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First on the Tee

First On The Tee: Dear Old Dad Gets Back in the Game

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Let the record show Ray Gajtka's first golf shot since 2018 was struck well, but left. (MATT GAJTKA/PGN)

FRANKLIN PARK, Pa. — “You never lose it! You never forget!”

Confident words from a man who just pulled his approach to a 130-yard par 3 wide left, but they fit the moment nonetheless.

On the list of people who were influential in getting me into golf, my Dad would rank somewhere behind Tiger Woods and my maternal grandfather, but he’s still in the top five.

Although I would roll my eyes at his occasional advice when I played in high school tournaments — what is “Just play your game” supposed to mean when my game changes from round to round? — he was nothing if not supportive whenever I poured my energies into competing.

I think part of that was that, when he was a kid growing up in Weirton, West Virginia, golf was a game for the affluent country-club set. He played basketball at Weir High instead. Maybe watching me tee it up for my school provided some vicarious thrill.

Or maybe it was just that I wasn’t much of a sports-oriented youngster until I hit adolescence. Dad was probably grateful I latched onto something athletic … and happened to show some decent skill at it.

Regardless, Dad’s been one of my most frequent playing partners over the years. Or at least he was, until the past few. Bad shoulder. Bum hip. And now, pending (shudder) hernia surgery.

In a funny way, that last ailment actually freed him up to tee it up last Friday after a couple of years off. Doctor said he can’t hurt himself any worse, essentially.

So, for the first time in I don’t know how long, an all-Gajtka trio put their pegs in the ground together. With my younger brother Mark joining us, we eased Dad back into the game with a quick nine at the cozy Clover Hill Golf Course in the North Hills.

Well, it would’ve been a quick nine if it weren’t a beautiful, sunny morning at the start of a holiday weekend. We practically crawled around the short, yet interesting layout, but when you haven’t spent that kind of quality time with a couple of guys you shared a house with for two decades, a long wait in the fairway is just another excuse to catch up.

No doubt, Dad could use some practice. It took him four to get down from the greenside rough after that aforementioned tee shot, but his shortened stroke was back to pumping low fades into the fairway in no time. (I now remember my Grandpa saying that when you don’t take the club back that far, less can go wrong.)

Funny how playing golf can take you back. I should’ve predicted Dad’s fake-anguished cries of “Sickening!” when Mark and I rolled in birdie putts or pounded our drivers. You could’ve convinced me it was 2005 or 2010 or 2015.

All was right with the world, down to the smell of the crispy July turf underfoot as we approached a green in tandem. Well, Dad was speeding slightly ahead of us in his cart, the round’s only concession to the hernia.

As the eldest member of the group settled over an eight-foot birdie putt on No. 9, the result of a well-struck iron and a friendly bounce off a greenside mound, I expected him to roll it right in to complete the comeback round.

Nope. Pushed it. And I should’ve known what was coming next.

“Can you guys just give that to me?”

The train tracks that bisect the nine-hole course at Frosty Valley Golf Links. (MATT GAJTKA/PGN)

DOWN THE FAIRWAY

• Start with the local golf news, in case you missed it over the holiday weekend. The WPGA Amateur Championship has been postponed indefinitely due to the renewed gathering restrictions in Allegheny County.

Those restrictions, inspired by rising COVID-19 case numbers in recent days, are scheduled to expire this Friday, July 10. The 120th edition of the tourney also known as the West Penn Am was set to begin today and conclude tomorrow at Allegheny Country Club in Sewickley.

Keep it here for more updates on when the Amateur might be made up. Hopefully soon, but I’m out of the COVID-19 prediction business.

• Seems like the Tri-State PGA’s Falling Rock Classic at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort is still on for today and tomorrow, since the venue is in Fayette County.

Likewise on the Isaly’s Junior Tour, which will stop in Grove City tomorrow and Washington on Wednesday.

• Make a hole-in-one recently? We want to hear your story! Leave a comment, send a tweet or email me at matt.gajtka@gmail.com.

• The PGA Tour has now officially completed a month in its return-to-play endeavor, as Bryson DeChambeau culminated four weeks of leaderboard lurking by running away with the Rocket Mortgage Classic at Detroit Golf Club. His final-round 65 was the best of the day and boosted him to a career-best total of 23 under.

Matthew Wolff closed to within one shot on the back nine after squandering the 54-hole lead, but there was just too much power — and putting, finally — from DeChambeau, who won for the sixth time as a pro. The bulked-up Bryson ranked first in the field in Strokes Gained off the tee and on the green.

His approach shots are still erratic by PGA Tour standards, but make no mistake: DeChambeau is changing the game with his prodigious power. His average driving distance this week of 350 yards is the longest by a winner in the history of the Tour, beating the old record by nearly 10 full yards.

A lot can happen in a month, but he’s gonna be my favorite at the PGA at Harding Park.

• The best in the world head south to greater Columbus, Ohio, for the next two weeks, starting with the Workday Charity Open. If you’ve never heard of it, that’s because it replaced the John Deere Classic, which will not be competed this year.

No Tiger Woods in the 156-player field at Muirfield Village Golf Club, but Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas and Jon Rahm will return after a week off.

• Not to make it all about Bryson, but the guy is undoubtedly the most interesting man in the sport right now, especially with Tiger slow-playing his return to the course. The guy is a combined 69 under par since the return from the COVID-19 shutdown.

But his comments Saturday that cameras shouldn’t follow him so closely when he’s ticked off at himself couldn’t have been more wrong. He claimed that catching pros in their negative emotions could damage their brands, but I see it the opposite way.

My viewing experience has always been enhanced by watching reactive players. One of my criticisms of the PGA Tour over the years — and golf in general — is that the players tend to behave too much like robots.

As someone who tries to play competitively every now and again, I understand that an even keel is desirable for performance, but pro golf is ostensibly entertainment. Show me some feeling, and I’ll find it easier to relate to you.

Obviously I disagree with DeChambeau’s thoughts on rights-holders having an obligation to ‘protect’ the athletes, but for me Bryson’s wrong on a couple of accounts. If I see Bryson slam a club or drop a profanity or whatever, it’s more likely to enrich his brand, not detract from it.

• A reminder that PGN is open for your business! We have a variety of advertising packages available, ranging from traditional banner-type ads to full-on partnerships with plenty of opportunities for what the marketers would call ‘brand activation.’

In all seriousness, we’d love to help you get the word out on your local golf business. Email me at matt.gajtka@gmail.com for more information, including our Birdie and Eagle packages for those companies who want to rise to the top of our course and practice directory pages.

• I’ll end where I started: On a personal note. My wife Jillian is due with our second child on Tuesday, and we’re scheduled to induce her Wednesday morning if Lukas’ little sibling doesn’t arrive naturally.

I have two more stories already finished this week, with another in the works today. We’ll see how it all pans out, but if I’m quiet for a bit, you’ll know why!

A 15-year veteran of sports media, Matt Gajtka (GITE-kah) is the founding editor of PGN. Matt is a lifelong golfer with a passion for all aspects of the sport, from technique to courses to competition. His experience ranges from reporting on Pittsburgh's major-league beats, to broadcasting a variety of sports, to public relations, multimedia production and social media.

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