by Daniel Lowry
The phone rang and Rob Walker could hear in his dad’s voice that the news was bad.
“I got my results back and I want to talk with you,” said his dad. Rob didn’t hesitate. He knew he needed to go home.
It was a sunny summer day in 1999, and Rob was just two years out of law school. He took off work the rest of the day and drove home from Louisville to Hardinsburg, which is a little over an hour away.
His mom was there, too, and so were his younger brother and sister. His dad had found out that he had an aggressive form of cancer in his body: colon cancer. He told them together, and the Walker family sat around the table and talked. It was a moment that is etched in Rob’s memory.
Rob remembers when he was about seven or eight years old and his dad first put a golf club in his hands. He showed him how to grip it properly, and how to keep his head still and swing smoothly. He gave him a set of his own golf clubs. They played golf together, and nothing can make a young boy happier than to have his dad spend quality time with him.
During the summer, Rob’s dad would often try to get off work early and play nine holes with him before dark. Many days they would be out on the course as the sun set, with the orange and pink sky giving them just enough light to see the yellow flag and the thin white line of the flagstick, and the warm wind would catch the leaves in the big trees and Rob’s dad would hit gorgeous chip shots that would drop near the pin, and the ball would spin backward and roll toward the hole. He was Rob’s hero.
When Rob would hit a bad shot, his dad would shrug it off. “Play hard, never give up, and follow the rules,” he would tell his son. “But most of all, remember it’s just a game.”
For Rob and his dad, golf was more than a game. It was a thousand precious moments. It was a thousand life lessons. When you run into trouble in golf, you have to hit your way out of it. If you are behind a tree, you find another path. If you make a mistake, you focus on your next challenge. You take turns, and you don’t cheat. Golf taught Rob a lot about life, and a lot about his dad.
His dad became his high school golf coach. Golf can be a frustrating sport, and many times kids would hit a bad shot and scream or throw a club. “No,” says Rob. “I never threw a club. My dad didn’t do that, and I remember him telling me to shake it off and hit your next shot.”
So, in some strange way, it just made sense that on a day that was so heavy with such terrible news, Rob’s dad grabbed his oldest son and said, “Let’s go play golf.” So they did.
As they played, Rob’s dad told him not to worry. “I can beat this. I’ll tell you when it’s time to worry.” He shot a 69. Rob still finds that amazing. “On the day my dad found out he had cancer, he went out and shot three under.”
Five years later, Rob would get another phone call. This time it was his mom, and she was crying. His dad and mom had been married for 37 years. They had met at the University of Kentucky and fell in love as college students. The news was the worst. “Your dad just took his last breath,” she said. He was 63 years old.
Rob is married and has two sons of his own. He is an attorney in Louisville, and often takes cases for people who are fighting for their rights as employees. There are many times he works for a client and refuses to charge them anything.
“One of my most rewarding experiences is when somebody comes in to the office, and they have this distraught look on their face, and I can come up with a plan for them, and I can see the stress leave their face. They look at me and ask how much they owe, and I say nothing.”
A mother came into Rob’s office with tears in her eyes. She told him that she couldn’t pay her bills, she had been laid off at her job, and bill collectors were calling her night and day. Rob worked out ways that she could negotiate her debt and get back on track.
Now that Rob is running to be a state representative for the 33rd District, he puts education as his number one priority. His mother was a school teacher. “I’m a product of public schools and public universities,” he says. “Everyone should have the right to affordable public education.”
Two weeks after Rob’s dad passed away, Rob got a letter from one of his dad’s best golfing buddies. The letter had been a request from his dad, and he trusted his friend to give it to Rob after he had died.
The letter told Rob that his dad had not wanted him not to worry. He was proud of the person he had become, and he loved him.
The letter meant so much to Rob, and he remembers the last words his Dad spoke to him. They were four simple words, but they were mighty ones, and something that Rob will never forget as long as he lives.
“I’m proud of you.”
Rob still plays golf. Not as much as he used to, but when he does, he thinks of his dad. He carries an old lob wedge in his golf bag that belonged to his dad. It’s the same wedge his dad used to hit those gorgeous chip shots that would spin the ball back toward the hole. The grip is worn and slick now, but Rob will always carry that club when he plays. He also carries those four words in his mind, and he can hear his dad say them now: I’m proud of you.