TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona Cardinals center A.Q. Shipley stood next to his father on the tee box at St. Andrews’ famed 17th hole in early April, looking out over one of the most well-known pieces of land in golf.
It was the famous Road Hole, the same one they watched professionals try to conquer on TV in British Opens throughout the years. To their right was the legendary road. Behind that was the Old Course Hotel. Their objective was to hit their tee shots over the hotel — just as they watched the likes of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tiger Woods do — and land the ball on the fairway.
That moment, together, at one of golf’s greatest shrines, is still etched clearly in both of their minds. It’s one they won’t soon forget.
They stepped up to their shots. Both cleared the hotel, landing on the fairway. A dream of a vacation for Allan, A.Q.’s 64-year-old father, was, as improbable as it sounded, getting better by the shot.
“He almost dropped it on the green,” Allan said with a chuckle about his son’s shot. “And I was tickled to get over the hotel and get my ball into the middle of the fairway.”
As they made their way up the 18th fairway in the footsteps and shadows of golf legends, Allan noticed a crowd had gathered around the green. On their way home from work in the late afternoon, some people who lived in St. Andrews had stopped by to watch a father-son group hit their approach shots. They waited until A.Q. and Allan finished putting out — in Scotland, there are no gimmes, Allan was quick to point out — before going on their way.
It didn’t matter that Allan shot 98 that day — it was the wind and the natural difficulty of the course, he quipped. He was walking some of the most hallowed grounds of the game in the country where the sport was born, all with his son. That was the only thing that mattered to Allan.
“That was a dream come true,” Allan said. “Nothing beats it. No matter where we went, nothing beats going out and doing something with your son.
“We just had the time of our life and we very, very much enjoyed it.”
Their seven-day golf trip to Scotland was the Shipley boys’ latest annual excursion. They’ve also traveled to Wisconsin and played Erin Hills (site of this weekend’s U.S. Open), Whistling Straits and Blackwolf Run, and to South Carolina, where they played Harbour Town and the Ocean Course on Kiawah Island. A.Q. also has taken his father to play Oakmont Country Club in western Pennsylvania. For Pittsburgh golfers, as both of them are, that might be a close second to the pearly gates.
Starting early in A.Q.’s childhood, even as he played the typical roster of youth sports — baseball, basketball and football — golf became a way for him and his father to connect and reconnect. When Allan worked in Houston for two years while running a chemical plant, starting when A.Q. was in the fifth grade, he’d come home to Pennsylvania on weekends and carve out four hours for a round with A.Q.
“That was kind of our thing,” A.Q. said. “That was kind of our way to hang out and catch up on time lost.”
Allan didn’t start golfing until his early 20s but quickly taught himself how to play. He knew, when A.Q. was born on May 22, 1986, that he would teach his son not only how to golf but also the rules of a sport that is defined by respect.
“It was very important because it’s a total gentleman’s game, and what I mean by that, it’s the only sport you can call a penalty on yourself,” Allan said. “You learn golf etiquette, and a lot of the lessons you learn — playing good, proper golf — carry with you throughout life, and meeting people. You can’t imagine the number of good people you meet on a golf course and some of the doors that will open up for you just playing the game yourself.
“It was very important for me to teach him the right rules and the right way to play golf. It’s been fun. He’s really embraced it.”
As A.Q. got older, golf became a way for them to do together what they loved most: to live.
When A.Q. was a freshman in high school, Allan suffered a massive heart attack. Three arteries were completely blocked. The fourth was 90 percent congested. Allan, who worked for Bayer Chemical, went on work disability. He had to get a defibrillator, stents and a pacemaker inserted in his chest. Forty percent of his heart was damaged.
A.Q. watched the man he grew up idolizing — who taught him the definition and execution of hard work, who did what was necessary to provide for his family — suffer without knowing how this round was going to end. A.Q. was nervous. There was good reason to be.
“You don’t know what’s the effect. You don’t know how bad it is. You don’t know what he’s going to be able to do afterward. You don’t know anything, really,” A.Q. said. “Obviously, that was a difficult time for myself and my whole family.”
During the rehab and recovery, doctors explained to Allan that the heart was a muscle and that a muscle needed exercise. What better exercise than walking, they said. And to A.Q., that meant what better place to walk than a golf course. A.Q. pushed his father to get back on his feet, not letting him sit around.
Both understood golf’s importance to their relationship. Allan wanted to get back on the course to see his outings with A.Q. continue. A.Q. wanted to see his dad back on the course because, well, he’s his dad.
Allan returned to the course after about a year.
The heart attack slowed Allan. The pacemaker prevents a full backswing, which shortens Allan’s drives, and he no longer teed off alongside A.Q. That wasn’t easy for A.Q. to watch.
“I now play from what they call the old-man tees,” Allan said. “I’m not back there from where he’s hitting from, that’s for sure. But it’s fun. It’s competitive for me, and he knows it. He had a hard time dealing with that, when I told him I’ll be playing from the old-man tees from now.
“And I said, ‘You’ll get over it.’”
When the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted A.Q. in the seventh round in 2009, he made himself a promise: When he had the financial ability, he would take his father on a golf trip every year. It was a way to thank him for, well, everything. For the road trips to travel baseball games. For showing up at every home and away game A.Q. played for Penn State. Life was too precious.
He thanked his mom, Patricia, too. When A.Q. and his dad went to Scotland earlier this year, he got his mom and sister, Nicole, tickets to see “Hamilton” in New York.
As A.Q. starts thinking about the next father-son golf trip, he can’t help but think about where he and his father started playing, and how the rounds they cherished were almost taken away.
“That’s the one thing, why I try to pick some really cool experiences for both of us to experience,” A.Q. said. “You always played golf, but growing up in Pittsburgh, there are only so many cool courses there that are on public tracks. And then to be able to play these awesome, awesome spots, it’s a really cool experience.”
By his mid-20s, A.Q. started beating his father in golf, employing the same tenacity and determination that helped A.Q. land a Penn State scholarship and get drafted, Allan said. Allan saw it coming. A.Q. was a “gym rat” when it came to football, his father recalled, and was a course junkie when it came to golf. Anytime A.Q. had free time during his early NFL offseasons, he was at the course, chipping, putting, hitting and playing. When A.Q. first started winning, Allan looked at it as a rite of passage.
And anyway, Allan couldn’t compete with A.Q.’s physical stature. The 6-foot-1, 307-pound lineman was bombing drives 300 yards. Allan’s ceiling was about 240 yards. A.Q. was reaching greens with a wedge. Allan needed his hybrid.
That doesn’t stop the trash talk, though.
Whenever Allan hits a good shot, he lets his son know about it. A.Q. loves it.
When Allan opened a Christmas gift last year from A.Q., sitting in the box was the itinerary for this year’s trip to St. Andrews. Allan was immediately hesitant. The travel. The long days. The amount of golf. He plays at least once a week with a group of men around his age in a pseudo-league. They play different courses around the Pittsburgh area playing against … themselves. Allan shot 78 last week.
But he knew the Old Course was an entirely different beast. Allan was given permission by the courses in Scotland to drive a cart — or a buggy, as it’s known in Europe — because of his health. At one point before they left, however, A.Q. made one request: Would his father walk the Old Course?
“I was very apprehensive,” Allan said. “That’s a lot of steps, but yet the nostalgia walking the Old Course and being with my son. … I considered it hallowed grounds. Just the history involved in that place is just phenomenal. It was a dream come true.”
Together they walked, flanked by their caddies, hole by hole, living out a golf fantasy.
When they got to the 17th tee, the moment spoke for itself. It nearly wasn’t possible. But it was. That Allan was still able to golf, to walk, to live, was reason enough to keep going. Next year’s trip might be to Bandon Dunes in Oregon, Pebble Beach in California or Royal County Down in Ireland. A.Q. knows he’s one of the lucky ones who can still take his father on trips like these. He’s heard the regret from plenty of people. He doesn’t want to hear it from himself one day.
But whether he and Allan are walking over the Swilcan Bridge at the Old Course, on which Nicklaus famously posed, or chasing balls all over a Pittsburgh muni, it doesn’t matter. As long as father and son are together.
“He’s truly one of a kind,” Allan said. “I’m sure a lot of fathers will say that about his son, but he’s special. He really is special. We get along. We have a great time golfing. He’s just a joy to be around.
“He’s like my best friend.”