Three days after what should have been the final round of the 84th Masters, my father called.
“I need you to take me to the ER,” he said.
He had been battling pneumonia — or so we thought — and our initial worst fears were that it could make him more vulnerable to the coronavirus. But all it took were several tests to reveal he had cancer, stage 4, and “it’s everywhere,” as he later described.
I should have guessed there was more at play with the sports world literally shut down. My dad was a fanatic and watched almost any live event, but he carved out his calendar for soccer and golf, and both were in season.
The Masters, above all else, was sacred.
An avid golfer, he loved everything about the tournament: the course and its layout, the small field of players, the Sunday back-nine shootouts, and the way CBS captured the drama on its telecasts. He even tolerated its schmaltzy, Dave Loggins-penned theme music.
It became my favorite, as well — as if genetically predisposed — and watching it together was our ritual. We shared many of golf’s majors, but the second weekend of April was reserved for “a tradition unlike any other.”
I can still recall his outbursts when Jack navigated a double breaker at 17 in 1986, or when Norman lipped out at 15 in 1996, or when Phil finally won in 2004 with a birdie at 18.
There was no Masters this April, its postponement insignificant compared to the misfortunes the pandemic inflicted on the world’s population and economy. When I drove by my father’s house on the day before Easter, on what would have been the third round, I sensed that something was awry, and there was more to it than the absence of golf.
In the one month since social distancing had interrupted our contact, he had aged considerably. By the time I got him to the hospital the following week, he could hardly breathe or walk. In my head, I set November as a goal, and the rescheduled Masters as our destination.
As each day got worse, though, I shortened the timeline and envisioned us in England cheering his beloved Liverpool to its first ever Premier League title, or in Barcelona where he’d finally get to glimpse his favorite athlete, Messi, in person.
In the end, we settled for rerun El Clásicos on his bedside TV. My father, Joseph J. McLane, died on May 5, twenty days after he was first diagnosed, at age 74.
My dad was my hero, not because he was extraordinary in any way. In fact, he could sometimes disappoint me. He seemed to have all the answers when I was young, and even if he didn’t as I matured into a man, time had softened his rough edges, and he aged gracefully, unlike the junky old cars he was fond of buying.
A daddy’s boy, I viewed him through that prism, even after my parents divorced. It took years to appreciate how gallant his life had been. His mother was sick most of his childhood and died when he was 10. His father, a WWII veteran, had an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, as did his older brother. His younger brother perished in a car accident at 21.
I never once heard a complaint or an excuse about his circumstances. The same held true throughout a sickness that his doctor called one of the most aggressive of its kind he had ever seen. I guess my father was heroic.
We had a typical father-son relationship in that sports were a bond, but we had much more in common; our tastes in books, music, film and hobbies often aligned. We were identical in our views and beliefs, our conversations often dovetailing into back-and-forth rants about politics and religion.
As close as we were, however, he was at times a mystery to me.
He wasn’t an overly emotional man, nor did we have what could be described as an affectionate relationship. Hugs and “I love you” weren’t a part of our dynamic — until the end. Compliments were also hard to come by, and it was frustrating when he’d praise one of my six siblings. Only later I discovered their experiences with him were similar.
Best I ever got may have been “you’re a pretty good writer.” Of course, he was probably the only family member to regularly read my stories. A loyal Inquirer subscriber for his entire adult life, he once called to complain about the late delivery. He dropped my name. The next morning, there was a knock on his door. It was a hand-delivered newspaper.
That seemed to impress him.
I wouldn’t be a sportswriter without him. He had done work for an Inquirer sports editor around the time of my college graduation, and when I had expressed an interest in changing my career objective, he handed me the editor’s number. “Call him,” he said, and that’s where the advice ended.
But I think it was the books he passed along that guided me most to the written word. A voracious reader, his rooms were cluttered with stacks of books. “Here’s something from Tom Wolfe you might like,” he’d offer. “This is Elmore Leonard’s best,” he’d say of his favorite writer.
He once gave me A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean after it had been made into a movie. “The book’s better,” he opined. When I finally got around to reading it, one sentence stuck with me, and became an aphorism when my father confounded me:
We can love completely without complete understanding.
I’m sure each of my three brothers and sisters — or anyone who had known him — had a different connection and understanding of my father. That isn’t lost on me. I myself could spin a thousand different stories about him, any individual thought spiraling me into a wormhole of memories about his many traits.
He had so many interests. He loved puzzles, all kinds, but especially the New York Times crossword. His Sundays revolved around completing it. Aside from his brain, his only other source was a dictionary that was so worn it cracked into three pieces.
Trivia was another source of pleasure. The more obscure the better. Jeopardy! was appointment viewing, and on the day before he died, he grunted out answers I couldn’t decipher, but I’m sure were correct.
He enjoyed cooking meals for his large family. I’ll miss his sausage and meatballs. He had a peculiar sense of humor that was especially tickled by British comedies. The Quiet Man was his favorite movie. His preference in music ran the gamut and influenced my own. I can’t listen to Bob Dylan or any number of songs without envisioning him singing along off key.
Nearly everything about him I studied intently — the way he ate with sweat dripping off his nose, his distinctive aroma, the leg rested on his knee while watching TV, even the odd way he cleaned the dirt out from under his nails with the corners of a book.
He had his idiosyncrasies, but they became endearing with time. An early riser, he’d awaken me with phone calls. You gave him a time to arrive for an event, and he showed an hour in advance. He was impatient and sacrificed precision for speed. He showed more warmth toward his dog, Otis, than any of his seven children or 21 grandchildren.
But he was also the most generous person I’ve ever known. He gave and gave. Never asked for anything. Many trips to his house would end with my arms full of parting gifts. If he had the time, he never said no to a request, from house projects to babysitting my three sons. I could never repay him.
There was never a moment I grew tired of his company. Our last three weeks together, however trying, I’ll cherish, and alone are worth a thousand pages.
Lockdowns kept me from following him into the ER or visiting during his first two hospital stays. But on his third and last admittance, his condition turned grave and I was permitted inside. He agreed to hospice, and before we got him home, I told him he was a good father.
“I wouldn’t be here if you weren’t,” I said.
“I guess you’re right,” he said.
Sports, ultimately, was our connective tissue. He coached my baseball teams. Umpired, as well. When he didn’t coach, he attended and got so caught up in the action that he was the only voice I’d hear. He argued with the officials to my embarrassment.
Soccer excited him more than other team sports. His passion for it was first fostered when he was stationed in England with the U.S. Army. The year was 1966 and England hosted and won the World Cup.
His children all played at one point and when I was in grade school, his job as an insurance salesman allowed him to pop up at my practices. To my humiliation, he joined the scrimmages, and because he was late to soccer, wasn’t very good. My friends called him, “Toe Joe,” for the incorrect way he kicked the ball, but in retrospect I don’t remember any other fathers willing to go skins.
There were lessons, however they were conveyed. In Little League, I once hit a baseball home run distance. It was so rare an occurrence that when the third base coach put up the stop sign, I ran through. When I was thrown out at home, I chucked my helmet against the fence. Next thing I knew, my dad had me by the arm and was dragging me to the car.
He waited years before taking me out on a real golf course. Two holes in, I tossed a club. He took me aside, and calmly told me that one more tantrum would end our golfing days. For someone with a bit of a temper, I never once saw him lose his cool on the course.
He excelled at golf. An Air Force brat, he could play the links near his father’s base for free. He was a single-digit handicap most his life and hit down on the ball with so much force, his divots were the size of sod. Lee Trevino once joked that “not even God can hit a 1-iron,” but my father could, and it was a Ping Eye 2.
An unfortunate table saw accident 17 years ago mangled his left hand and set back his golf game. He lost half his ring finger — a source of amusement for his kids considering his unwillingness to remarry, even with his 25-year companion, Lisa — but he attacked therapy and would recapture most of his form.
We must have golfed over 100 rounds together. Went to every professional tournament held locally. He finally made it to Augusta National about a decade ago, but he only went for a practice round, as he preferred to watch the Masters on TV, often with me by his side.
But it’s our rounds together I’ll treasure the most. We golfed everywhere, but Melrose Country Club in Cheltenham had become our home course. He caddied there in high school as I would a generation later. He eventually joined the club, and even after it went public, would still hit the track four times a week.
I was never the golfer he was. But when we played, he often cared more about my round than his. I always knew I had done well when he’d say, “You hit it on the screws,” in reference to the sweet spot in between the four screws on the facing of old woods.
In recent years, I hosted him at my course. Age had taken its toll on his game, but he finally relented to play the senior tees, and last summer he beat me again. We arrived at 18 in a deadlock. My drive went out of bounds. His landed in the middle of the fairway.
He steadied over the ball, didn’t waste a second, as was his nerve, and stroked his approach shot to within two clubs’ length. I knew my father wasn’t perfect, but at that moment I knew that I was beholding perfection.
And that shall be how I remember him — standing in pose, iron rested on his shoulder, eyes narrowed on a cleanly struck ball, arched gracefully into the sky, forever on target ...
You hit it on the screws, Dad.