I’ve been playing golf for so long I couldn’t quit the game if I tried, I don’t remember not knowing how to swing a club. It’s something my father and I share to this day. Perhaps my daughter will see me hit golf balls or watch Paula Creamer on TV and get excited about the game like I did when I was her age. Golf is an escape, a source of sanity and competition all at the same time. It’s that way for the group of guys I play with every weekend; one guy in particular, Don. On Sunday evening, July 18th, we lost him.
I got the call the following morning. We all expected the news. When we played thee weeks ago at Lido, another member of our group saw Don’s cousin who told him the end was near. Don battled cancer for about a year-and-a-half.
He was 46. Made a mint trading oil stocks. Had a history of substance abuse in his younger days but while he still maintained some vices (smoking, the occasional drunken evening), he’d kicked the drugs. His only junkie-level activity for the length of time I knew him was golf.
And he was a junky golfer. Slow as shit, three practice swings prior to every shot, with a swing that looked like a cross between Kenny Perry and Al Czervik from “Caddyshack.” I don’t know how he hit the ball, but he was effective in his own way. He was an 18 handicap that could shoot 85, kick your ass and take your money.
He was one of the guys who welcomed me into that group that regularly shows up at Lido well before dawn to get into the first few groups, regardless of the time of year. Don was that way with everyone, though.
Three years ago, he went on a golfing trip to Scotland. Unsolicited, he brought back souvenir ball markers from Gleneagles for me and several other guys in the group. Earlier that year, again unsolicited, he did the same thing following a business trip to Chicago where he played at Butler National, which used to host the Western Open, except the gift was a sleeve of golf balls with the Butler National logo emblazoned on the side.
The best gift, though, sits near the putting/chipping green adjacent to the 18th green and 1st and 10th tees at Lido: a wooden bench. Engraved on the bench are the names of the guys in our early-morning outfit. It reads “The Posse” at the top center, and then our names in a cool cursive font underneath. We all wanted to chip in and help contribute to the bench, but Don wouldn’t allow it. The same way for the last two years, for our annual two-day tournament — which will be renamed in his honor — he wouldn’t accept any of our contributions for either the trophies handed out to the Low Net, 2nd Place Net and Low Gross winners, or the buffet lunch that accompanied the ceremony. He just wanted all of us to relax, have fun and enjoy ourselves. On him.
Our tournament was the last time I saw Don. He was 40 pounds thinner due to the chemo. He’d shaved his beard. He looked good and sounded even better. On the golf course, he was the same insufferable Don we loved to rib. Somehow, he got the staff at Lido to give him a handicapped flag that he attached to his cart. Like he was going to get sympathy from us?
At that point in time — it was Labor Day weekend — Don thought he was in remission. Turned out the cancer was only hibernating. By January he was back in Florida at the treatment center, playing golf whenever breaks in his chemo and radiation would allow. In mid-February, Don was amidst what would be the last round of gold he’d ever play, at TPC Sawgrass, home of The Players Championship. He got as far as the 4th hole when an attack debilitated him and an ambulance was rushed to the course to cart him off. Stupid sonofabitch asked for a rain check. That was Don.
For the next five months of his life was resigned to a bed, either at the treatment center in Florida, Sloan Kettering here in New York, or finally, at home with his wife and teenage daughter. He may have died Sunday, but as far as I’m concerned, he died that day in February on the 4th hole at Sawgrass. That’s when his vitality was erased. He’d tell you the same thing. At least at that moment, Don was happy in his escape, doing what he loved most.
Our group assembled at his wake last weekend to pay our respects. It was open casket. He had grown his beard again. We mourned and we celebrated his life, recounted stories; everybody had one — and chipped in for a life-size floral wreath that looked like a golf ball on a tee. The flowers bore a hexagonal shape that resembled the dimple pattern on Callaway golf balls, just like the ones Don played. It was the best way we knew how to return the favor for all he did for us.
Don’s death fell amid the recent trifecta of passings in the Yankees’ Universe — Bob Sheppard on July 11, George Steinbrenner on July 13, and Ralph Houk on the 21st. Trying to put it all in context, I thought about Don, and then Todd Drew, and then turned my thoughts to Sheppard, the Boss and Houk. I was angry that each of those men lived a long life and neither Todd nor Don got that opportunity. Then I felt guilty for thinking that.
At least Todd and Don got to enjoy their escapes, and made a point to enjoy them even more when sharing their experiences with friends. That’s a legacy.
If you have similar stories about escapes, whether they be golf, baseball, any experiences you share with “buddies,” please share them in Comments.
[Photo Credit: Inside Florida.com, twooverpar.com]