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PGN Feature: Way Up North, Getting Back to Family Golf Traditions

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Didn't have the heart to tell Lukas we're dropping from knee height these days. (MATT GAJTKA/PGN)

THOMPSONVILLE, Mich. — Shane Lowry and I have one thing in common. OK, make it two things.

One: We both play golf. What, did you think I was Irish?

Two: We both got an extra year with our most coveted piece of hardware, solely because of COVID-19.

But while we don’t know if Lowry will be able to re-claim the Claret Jug this weekend at Royal St. George’s, I can report that I had to hand off the Heeren Invitational trophy after my sister-in-law basically lapped our usual six-player field at Crystal Mountain Resort.

Last year was the outlier, of course, but ever since 2010, my wife’s Michigan-based family has hosted a summer trip to the northwest corner of the Lower Peninsula. It’s not all about golf, but our stay is nonetheless centered around the game.

The rules of the competition aren’t terribly complicated. The six golfing members of the family — my father-in-law Jim, my brothers-in-law Joel and Todd, my sister-in-law Megan, my wife Jillian and me — challenge the 36 holes on the resort property, stroke play being the game. We handicap based on our average scores over the past decade.

To emphasize recent form, we decided to switch to a three-year average for next year’s handicap, but not before Megan broke out for a huge margin of victory. She outplayed her normal Crystal Mountain scores by 32(!) strokes over 36 holes.

Hey, there’s no perfect system, but the idea is for everyone to be able to compete for the tan jacket and Heeren Invite trophy. Two years ago, I outperformed my usually shoddy golf trip form by a lot, so I can appreciate the redemption story.

Yes, we actually do have a jacket and a trophy, the latter of which I was happy to hand off to Meg on Sunday afternoon.

Happy to play second fiddle to a breakout performance. (MATT GAJTKA/PGN)

For what it’s worth, I also lost the unofficial gross competition to Todd by five after I shot dueling 81s. I considered a second-place finish a win, though, after our one-year-old Henrik had a couple of rough nights. At that groggy point, I’m just hoping to finish the round upright.

It’s a weird thing about playing with/against loved ones. Shortly after Jillian and I got married in 2008, I put a lot of pressure on myself to play well in front of her family. I still feel some of that, but not nearly as much after more than a decade.

At the same time, if there’s anybody I shouldn’t feel pressure to perform in front of, it’s people who have accepted me into their brood. Nevertheless, I’ve had some of my lowest moments in golf at Crystal Mountain, leading up to the high of 2019.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Maybe that’s just golf. Too much time to spend in your own head, to build up expectations and — usually — fail to meet them.

But there is something about age and experience that can tame some of those tigers. At least that’s been the case for me. No way I break 90 after a crappy night’s sleep a few years ago. It could be the mental toughening that parenthood inspires, too.

Now fortunate are we to play a game that allows for us to mark time in such a way? To chart our personal growth (or lack thereof) along with the development of our golf skills. In a world that glorifies youth and novelty, this sport also rewards perseverance and wisdom in equal measure.

Results be damned, this year’s trip also marked our four-year-old Lukas’ first time tagging along for nine holes.

OK, it was technically eight, but suffice it to say the Tyke got in more than his share of swings … and breaches of etiquette. We’ll work on that.

But the memory I’ll always take from last week’s trip was from our first night on the property. I took Lukas to the practice area, where I hoped he’d take to the short game green. It wasn’t less than five minutes into our hourlong chip-and-putt session when he declared that I was Phil Mickelson and he was Tiger Woods.

Never mind that he’s the lefty and I’m the righty. That hit me right in my golfing heart.

It was very good to be back.

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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