Golf comes full circle for family, late father

While Kurt Pierpont loved to play golf, he and his three sons never bonded through the traditional game. The pandemic and a VR golf game, however, brought the four together to create lasting memories

How do you summarize a life lived? The process is like taking the entireness of a U.S. roadmap, pre-GPS, and trying to encapsulate it. 

The map unfolded, lines and colors flow together like streams of flowing veins that, in some cases, transfigure into thicker major arteries carrying travelers toward major destinations.

Said another way, it's an analogous blueprint for how life is a journey. It is dictated by path choices that ultimately stitch together experiences woven into a mosaic of events. 

Kurt Pierpont's main thoroughfare delivered him to such passions as golf, woodworking, drumming and a loving family that included three sons. That and his lifelong devotion to criminal justice, serving 20 of those years as a federal parole officer.

In the end, it would be golf — eschewed by the three sons as they were being raised — that brought them full circle. 

Piersponts — Christmas_2021_Kurt-Dylan-Austin-Helen-Evan.jpg
The Pierponts — from left, Kurt, Dylan, Austin, Helen and Evan — during Christmas 2021.

"Golf was a big staple in his life and it was definitely something he tried to impart on his sons, but then we all ventured off into other sports and activities," says Dylan Pierpont, 33, a Seattle-based concept artist and illustrator via a video call. 

In some ways, it conjures up Harry Chapin's heart-tugging magnum opus "Cat's in the Cradle," a song ostensibly about other priorities stealing years away from relationships. The sons — Austin, 30; Evan, 24; and Dylan — remained close to their parents, who lived in Centennial, Colorado. 

Growing up in Longmont, Colorado, Kurt lived near a golf course he frequented in the 1960s. When he started his career and built a family with wife, Helen Pierpont, he played less but looked forward to retirement to squeeze in weekly, if not daily, rounds. The family lived in Littleton, Colorado, before settling in Centennial in 2001. To manage work stress, Kurt found solace as an accomplished drummer in multiple classic rock and blues bands or delved into woodworking and crafts. 

Of course, there was always golf. The brothers couldn't go into the basement without seeing six or seven putters that defined various parts of his golf life. 

"He was always patient and willing to show me how to work the clubs, read the greens and sink putts," Dylan says. "But it was definitely something — as I grew older and got into my high school years and became a young teen — I think he realized and accepted it wasn't something I was destined to stick with over time. Because he had two other sons who could pick up that [golf] mantle if they wanted."

The other Pierpont brothers didn't.

"He was teaching me something when I was probably in middle or elementary school, and we working on some drill for awhile," Austin says. "He was getting frustrated because I wasn't getting it, and I made the comment that this is a stupid game. He said, in a frustrated voice, 'This is not a game!' He recanted his statement later in the evening because it is a game, but that was the type of person he was."

As the boys grew, video games caught their fancy. It served as a way to bond, to narrow the generational gap between Dylan and Evan. At the time, their father had as much interest in gaming as a Carthusian monk at a World Livestock Auctioneer Championship (it's a real thing).

The pandemic, for the trials and tribulations it brought, shone an opportunistic light on the Pierponts. The brothers were spread across three states at the time and suggested virtual reality (VR) gaming as a way to stay in touch during quarantine. Dad liked golf. He watched a VR headset demo at a local store, finding it somewhat interesting. Maybe this game called Walkabout Mini Golf could be fun. 

"Dad was always hesitant with technology," Austin says. "It was not his forte."

Evan, at home while attending college, coaxed his dad into trying. 

"What I admire about the way Kurt dealt with his kids was he clearly wasn't a tech guy, but he thought what is something they're into and maybe we can meet around golf," says David Wyatt, head of marketing for Mighty Coconut, maker of the game. "That's sort of the lesson, too. Set up together time no matter how it presents itself."

Walkabout Mini Golf, developed by CEO Lucas Martell at home as a fun side project during the lockdown, was initially tested as a mobile game. Built with mind-numbing realistic physics, the game ported well on Quest before the mobile version got scrapped. 

It became an instant hit with users on Meta Quest 2, and the Pierponts.

"It took off unlike anything we expected," Wyatt says. 

Soon the lockdowns eased. But when the weather interfered with Kurt's real-world rounds, the brothers found their dad calling them to play. He'd leave voicemail messages to see if their times aligned with his. He'd borrow Evan's headset and eventually learn how to log on himself. If they were unavailable, he would play alone.

Kurt Pierpont eagled the 18th hole at the virtual Shangri-La to capture his only win against his sons.

The family reunited for Christmas 2021 at the Centennial home —  except COVID-19 forced a sick Dylan and Austin to quarantine in their childhood rooms. Appointment VR time developed, in the same way viewers used to rush to network TV during sweeps weeks. They might be separated within the home, but they were together in the wall-less VR space. 

They would tease their dad the way children tend to poke at their parents. Kurt racked up the losses. "He had a hard time accepting that his sons were kicking his butt every time we hopped on," Austin says.

Ever the golf purist, he remained authentic to the sport.

"With his style of play," Dylan says, "because it's VR, because it's immersive, because it's meant to augment reality, his muscle memory still dictated how he would play in the virtual space. Even having little boundaries, like railroad ties, to keep the ball on the course, to keep the ball on the green, he didn't like the idea of being able to putt through the railroad ties or have his putter break through that digital roadblock. So he would push himself into these awkward positions that in the VR space you don't have to do."

Sometimes insignificant moments morph into something more significant, shaped by spontaneity. Finally, on December 27, 2021 with everyone in the house, dad had his moment. He knocked off the wise guys on the newly released Shangri-La course, a vertigo-inducing layout that features enormously high bridges and mountains. On the 18th hole, with the tee box about 60 miles above the green, Kurt eagled to nudge Dylan by a stroke, at eight under. Kurt had won. 

"He was very, very excited in that moment," Dylan says.

It would be the only time he'd win. It would also be one of his last rounds. On February 18, at the age of 65, Kurt passed away unexpectedly from a heart attack. 

The family devastated, Dylan took to the Walkabout Mini Golf Discord community several months later and posted a heartfelt blog

"A stop-everything moment," says Wyatt when asked about the company's reaction when the blog went up. "A lump in the throat, touchpoint of the highest and best purpose. It showed us people can make memories, and some of those last memories can be in the game with a loved one."

The Kurt Pierpont avatar.

Unbeknownst to the Pierponts, Mighty Coconut decided to pay homage to the father who Dylan and Austin referred to as a hero. Wyatt reached out to Dylan and subtly picked up on Kurt's impatience in creating an avatar of himself. Wyatt requested an image.

"Every time he played, it would be this green ogre-ish-looking figure with a spiked collar," says Dylan, laughing. "Very not his style. But we recognized that as dad. He just wants to play." 

Within time, Dylan received an email from Mighty Coconut that featured a customized avatar in his dad's likeness. The Pierponts were blown away by the similarities, all the way to Kurt's handlebar mustache. 

"It was humbling to see," says Dylan, praising the developers.

"It was beautiful," says Austin.

That's not all. This Father's Day, Wyatt and the team plan on sending the Pierponts more. Developers put together a bundle of courses, including the Shagri-La, the last one they played together. It's called "Adventures With Dad."

The Pierponts wanted to put the story out, knowing that it could resonate with other families and people who have similar passions with a parent or father figure. 

As Dylan and Austin described their dad, emotional pauses were inevitable. The sting of loss never goes away, for it's like trying to fill in a sinkhole with quicksand. 

"Dad was creative, passionate, an educator, father, friend, husband," Dylan says. "It was something that I am very grateful to have experienced in my 33 years. There are a lot of lessons I have taken from his teachings that I plan to pass on."

More than that, it wasn't lost on Wyatt what Kurt meant to the family. The Shangri-La course, which features zen gongs, distant chimes and floating lanterns, was released four months before his death. 

"Every time I play it, I look at the lanterns as spirits floating away," says Wyatt, "and making peace with the passage of life."

Calling that eerie would be an understatement. 

Yet at the intersection of golf and life metaphors, Kurt wouldn't want it any other way.