and cheap and there were pickled eggs for the timid and pigs’ feet for the brave. We didn’t tell Mom or the golf authorities about the folding money we won, not that our amateur status was much of a concern to anyone.
The PNC Father-Son Challenge, a scramble for considerably bigger stakes with much better food, will be contested this weekend at Ritz-Carlton Golf Club (tee times). Talent and rewards notwithstanding, the appeal of these 36 holes won’t be much different than that of the long-ago round with my favorite 20-handicapper.
There is a reason a cadre of legendary golfers and their children have returned to the Father-Son for a couple of decades, and it isn’t for the $1.085 million purse ($200,000 to the winning two-person team). No matter their lofty station in the game, regardless of major titles won, competing alongside a child or grandchild – or this year, for Jim Furyk and Matt Kuchar, their fathers, Mike and Peter, respectively – is a singular treat for the competitors.
This wasn’t the first of the late-in-the-year events to populate what used to be called the “Silly Season,” but in some respects it remains the best because of the family dynamic as 20 teams vie for the Willie Park Trophy, a replica of the original ornate belt awarded to the winner of the British Open.
Players need to have won a professional major or a Players to be eligible for an invitation, and partners can’t currently hold a PGA Tour card. The qualifications result in a star-heavy field, with 10 World Golf Hall of Fame members plus 2019 inductee Retief Goosen. By the numbers, the 20 golfers have won 56 majors and 13 Players titles among more than 300 PGA Tour victories.
For fans, there is a twin appeal of watching stars who don’t put their game on public display very often any more paired with relatives who in some cases never have competed at the highest level. Watching golfers of each category trying to produce a shot under pressure is fascinating, no matter the reputations or recent reps. Connor Cink had played only sparingly leading up to his first Father-Son appearance with father Stewart in 2013, but he helped Dad plenty as they shot 61-61 to win their debut.
Lee Trevino, 79, the oldest player in this year’s field, has never passed up a Father-Son. This is his 21st appearance in the event – first contested in 1995 but not held in 2009-11. In his early appearances, Trevino teamed with son Rick, but for the past decade has partnered with son Daniel, 26.
For Trevino and Jack Nicklaus, 78, who is teaming with 16-year-old grandson GT, the swing and shots are much shorter than during their tour days, even on the Champions circuit. But their routines and mannerisms are familiar still, whether it’s Trevino and the way he shuffles into his stance with the rhythm of an accomplished dancer or Nicklaus eyeing the golf ball one instant and intermediate target the next, concentration evident in each swivel of his head. The 1970s are an increasingly distant time, but the now – if in fragments and only for fleeting moments – can recall the then.
It’s a reality check to see someone whom I covered when he was a collegian, Davis Love III, teeing off with his son, Dru, now 25 and a couple of years out of college himself, trying to forge his own way in a difficult business. Davis was just 24 when he lost his father, the noted golf instructor Davis Jr., in the 1988 crash of a private charter plane that killed four.
Davis III would like nothing more than for his son not to be eligible for this event, because that would mean he is on the PGA Tour, trying to become the ninth son to follow his father as a Tour winner, as Kevin Tway (son of Bob) did recently. Golf father-son success peaked in the 19th century, with Willie Park Sr. and Jr., and the Morrises, Old Tom and Young Tom, Open champions all.
The Father-Son will be an unofficial victory, but the emotions are as real as it gets.
Bill Fields has covered golf since the mid-1980s, with much of his career spent at Golf World magazine as a writer and editor. A native North Carolinian, he lives in Fairfield, Conn. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @BillFields1