Ryan Palmer plays to honor his father's memory

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EDISON, N.J. -- When his son was nine years old, Charles Franklin Palmer -- better known to everyone as "Butch" -- took him to play golf for the first time.

Butch borrowed some clubs for young Ryan and they played nine holes. Don't go looking for the course these days. It was called Southwest Golf Course in Amarillo, Texas, and it's long gone now.

Ryan still remembers that day, though. He remembers his father, an old Navy veteran, who had gotten down to a 6 handicap at his best, instilling a love for the game in him. He remembers being hooked soon afterward on the allure of a well-struck shot. He remembers the long hours toiling on the driving range. He remembers all the hard work being solely his choice.

"He never pushed me," the son says of his father's easygoing approach. "He never told me I had to go play or practice. It was always my decision and he was always just there for me."

Well, that's not completely true.

When he'd show a temper on the course, maybe slam a club into the ground or toss one at the nearest tree, Ryan would get an earful from Butch.

"He was always quick to grab me. He'd say, 'If you ever do that again, I'll take you off this golf course so fast you won't believe it!'"

Ryan learned to handle the game's frustrations and grew to be a talented player. Butch was there every step of the way -- sometimes quite literally, like when he caddied for him at the 1998 U.S. Open, the first time Ryan ever competed alongside the world's best players.

Within two years, Ryan turned pro and the natural progression continued. He reached the PGA Tour. Won his first tournament. Played in his first Masters.

Wait a minute, let's rewind a bit. Because a few months before that first Masters, in February of 2005, it was time for the son to repay the father for everything he'd done. So Ryan set up a tee time for Butch and himself at Augusta National, and the two of them took photos on Hogan's Bridge and walked amongst the loblolly pines for an afternoon.

People would say Butch wasn't a man of many words, but he'd talk about that day, telling anyone who'd listen to the story of how he'd experienced something most golfers could only dream about.

"That was one of the neater things," Ryan admits, "that you could ever hear from a son's standpoint."

Butch would caddie for him in the Par-3 Contest that first year, and he never missed any of Ryan's five appearances in the tournament.

"He never told me this, but he told my mom, 'When I'm long gone, take my ashes and spread 'em out here.'"

These are the words Ryan Palmer hears himself speaking, surreal as they sound, just days after Charles Franklin "Butch" Palmer died in a car wreck.

It happened a week ago Tuesday. Butch rolled his car over on Loop 335 in Amarillo around 8 p.m., right near the State Highway 136 exit. He was 71.

His family was in shock, of course. They mourned, they grieved. They quickly made plans for a service to remember him, even though Butch was the type of gruff old sort who didn't want anyone making too much of a fuss over him. So much so, that he'd always requested to be cremated.

"He was one of those stubborn guys," Ryan says with a knowing smile. "He always said, 'Don't put me in a box.' He didn't want people standing over him at a gravesite."

The funeral really wasn't a funeral at all. It was a celebration of his life, complete with videos and photographs and music. It ended with George Strait's song, "The Cowboy Rides Away." Afterward, everyone stood around drinking beer and telling stories, because that's what Butch would've done.

He wouldn't have wanted anyone to waste any tears over him, and so Ryan knew immediately that the best way to honor his father -- the only way, really -- was to play golf this week.

It might sound callous for a pro golfer to tee it up at Plainfield Country Club for the Barclays just a week after his father's death, but in this case, there was never another option.

"The last thing he would have wanted," the son knows, "was for me to not play."

If there's one trait Ryan inherited from his father, it's humility. If Butch's buddies back in Amarillo ever wanted to know how Ryan was playing, they'd have to ask, because he'd never offer up that information. He was prideful, sure, but he wasn't a braggart.

There was plenty to brag about, too. Ryan is now ranked 35th in the world and owns three career victories. Butch never got to see any of them in person, a thought which temporarily leaves Ryan shaking his head before another one forms.

"I was hoping he'd see me win one day, but of course now he can watch me next time."

Ryan knows Butch will be watching over him this week. He knows this is what Butch would have wanted. The man who taught him to love the game won't be taking those steps beside him any longer, but his spirit and memory will endure.

"That's all that matters," Ryan says. "Just go play the game that he put me in front of. Smile and have a good time. That's what he'd want. That's enough for me."