“Daddy, I have a question.”
“How far do you think I hit my driver on average – 72 yards, 73 yards, or 74 yards?”
“I dunno, buddy.”
“Do you think I will be very good at avoiding laser beams?”
I’m typing this at 36,000 feet flying across the country to Bandon, Oregon, to play two of America’s great courses – Bandon Dunes and Pacific Dunes – remembering a conversation I had a couple days ago with my eight-year-old son. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Will, who helped me rediscover why I loved the game of golf.
I say “loved” because a couple years ago, I quit and I quit in arguably the most fantastic cathedral in all of golf, ending a nearly lifelong love of the game.
My cousins first introduced me to the game in 1983. I was a twelve-year-old farm boy in east central Illinois. My first four holes at Brook Hill Golf Course went 12, 22, 12, and 7.
As you might suspect, it was that seven that kept me coming back like a hopeless addict for the next twenty-one years. I worked at courses in college and often played seven days a week until a sort-of-real job got its hooks into me at 25. Still, I could play a dozen times a month and had a single-digit handicap.
I played with a regular group at times. I played alone at times. I swept the dew of early morning and played in dusk so dark, I’d hit and guess, hit and guess. I lived for the frictionless thwack of a well-struck shot, and the sweet sounds of balls bottoming out in cups.
It was cheaper than therapy, I’d tell my friends, though I had no understanding of real challenges or needs for therapy and wouldn’t for a few more years.
From day 0, William Reis Miles was a challenge. Most people speak with awe of their children’s births. I do the same about the natural, at-home birth of our daughter, Sarah, in 2009. Will’s birth, however, was traumatic from the start. After hours and hours of labor with no delivery, complications arose with Will’s heart rate, and my wife delivered our son that evening via emergency Caesarian, but that was just the beginning.
Through the first year of his life, we noticed Will’s development felt strange. He wouldn’t make eye contact with us or smile at us or connect with us in a way our friends’ children were doing with them. He would, instead, stare for long periods of time at the strangest of things – hinges in his crib, for example. When he played with toys, he often played atypically. Toy cars across our house would be turned upside down. He preferred spinning the wheels over and over and over.
Now, like most parents I suspect during the first year of a child’s birth, I didn’t feel right playing much golf. In addition to managing a rapidly growing division of a company, we had few friends and no family with us in Columbia. It was my wife and me. I’d play in the occasional work-related outing but that was about it. I could still shoot in the low 80s. My short game suffered, sure, but I still got great joy out of frictionless thwacks and sweet sounds of balls in cups.
But, I was about to learn what bottoming out really meant.
On October 20th, 2005, Will turned one surrounded by other small children who seemed to behave very differently than our son.
On October 30th, 2005, I quit my job (and my job’s health insurance) to start my own communications consulting company.
On November 21st, 2005, my wife said, “Tim, I think will has autism.”
Finally having enough of the nagging intuition inside her that something was amiss with our son’s development, Dee began to Google Will’s odd behaviors, and what returned to her was, essentially, a checklist for autism spectrum disorder.
According the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-V), autism is a communications disorder characterized by qualitative impairment of social and behavioral patterns. Persons with autism don’t intuitively learn the societal cues and typical responses you and I have taken for granted since childhood. Autistics also frequently struggle with varying degrees of overstimulation to sensory input and are known to display repetitive and restrictive behaviors.
Like perhaps you, when my wife first mentioned “autism,” my mind went to Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Charlie Babbitt in the film, Rain Main. Babbitt had been institutionalized for most of his life because of his inability to assimilate to typical society. Certain stimuli – bright lights, loud noises – would set him off and cause meltdowns. He would repeat certain phrases and obsess over what typical people would consider strange things.
What I came to learn is that autism actually characterizes a wide spectrum of behaviors – from, yes, Babbit’s institutionalized and fairly non-verbal persons to brilliant … but quirky … and wildly productive members of typical society.
We suspect now that Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, and Alfred Hitchcock had some form of autism.
Do you know the CBS hit Big Bang Theory? Sheldon’s clearly – and with a great degree of humor – portraying a young man on the spectrum.
But if you’re familiar with the NBC show, Parenthood, the character Max is probably the closest approximation I can give you to Will’s behavior today. The character is a few years older than Will, but we suspect a similar personality for our son.
But that wasn’t the case in the beginning.
In the beginning, there were years of therapy. We’d be visited by as many as four different therapists a week – Speech, Occupational, Physical, and Behavioral – and we opted not to move closer to family. Our friends were encouraging, sure, and our families would come to visit, but mostly it was Dee and me trying to start a new company and trying to learn everything we could about autism and how we could provide the best environment for our young son.
You can see why golf took a back seat. According to Autism Speaks, 8 out of 10 marriages where there’s a child with autism end in divorce. There’s so much frustration, and it requires so much energy and progress is often glacially slow. Oftentimes, between couples, there’s nothing left for each other. We made a commitment to each other that no matter how bad it got, or how frustrated we were with ourselves or each other or with Will (though obviously Will hadn’t done anything wrong), we would stay together, and we have.
Through the next few years of our family’s growth and development, Will began to grow miraculously through countless hours of help from dedicated doctors and therapists (Willie’s Angels). Were we different from other families? Sure, maybe, but every family’s different. We didn’t (and don’t) want people to feel sorry for us. Will’s an amazing (if quirky) young man, and we celebrate all kinds of things that mark his progress and development. Ours just might be different from yours for your child. Our company, too, took off, and our lives felt whole and happy.
The only thing that felt off… was playing golf. Dee encouraged me to play. She said I was happier when I was playing golf, and I would be for a little while after the occasional round, but the joy was gone.
“I shouldn’t be out here,” I would always be thinking to myself. I shouldn’t be wasting this money and time away from Will and Dee. With all the real challenges our family was facing, whether or not to lay up on #9 at Lake of the Woods seemed worse than trivial.
I went from, in my twenties, 5 rounds a week to, in my early 30s, 5 rounds a month, to, in my late 30s, 5 rounds a year. In 2011, I played total 27 holes of golf. 9 at L.A. Nickell in Columbia and 18 at St. Andrews in Scotland (my niece married a Scot).
There I was, on holy ground in August of 2011, desecrating it. I hit maybe two pure golf shots in eighteen holes at a place I’d only dreamed of visiting for more than a quarter-century.
Yep, that’s right. It was at the home of golf that I decided to give up the game. I know the courses there are a few hundred years old, but that still might have been a first.
Then, the following spring, a funny thing happened. My son was looking at my dust-collecting clubs and said,
“Daddy, I have a question.”
“Can I try golf?”
Will’s different ability (we prefer not to call it a disability) is primarily social and not physical. Due to what we presume was trauma at childbirth, he’s somewhat pigeon-toed, but other than that, he didn’t have anything that would seemingly preclude him from playing and having fun.
As for the disorder affecting his love of the game, consider these autistic traits recently shared on twitter by, @laNitpickette, a person on the spectrum:
2) Eye for detail
3) Exceptional memory
4) Able to embrace solitiude
5) Unique perspective
“How can any of those be anything but good for golf?” I thought.
So, we tried golf.
Living in the country on a couple acres at the time, we went out behind the house and built Backyard National Golf Club. I went and got him a hybrid iron and pitching wedge cut down to his size. We got a flag and chipping target map from the local sporting goods store. I showed him how to grip the club and told him golf could be a game he would play his whole life if he remembered to have fun while he played.
And he played. And I played. And we played. And played. And played.
We’d move that flag all around the backyard. He’d hit big whiffle balls, and I’d hit little ones. He’d hit that hybrid and his wedge, and I’d play around with all my clubs – trying to hit low bouncing 3-irons, banana 7-irons, absurdly high wedges.
And a funny thing was happening. I was rediscovering the joy of golf thanks to our brilliant, beautiful, special boy.
By mid-summer, he was ready to try a real course – in our modified fashion. I wanted to make sure we weren’t interfering with anyone else’s enjoyment of the course, so we set out on a Friday evening when we could pretty much ensure no one would be behind us. I wasn’t sure whether we’d make it one, four, or nine holes, but we were going after Will carefully understood his rules of golf.
Will’s Rules of Golf are a sheet he keeps in his golf bag that we review before each round. I’m not qualified (or particularly) interested in teaching my son to be a better golf. I’m his dad. My job is to teach him to be a better human being. Golf’s always been great for that, don’t you think?
1. Always listen to Daddy immediately for your own fun and safety and the fun and safety of others.
2. Golf is a game. Games are fun. Have fun playing golf.
3. Golf is also hard. You will not hit every shot the way you hope, but you could be home changing your sister’s diaper.
4. Golf starts over after every shot – which is cool – because every shot’s a new chance to be awesome.
5. Always be mindful of others. Show respect. Say “yes, sir” or “no, ma’am.” Say “thank you.”
6. Fix at least two ball marks on every green.
7. Ask me questions about golf. Questions are good.
He tees off from 100 yards out on Par 4 holes. He tees off from 150 out on Par 5s and from the start of the little fairway approach to par 3 greens. He knows if he gets upset or complains or doesn’t listen, it’s a one-hole penalty – which is torture for him.
This boy loves golf. He’s forever cleaning and organizing his clubs and balls, and I’m storing away memories like mad. I will always remember the first shot he got airborne (we actually have it on video). I will forever remember his first par (also on videotape and also, for a day, on Golf Digest’s homepage, but that’s a different story for a different issue). This year, he made his first two on a Par 3. He hit his tee shot about 65 yards and it rolled right by the cup stopping maybe 18 inches behind the cup. He made the putt.
“How many 2s have you made so far this year, Daddy?” he asked innocently.
So, as you can see, he’s already learning to talk trash… even if he doesn’t know it yet.
Will I get him proper lessons someday? Sure.
Is he going to turn pro someday? No. Probably not.
Is he some child prodigy? No. He has more bad shots than good ones.
But for a kid we once worried would have no shot, he’s already surpassed all our expectations. He may not be a golf prodigy, but he’s our golf prodigy.
We have yet to tell Will about his different ability or about the many gifts he’s given us – like how to look at the world a little differently and how to separate the truly important from the merely urgent. Someday soon, we will.
But for now, walking fairways with him, I realize we’ve just started this round of a lifetime together. As his drives get longer and mine get shorter, we’ll still have each other, and we’ll share the joy of a game I thought was lost to me.
And as I write this – on a plane bound for Bandon – I miss my son, who, though too young for this trip, has already announced he’d like to go to St. Andrews for his 16th birthday. It sounds like a pretty good present.
But not half as good as the golf gift he’s given his dad.
A recovering golfer and bestselling author, Tim Miles is the Founder & CEO of The Imagination Advisory Group. Thousands of people read his blog on life and how we live it and work and how we work it. Check it out at www.TheDailyBlur.com. For more on what Tim’s learned from his son, visit the autism section there.
Will Miles averages 74 yards with his driver, fixes ball marks, has more 2s this year than his dad, and one day he will probably be very good at avoiding laser beams.