‘This was the greatest day of my life’: Fathers, sons and Pebble Beach


Editor’s note: This story was originally published June 16, 2019.

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Everyone has that magical place, the spot their eyes need to see or their foot needs to step just once before they take in their last breath.

I need to peer over the rim of the Grand Canyon.

I have to look up at the Eiffel Tower.

I must hear the roar of the engines at the Indianapolis 500.

I want to walk the Great Wall.

For my entire childhood and all of my early adult life, I heard my father say one thing, without hesitation, the words never changing, the conviction only growing as he got older.

I am going to play Pebble Beach with my three boys.

He said it over and over, to me and my two older brothers, Chris and Alan. He said it to neighbors when he sat for summer nights on the back deck, to lifelong friends at his Thursday night golf league, to strangers on the barstool next to him. When he’d say it to us, we agreed, every time, that we would make this happen. We would talk about standing on the 18th tee, the Pacific looming up the left side, hugging the coast in what the Scottish poet Robert Louis Stevenson is said to have called “the most beautiful meeting of land and sea in the world.” We would wonder if the view atop No. 7 — the little, downhill, waves-crashing-in-the-background par-3 that just has to be the prettiest short hole in the world — could really be as beautiful in person as it seems in HD.

We booked the trip once or twice, maybe even three times, only to cancel, our schedules too chaotic, the real world tossing up a roadblock.

There would be time. We’d make this happen.

I am going to play Pebble Beach with my three boys.

Too many people wait too long, the moment missed, the would-be memories replaced by lifelong regret. We all have special places, the ones that make us smile, or make us laugh, or make us cry. Pebble Beach is all of those things for me. It is why today — Father’s Day — being here at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, reminds me of this place’s magic, makes me think of family and memories and a proud, stubborn, flawed man I still miss every day.

Aloysius Vincent Charles Pietruszkiewicz — to make it simple for everybody, he was simply Wish — died seven years ago, two years after he got to say this:

I played Pebble Beach with my three boys.

I FIRST LOVED SPORTS BECAUSE MY FATHER DID. He passed that gift down to his three sons, who then handed it on to their sons and daughters. Growing up, there was always a game on, an event to attend.

My father, in the summer, played in a Thursday night golf league with people I’ve known forever — adopted relatives, my Little League coach, his lifelong friends from two streets over. His swing was compact, though so was he, a short, round man whose takeaway was so slow you could get an oil change in the time it took to get from first movement to contact.

Both of my brothers played golf, too. That’s how life works, how habits are formed, how passions are burned into your very being — a son and sibling wanting to like what their father and brothers liked, wanting to do what their father and brothers did.

I loved baseball and basketball, watched football every Friday night and Saturday and Sunday afternoon in the fall and winter. Golf, though, captured me in a different way.

I still remember the moment when it really turned, when the obsession took form. It was around this very event, the U.S. Open, a little more than 30 years ago. In 1988, I sat in the basement of our home in Throop, Pa., a small town just outside of Scranton, with my father and watched Curtis Strange win the U.S. Open for the first time. Nearly the second the broadcast went off the air, I walked out into the front yard, a cut-down 5-iron and a handful of plastic golf balls in my hand. I was 11. I was out there trying to replicate Strange’s swing. A few went straight. A few veered right onto Cypress Street, causing a car or two to hit the brakes pretty fast to avoid the golf balls — they didn’t know they were plastic — heading for their windshield.

My oldest brother, Chris, would occasionally stand behind me, give a few tips here and there, then step back and let it happen.

Don’t go past parallel.

Keep that left arm straight.

Slow down a little.

There I stood, that day in 1988 and countless ones after that, pounding plastic ball after plastic ball after plastic ball. For hours on end. For days at a time. A few went straight. A few more cars hit the brakes. Aside from the occasional “Hey, be careful” from Dad, on I went. I eventually moved on from the 5-iron, hitting wedges and irons, persimmon woods, then metal drivers. I invented my own 18-hole golf course in the yard, including that dreaded par-5 finishing hole that required hitting the tee shot over the house.

Imagine what all this did to the lawn. My father would sit on the porch sometimes and watch. I wrote in his obituary that watching us play sports was among the things that made him happiest. He loved going to baseball and basketball games, track and field meets and cross country races. I could tell when I played my last high school basketball game that a little part of him was broken. I was the youngest, the last in line. When the final buzzer sounded, a lifetime of watching his boys play sports was over. He didn’t live long enough to see his grandsons and granddaughters compete in baseball games or soccer matches or gymnastics meets. So, sure, if I was hitting balls in the yard, he’d sit and watch. Every once in a while, he’d wander out of his beat-up wooden chair and stare at all those divots.

“Look at what you’re doing to the grass,” he’d mumble.

But that’d be it. He’d walk back to the porch and plop back into that wooden chair. He didn’t have the heart to stop me from taking more swings. Every so often, I’d look up and say, “Wish, when I get my first job, I’m going to buy you a new lawn.”

I never did.

Only twice do I remember being in real trouble: first, when I forgot to pick up the golf balls in the yard — I’d occasionally drop real ones down and work on my flop shot over the hedges — and he’d run them over with the lawn mower. That sound, when metal blades start chewing hard rubber and plastic, you never forget. He’d yell into the house, a four-letter word or two just loud enough to hear. The other time came when I missed putt after putt on my front-yard, 18-hole course. Convinced the problem rested with the club and not with its user, I went searching for a different one. I took his keys and rummaged around the trunk of his car and grabbed the old-school blade putter he used for years and years. I forgot to put it back. Let’s say he wasn’t all that thrilled Thursday night when he got to the first green on league night and looked for a putter that was in the basement instead of in his bag.

MY FATHER DIED SIX DAYS BEFORE I was planning to ask my wife, Dana, to marry me. Since he’s been gone, there have been times — like when I asked and she said yes — I wanted to reach for the phone, tell him about something that happened, something I got to see, something I got to do. It has happened more the past year, instinct causing me to reach for the phone in the moments when I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to some of golf’s iconic stages, seen the canvases course architects and Mother Nature painted together.

He loved hearing the stories this profession allowed me to tell him. Even more, he loved telling his friends about some of the trips I was fortunate enough to make, some of the people I was lucky enough to meet. I’d come back home and every person I saw already knew everything I’d done before I said a word. They’d already heard the stories — more than once — from my father. They heard the stories about my brothers, too, the degrees they earned, the jobs they held, the families they raised.

That was how the man showed my brothers and me how proud he was of us. He would tell stories and wear every single thing we bought him. He bragged to his friends, and he wore logos — lots and lots of logos. There were the black or yellow VCU shirts from my brother Alan, who ran cross country and track for the Rams. He’d walk around town draped in LSU and Stetson colors, gear from his oldest son, Chris, who was a law professor and dean at those two places. And then there were the ESPN shirts and sweatshirts and windbreakers. He wore them everywhere — to breakfast, when he went out for a drink, to work. We bought it; he wore it — always, everywhere. I remember fighting with him once, a son telling his father, “You cannot wear a VCU golf shirt to church on Christmas Eve. Go put something else on.”

So this past year, more than ever, I have wanted to call and tell him about what it looks like when the sun is setting as you stand behind the 12th tee at Augusta National; or how impossible it is to stop a ball on the green at Shinnecock Hills when the USGA forgets to turn on a hose for a week; or just how much fun it is to hit a 4-iron 260 yards when you play a hole downwind in Scotland, then hit a driver 190 yards when that same wind is howling in your face; or what “Allez! Allez! Allez!” sounds like 45 minutes before a shot is even struck on Friday morning of the Ryder Cup.

He handed me this gift, this love affair with sports, this unrelenting passion for golf. There’s one call, though, I won’t have to make, one story he wouldn’t have to rely on my eyes to see. I never had to call and tell him what Pebble Beach looked like. Because …

I played Pebble Beach with my three boys.

YOUR HEARTBEAT PICKS UP ITS PACE, your pulse quickens a bit when you get past the checkpoint and start your way along 17-Mile Drive. Saying it’s scenic is sort like saying Stonehenge is old or the Empire State Building is tall. Each stretch of pavement, each tight turn, brings into view a new piece of perfection.

The jagged coastline. The waves crashing against the coast. The towering trees lining the roadside as you wind past houses you swear you’ll buy the minute you win the lottery. The 250-year-old cypress that sits by itself — mythical, untouchable, timeless.

Eventually, our rental pulled up to The Lodge, settling into a nondescript parking lot. We walked to the front desk. My brother said who we were. The last name we carry around always requires a full spelling and pronunciation. Then come the questions, always the same: What nationality is it? How long did it take you to learn how to spell it? As he answered, making the jokes we always make when we get asked about that 15-letter blessing and curse that always comes for the ride with us, I looked right and saw the 18th green bathed in sunlight beyond the large windows just past the lobby. I walked away, went down the stairs and out the doors, and stood on the balcony staring.

There was Pebble Beach, in all its beauty. It was love at first sight.

We had made it, all the dates and times and schedules lining up so perfectly that we had hit the button, booked the rooms and flights, secured the rental car, confirmed the tee times.

Eventually we wandered to our rooms. We checked in. We got situated — who was sleeping where, what time we’d head to dinner.

Hey, where’s Dad?

One of my brothers walked out onto the small patio, one big enough for a few chairs and with zero view of the course or the Pacific. No, this view wasn’t one they highlight in the brochure. Still, somehow, it felt special, an indescribable feeling that you’re at a place and time you’ll never forget. My brother found my father there. The old man was crying. He shrugged it off, never admitted he was fighting tears. He didn’t often cry. Me? I’m the one who, when my best friend Tony came to the house and picked me up and told my father today was the day he was going to beat me on the course, my father would respond, always, without hesitation … “Be nice. He’s my baby. He’s sensitive. He cries easy.”

My father, he didn’t cry easy.

This trip to Pebble Beach brought him to tears.

THE WEATHER ON THE MONTEREY PENINSULA can be fickle. The fog can roll in. The wind can blow so hard you’re better off with a kite in your hand than a golf club. The rain can come down sideways.

The morning we woke up for our round at Pebble Beach, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The sunshine made the Pacific Ocean sparkle.

We had breakfast together overlooking the first tee. We watched tee shot after tee shot, knowing that, in a few hours, after all the years of talking about it, promising it would happen, that would be us.

My brothers went off to the practice range to loosen up. Back then, I had a mental block about warming up. I didn’t do it. A few bad shots on the range would start the demons in my head, my swing a mess before the tee was in the ground on No. 1. So my father and I stayed behind. He sat on a bench next to the practice green while I rolled a few putts. I asked if he was going to hit some.

“I don’t need to practice, I know how to putt,” he said, a line he had perfected and used any time he could.

On I went, hitting lags and 4-footers. Eventually, I looked back over at the bench. He was gone. A few minutes went by, still no sign of him. About 10 minutes later, I turned around and there he was, back on the bench.

He was eating a Snickers bar. He also had on a brand-new, straight-from-the-pro-shop, didn’t-fit-his-head-right, utterly hideous Pebble Beach hat.

“I couldn’t help myself,” he said with a smile and a shrug.

For five hours, we wandered around Pebble Beach. We took pictures. We looked out at the scene before us, golf’s most picturesque piece of real estate ours for this one day. We had to be reminded by our caddies that, hey, you need to hit your shot now. You find yourself looking and watching, lost in the joy of the moment. You forget to, you know, actually play golf.

During our other rounds, on the days leading up to this one at Pebble Beach, my father would sit out a hole here and there. Though only 60, he never really took great care of himself. So, no, he wasn’t in the best shape. During the first few rounds of this trip — at Half Moon Bay and Spyglass Hill — he would take breaks, more than content to sit in the cart or stand next to the green and watch his boys. I’ll never forget that look on his face, a father happy to see his sons in the same place, enjoying a sport he brought to their lives, embracing this time together.

At Pebble Beach, he took one hole off. It was his reward to himself after he knocked in his third shot at No. 15, a 50-yarder that carried the front trap and tumbled in the hole. We all let out a little yell. He threw his arms up. His dream round at Pebble Beach came with a birdie. ‘Til the day he died, he mocked me, that he had more birdies than his youngest son with the single handicap.

I have the ball. It sits in the bottom drawer of his desk, which is in the spare room/office at my house. I sit at that desk every single day. Sometimes I’ll open the drawer and grab the ball, just to hold it for a second. I’ll sit back, the ball in my hand, and stare up at the one picture that hangs on the wall above his desk: a picture of the Lone Cypress on 17-Mile Drive, which runs through Pebble Beach.

I DIDN’T GROW UP ON MANICURED FAIRWAYS. No rows of pearly white practice balls lined up on the range. Every once in a while, my father would apologize for that. He’d quietly say he was sorry we weren’t members somewhere. I had gotten pretty good, daydreamed about playing Division I college golf. Got myself down to a single handicap. Often, though, he told me he knew that if he could have just done enough to get us to become country club members, I’d be even better.

What he didn’t know was that I had it better. I grew on a 2,871-yard goat track 9.1 miles from that imaginary course I set up in the front yard. Don’t try to land the ball on the green at Wemberly Hills; it won’t stop. In the summer, when the temperature rises and rain doesn’t come for weeks, don’t expect to find your ball on green grass. The place looks like the USGA had its hands on it for months, the fairways appearing more like hardwood floors in the living room and the greens about as soft as your driveway.

The golf balls in my bag? My father taught me how to find them. The opening hole at the course we went to so often had trees lining the left side. One of the curses of golf is the nerves on the first tee. Just ask Tiger Woods, whose career is marked by wild tee balls to start a round. Get a little quick on the backswing, turn that front shoulder a little too soon to take a peek at where the ball is headed, you’ve got the dreaded duck hook out of bounds to kick off your round. What you lost, my father found. Later, what you lost, I found. An hour or two before he would play each Thursday, when he was still able to wander into those trees, he’d spend a half hour in the woods along No. 1. He’d walk out with a dozen or two. “Could have had more, but only picked up the good ones,” he’d say with a laugh.

When I needed some golf balls, I snuck into his bag and grabbed a few. Eventually, I took up the family business and wandered into the woods, filling my bag with the duck hooks left behind.

At that course, with those people I’ll remember ’til I take my last breath — T-Bone and Zaz, Joey Z and Uncle Ed and Mr. Boo — I learned how to play. I’d play with my brothers, but most of the rounds came with my father and his friends. My most vivid memories are from Thursday nights, playing my nine-hole match in the same group as my father. Then, he’d retreat to the deck behind the second green as a group of us would go play Nos. 1 and 2 for a few dollars a hole until it got dark.

Golf etiquette went out the window at about 6:30 p.m. every Thursday. Quiet, please? Not with this crowd. Keep your group to a foursome? Whoever wanted to play put a tee in the ground and fired away. Ever try to keep track of where your ball is in an 11-some?

The second green was right below the deck, so each time the group got up to that green to line up putts for a handful of singles and bragging rights worth multiple times that, the hecklers were waiting. My father was never one to shy away from a wisecrack. But in those moments, even when the one-liners were flying from the deck and from the 10 others waiting to putt, he was quiet. I always knew just how hard he was rooting, quietly hoping his son — in high school, then college, then a working professional — would hole the putt that won the cash.

My father never took his own game that seriously. He had a backswing so slow you could time it with a sundial, a slice so big you thought he was trying to get his golf ball to make a U-turn. Nah, he didn’t get nervous. That was my move.

I did see him rattled once, on the final night of the world-famous Throop Open, long considered golf’s fifth major. It was a four-week event with handicaps. I was in eighth grade, had never broken 40 for nine holes. But the first three weeks, I posted 39-39-39, which led to howls that I had been sandbagging the league all year. I headed into the last week in the lead.

That final day, the problem that has plagued golfers for centuries and me since the day I picked up a club showed: I started thinking. Those nine holes were a struggle. I remember my father was quiet, especially when it looked as if I was headed for a Jean van de Velde-like collapse on No. 8. Then the hole got in the way of a chip that was going way too fast. A par saved. A sigh breathed. I walked to the ninth tee and saw him in his cart — he rode, I walked — and looked at him in just enough time to see him say “OK” to no one in particular. He wouldn’t say it to me. He wouldn’t say it to anyone. But he wanted me to win. He wanted me to do well. That was how he went about each day, hoping for the best for his three boys.

THE DAY THE PHONE RANG, I didn’t pick up. My wife and I had decided on a spur-of-the-moment ride to Fenway Park for a Red Sox game. We made the 90-minute commute, got something to eat and headed into the stadium. As we settled into our seats along the first-base side, the phone in my pocket buzzed. It was my father. I decided not to answer. Our conversations weren’t all that deep when he called. He’d ask how the car was running. He’d complain that the Phillies couldn’t score any runs. He’d hint that maybe it was time for me to come and visit. Most of the time when he called, he’d have some game on in the background, loud enough that I couldn’t make out what he was saying anyway.

I decided I’d just call him back on the way home. Thirty seconds later, the phone buzzed again. I showed my wife the caller ID. She said pick it up. After all, the running joke among my father, my two brothers and me was that “Nick is the only one who picks up the goddamn phone.”

I answered, starting to talk before he could get in a word. But it wasn’t him. It was the neighbor, telling me my father was in the hospital. He was on a blood thinner from a previous ailment. He had bumped his head earlier in the day when he got rear-ended in a parking lot. A few hours later, he collapsed. Now he was at the hospital.

The neighbor was telling me all this. I heard the words — bleeding on his brain, heading for surgery — but I didn’t understand the words.

She said he wanted to talk to me. She handed him the phone. His words came out a little slow, but he sounded like himself. Told me not to worry. Said he had a headache. I told him my wife and I were jumping in the car and heading to Pennsylvania. He told me don’t do that, he’s fine. I said we’re coming. He said he’s fine. I could hear some commotion behind him, so I knew he had to go. I told him I loved him. I’m sure I said it. I ask my wife every few weeks — I said it, right? I told him I loved him before I hung up, right?

That was the last time I talked to him.

He went in for one surgery, then another. Despite the enormous talent, compassion and care of his doctors and nurses, he never regained consciousness. Two days later, he died. He was 69 years old.

The neighbor said he told her one thing over and over as they were prepping him for surgery. He needed to talk to his sons. Please get them on the phone. One by one, she tracked us all down. One by one, we told him we loved him.

At the funeral home, as his relatives and friends and co-workers and people we’d never met wandered through the line, between sobs and the muffled “I’m sorry for your loss,” we heard two things over and over.

He was so proud of you boys.

He talked about that Pebble Beach trip all the time.

What we didn’t know was how much shopping he did on the trip. People came up to us at the funeral home, or called the house during the week, and told us stories about how my father had given them a ball marker he bought while there. Dozens of people told us the same story. My brothers and I looked at each other and asked the same thing: Did you know he did that?

He wanted to give something to people from the trip he had always wanted to make. The other motivation, too, was this small token, this ball marker, would inevitably cause them to ask about the trip.

That was his chance to tell them all about it, how he played Pebble Beach with his three boys. He’d tell them about us freezing our butts off during a morning tour around 17-Mile Drive, about what geniuses we were to go for a spin in a convertible when it was 50 degrees out. He’d laugh as he told how many half-bottles of wine we drank at dinner after our round. Yes, half-bottles, because, well, we weren’t really going to finish a full bottle. Until we did. Then we ordered another half-bottle. Rinse, repeat. He’d tell them about dinner overlooking the ocean. He’d brag about he how made birdie and brought mighty Pebble Beach to its knees.

Then he’d tell them what he told his us as we finished the round and hugged on the 18th green, after he’d played Pebble Beach with his three boys.

“This was the greatest day of my life.”

At the funeral home, one by one, people said their last goodbyes, headed to the church and then off to the cemetery. I touched his shoulder. I told him I was going to miss him. I told him I loved him.

When they closed the casket, two items were tucked inside.

A picture of him with his three boys.

And that Pebble Beach hat.

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