Earlier this month, Judge Jeanette Irby of the Circuit Court of Loudoun County, Va. entered her ruling in the case of Michael Vechery vs. Florence Cottet-Moine, a dispute over custody of their 10-year-old daughter.
The legal wrangling is now in its seventh year. Among the mundane and stereotypical custody-dispute edicts about which parent gets the kid for birthdays and Thanksgivings, in the latest ruling Judge Irby threw in an odd clause: The child “shall not be permitted to play competitive golf for one year.”
The ban comes as the kid is thriving on the links. By the count of Vechery, a career real estate salesman and part-time golf coach, his daughter has won 11 of the last 12 tournaments she’s entered in the Mid-Atlantic region. In November 2014, just before she turned nine years old, she shot a six-under par 30 in the nine-hole NoVa Fall Tour Championship. (Kids’ tournaments are typically nine holes.) “We’re going to have to do some random testing today,” the tournament director joked when announcing the winner’s score, which Vechery was told was the lowest nine-hole score for any 9- or 10-year-old in the entire U.S. for the year. She got a blurb in the Washington Post last fall when she played in the 2015 club championships for Algonkian Golf Course in Sterling, Va., the first and still only 18-hole round she’s ever played, and won the all-ages women’s division with a round of 84 on the 5,500-yard course.
“She’s really good,” says Kris Tschetter, who like Vechery lives in Northern Virginia, spent 24 years on the LPGA tour and has given lessons to Vechery’s daughter. “Like, really, really good.”
Tschetter gave a deposition in the custody case attesting to the kid’s potential as a future “phenom.” She told Vechery that his daughter is already talented enough to play college golf.
Judge Irby apparently wasn’t swayed in any good way by Tschetter’s testimony, and made it very clear that she doesn’t want the kid playing much golf. The pertinent passage in the most recent custody ruling:
[Vechery’s child] shall not be permitted to play competitive golf for one year. Competitive golf is defined by the court as no tournament and no lessons with any golf pro with the exception of the father. The father and [child] may play no more than one round of golf per week for five hours with putting and practice whichever is greater.
Vechery says his daughter plays plenty of sports; golf is the only one targeted by Judge Irby.
I spoke with Kris Tschetter shortly after she read the ruling, and asked her about the golf ban, which means she will no longer be able to give lessons to Vechery’s daughter.
“I can’t even begin to figure out where it’s coming from!” she said. “This is negligent! [Judge Irby] is saying you can’t play in a tournament even if you want to? Did anybody ask the child if she wants to play? I’m …. I’m ... I’m speechless!”
The child told an interviewer for a regional golf magazine in 2014 that her dad got her her first set of plastic golf clubs at three years old, and a real set a year later. She also said that going to pro tournaments with her dad, and getting to see such stars as Tiger Woods and Lexi Thompson up close, shaped her career goals.
“All of these events have made me really want to play better and maybe play professionally,” she said.
Vechery went into the latest custody hearing without a lawyer. (Jonathan Rochkind, the Virginia attorney representing Cottet-Moine, declined a request to comment on the case.) That seems about as wise as playing the U.S. Open without a caddie, especially since Irby isn’t the first judge he and his ex have come before to be seemingly unimpressed by golf.
“Maybe she will be the next female version of Tiger Woods,” said Judge Pamela L. Brooks during another custody hearing last November. “I don’t know, don’t really care.”
Vechery has been known to rile people more powerful than him. He was involved in legal brouhaha with the Washington Nationals that began in 2005 over a stunt he pulled during the team’s inaugural spring in Melbourne, Fla. A Vechery-owned real estate firm advertised at the team’s spring training home in Melbourne. He also sponsored and hosted a weekly real estate show on WFED, a low-wattage AM station that was the Nats’ flagship that first season in D.C. Vechery used his radio and sponsorship ties to obtain spring training media credentials for both himself and Cottet-Moine. They used them to get into a press conference, at which Vechery asked Nats manager Frank Robinson if ballplayers caught with steroids should have asterisks affixed to their home run stats. Real journalists weren’t asking steroids questions at the time, and Robinson, like all baseball people, wasn’t answering them. Vechery was soon kicked out of camp, and WFED took his show off its broadcast schedule. Vechery sued the Nats, alleging his banishment was retaliation for his steroids question and was illegal; the parties settled after a nearly three-year battle, but Vechery says confidentiality agreements prevent him from disclosing details of the settlement.
While Vechery doesn’t appear to have Judge Irby on his side, ever since the ban was handed down, he’s gotten the golf world—or at least that part of it to which he’s provided the custody order—behind him.
Bob Toski, 89, is a member of the PGA Hall of Fame and was the leading money winner on the PGA Tour for 1954. He runs a junior golf academy in Florida, and holds a tournament for the best junior players in the game each summer. Toski worked with Vechery’s daughter in late 2014, and says he was so upset when he heard about Judge Irby’s order that he called up PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem* directly.
“I’d never called [Finchem] before about a problem,” Toski says. “But this bothered me so much I told Tim, ‘I got a problem with a little girl being banned from golf.’”
Toski says Finchem said there wasn’t anything he could do in a custody case other than recommend good lawyers to Vechery in hopes of getting the ban overturned. Vechery says he got a call from a PGA official after Toski’s intervention, and got referrals for an attorney in Loudoun County.
Rick Pano, a single golf dad from Lake Worth, Fla., has also taken up the fight against the golf ban. Pano’s daughter, Alexa, is the top ranked 11-year-old on the planet, having already won seven world championships and 56 national titles. She finished first in her age group at the the Drive, Chip and Putt tournament at August National the week of the Masters.
Pano, whose daughter plays six hours a day, has seen youth players from around the globe for several years now. He got to see Vechery’s kid play when she and Alexa practiced together a year and a half ago, and the dads and daughters have stayed in touch since. He says Vechery’s daughter is right there with the best.
“You can’t fake it at golf,” Pano says. “In softball, you can put a kid out in right field, and you can run away from the ball in soccer. But golf, you can’t fake it. If you’ve got it, it’s very obvious. She’s got some ability. I would imagine for her age bracket worldwide she’s in the top five to 10 percent as a player, and she hasn’t played nearly as much as other kids her age. If she progressed, no doubt in my mind she’s going to go to college for free. For a judge to take that opportunity away from a child, it’s unreal. The golf world is small, and people are talking about this, and nobody has ever heard anything like it. Nobody can believe it.”
Vechery says he plans to appeal the custody order, and will retain a lawyer in hopes of doing so, though the attorneys he’s discussed the matter with thus far have told him been told that it would take “six to 10 months” to get another custody hearing. That means there’s a great likelihood the prohibition will have run its course by the time any reversal would take place.
Robert Emery, a psychologist, author, and director of the Center for Children, Families, and the Law at the University of Virginia, has for years advised divorced and unmarried parents to settle custody conflicts through mediation and to avoid litigation. Once you give judges power to craft a child’s schedule, he argues, they’re going to wield it. “Judges,” Emery wrote in the New York Times in 2014, “routinely decide where the children of divorced parents will attend school, worship and receive medical care; judges may even decide whether they play soccer or take piano lessons.”
Emery has no involvement in Vechery v. Cottet-Moine. But when I describe the golf ban Judge Irby imposed on Vechery’s daughter, he doesn’t seem surprised. “When parents turn to courts to decide their dispute for them, they lose control, including over possible compromises,” says Emery. “They also expect vindication, but rarely find it. I cannot understand why our courts continue to entertain and thereby encourage these kinds of disputes.”
Toski says, ban notwithstanding, that he plans to invite Vechery’s daughter to this year’s national junior tournament.
“I’m going to have her come down and play in it,” Toski says. “I don’t give a goddamn what the judge says. Maybe we won’t keep score. But she can play in it. Common sense has gone out the fucking window!”
Why Judge Irby handed down the ban remains unclear from her ruling; she declined a request from Deadspin for comment.
It was Vechery’s turn to have his daughter recently on the day of his birthday. They baked a cake. It was raining outside, so father and daughter went into the basement and worked on her swing.