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For a few on tour, dad's advice went from personal to business

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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EDITOR'S NOTE: Through Father's Day, CBSSports.com writers will present a series of articles portraying fatherhood and sporting figures.

BETHESDA, Md. -- The swing coach's top student had been grousing for a while about a certain issue that had been dogging him, leaving him frustrated and two club-lengths from crazy. Over and over, in nearly every conversation, the pupil mentioned he was consistently hitting the same poor shot.

Since it kept coming up, the coach mulled the problem for several weeks, considering the possible root causes, then finally figured out the problem -- a bad grip.

Don Trahan, nicknamed the swing surgeon, both diagnosed the malady and offered a remedy over the telephone.

Jim Furyk celebrated his 2003 U.S. Open victory on Father's Day thanks to a little help from his dad. (Getty Images)  
Jim Furyk celebrated his 2003 U.S. Open victory on Father's Day thanks to a little help from his dad. (Getty Images)  
"Well, I'd like to think I could do that for any of my students," he laughed.

The pupil in question wasn't some forklift driver coughing up the hourly teaching rate and hoping to someday break 90. The player on the other end of the line was his son, D.J. Trahan, a two-time PGA Tour winner and the recipient of the Nicklaus and Hogan awards in college.

The Trahans are part of a small band, if not a breed, linked both by golf and biology, plying their trades on the roughest circuit in the game. Not only are they father and son, but student and teacher.

In an era when swing coaches have never been more paramount and indispensible in the minds of most players, there is a fistful of father-son teams on the PGA Tour, and two of them will be on hand this week at the U.S. Open, where the winner will hoist the trophy on Father's Day.

If there's a certainty in golf, it's that golfers generally gravitate to the game because of a family member's involvement, and more often than not, dad stands at the center of the picture. Books have been written on the subject, waxing in profundities about the genetic ties that bind and how fractured relationships were mended by the joint fight against a common enemy, old man par.

Yet we're not talking about amateur hour here. The tour is high-stakes stuff, with mega-purses on the line every week, so sugar-coated paternal pleasantries can just cloud the picture. Despite the myriad complexities, Jim Furyk, Sergio Garcia, Spencer Levin, Alex Prugh and Trahan loyally consult the guys who got them to The Show in the first place.

Their pater familias.

That's not the only Latin, not to mention French, that can get tossed around when competitive, hard-headed individuals cut from the same genetic cloth are working to achieve the same goal, quite possibly through completely different theoretical means. The general father-son dynamic can be complicated enough, as many of us know, so adding a boss/employee element can lead to occasional fireworks.

"I'm sure that if you talked to enough people in the Hilton Head area, you'd hear some stories about D.J. and I having some spats here and there," laughed Don Trahan, who lives in South Carolina, a couple of hours from his son.

Dads have taught their sons the game's rudiments for decades, then usually handed off to a teaching pro as the kid progressed. Tiger Woods learned the basics from his dad, who remained his putting guru until he died five years ago, but Woods had a couple of coaches as a junior before Butch Harmon took over.

But the baton sometimes stays in the same family. Arnold Palmer had one coach -- his dad, Deke, who once imparted the famous, fateful advice that Arnie quickly took to heart: "Swing hard, son, just in case you hit it." To this day, Palmer finds the increasing reliance on swing coaches to be unnecessary, but he admits that he didn't grow up in the videotape generation.

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"My father was my swing coach, and I saw him at least once a year for about 70 years, and he never changed anything," Palmer laughed a few weeks ago. "He watched me for five minutes and went home.

"He put my hands on the golf club when I was 6 years old and said, 'Boy, don't you ever change it,'" Palmer said, drawing laughs. "Well, I haven't changed it. And I'm 81 years old."

Obviously, that dynamic wouldn't work for anybody. But it hasn't exactly slowed down Furyk, the reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year and the 2003 U.S. Open champion. Last fall, Mike Furyk was caught by NBC Sports cameras giving his son some advice before weekend play at the Tour Championship in Atlanta, an event Furyk would eventually win, claiming a $10 million bonus.

"We had our growing pains for sure growing up," Jim Furyk said. "It's like teaching your wife to play golf or your wife trying to show you something -- it's just when two people love each other, I think it's harder to take instruction. The teacher can say things to the pupil that he might not [say] to other kids.

"And as a kid with your parent, you say stuff back to the teacher that you wouldn't usually say because they're your parent. I was probably at fault a lot more, trust me. I think we had our growing pains through that. But in the long run we made it work, and we got to play golf together, got to do a lot of things together and accomplish ... I've got to do a lot more with my father than most kids because of it."

Of course, bluntness is not a universally applied trait in these scenarios. The Trahans are, shall we say, both on the strong-willed side, yet you might think that dad would long ago have dispensed with the verbal embroidery and niceties.

You would be wrong.

"Since he turned pro and became a tour player, you might dance around it for a while," the elder Trahan said, diplomatically as possible. "You sort of find out whether he wants to hear it or not."

Aye, there's the rub. For many tour players, it's never a matter of pilot error. Caddies and swing coaches are constantly on the firing carousel as a result, which makes the father/son teams that much more notable for their longevity.

Of course, the bios on the four driving-range dads is pretty diverse: Furyk's father was a club pro in Pennsylvania, while Garcia's dad, Victor, was a tour player in Europe. Don Trahan has been a teaching pro in the Southeast for decades and Levin's father, Don, briefly played on the PGA Tour in the late 1970s and has been teaching in Sacramento area for years. Prugh's father, Steve, is a club pro in Spokane, Wash., who sent three of his kids, Alex included, into the college ranks.

But there's one common thread. Most sons look at their dads and absorb 20 percent of what is said, ignoring the rest. At some point along the way, each of these four came to grips with the fact that their old man actually knew what he was talking about.

"When I was a kid, yeah, for sure -- at 12, 15, 16, 17, when I kind of first started playing, I was always right," Spencer Levin laughed. "Then I was never right. But now, I've gone through it so many times with him, I don't argue at all.

"He always ends up being right, anyway, about my swing. So I just listen now."

If you're a dad reading this, you know that's tantamount to a miracle in itself.

"What's the best way to gain credibility with your kid?" the elder Trahan asked. "When what you teach them works."

When it doesn't, well, it doubtlessly makes for an interesting vibe around the dinner table at Thanksgiving.

"It's awkward in the sense that you step out of a being a pupil, into a son into -- it's different," Jim Furyk said. "But I wouldn't have had it any other way, and it was a blessing for us to spend countless hours over the years. It's been a lot of fun."

When it works for both offspring and wellspring, there's nothing better, Trahan said. The level of gratification almost cannot be described, and can be felt at their very core, he said.

"There is no better feeling than your son being your best student, your best player," Don Trahan said. "It's always a big thing for a coach when a student wins. But it adds a whole new spectrum to your life when it's your kid."

Or, perhaps, when it's the generation after that. Palmer has taken over the coaching reins with grandson Sam Saunders, a rising professional who secured a spot in the field at Congressional this week via sectional qualifying. When Saunders asked Palmer to serve as his swing coach, the King had one ground rule, which is reminiscent of the relationship he had with his own dad.

"The agreement was," Palmer said, "that he not listen to anybody but me."

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