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]
Great piece, man. I don't play golf but I am moved by what it means to you.
Really moving. Sorry for your loss.
sorry for your loss, will.
my grandpa used to get up before dawn to play with his 'quartet' at eisenhower. he played at sawgrass in florida, too. i'm with alex about the golf thing, but i'm glad you have a nice way to honor your friend.
Tremendous story. It reminds me about how cherished friends are. My own "buddy" story is that I graduated college in 2000. My friends and I moved throughout the country: New York, Boston, Maine, California, Indiana, Texas, and Maryland. In 2007, at a friend's wedding in California we commented how it is a shame that distance keeps us apart until weddings. At that point, one of had an idea - why not have an annual "wedding" to catch up with each other. So from that point on, once a year, every year, fourteen to sixteen of us catch up in a different city. Even friends who have become the parents of young children make the trip. It is one week a year I generally look forward to more than most. In our typical corny fashion it is called the "wedding for all."
 nice. my friends and i generally do the same thing. we graduated a few years before you, so this has been going on awhile now. but we always do the reunion back at the university. it's a blast. sometimes it's w/ little kids, sometimes there's 25 of us, hell, my parents even came by 3 years ago! sometimes, it's just a handful of us, but it's always a great great time.
it's gotten harder and harder to co-ordinate though, for a multitude of reasons. we had a 'partial' reunion for a wedding in philly last month. we're hoping to have a massive one at the school next summer...
Great comments, all. Awesome stories. As you all iterated, it's more about friends and the escape from the day-to-day bullshit than it is about golf. The golf just gives us a reason to be competitive, get on each other's cases and keep things interesting.
Will, thank so much for sharing this. It's definitely a fitting tribute for your friend, and it naturally made me think of my college friends who have scattered around the country, guys I email and text on a daily basis but haven't seen for years. Thanks to this piece, I'm inspired to change that.
Thanks for sharing that, Will. I hope writing it out like that helped you deal with the loss just a little bit. Sometimes it helps to put your thoughts on "paper" in some way.
I've lost touch with all my college friends, but there is a small group that I gather with once a year at a lake up north for a weekend of fishing and true escapism. We catch up with each other's lives, but mostly talk about past trips, fishing, and other nonsense we've experienced in the past year. I treasure those weekends, and look forward to each year the minute I get home. We're not getting any younger, and there will come a time when one of us can't make it. That will be a terribly sad day that I don't like to contemplate.
We used to compete all weekend - most fish, biggest fish, first fish, etc. etc. - but most of that has faded away. Now all we care about is getting there, enjoying ourselves, and just spending time together. There are a bunch of long honored traditions, and plenty of inside jokes and old stories. Everyone has their job, their list of junk to bring, and it stays the same year to year.
Those two days go by far too quickly.
Well-written and powerful ... I hope it was cathartic for you Will.
 Wow, Hank. That means a lot. I hope you reconnect with those friends face to face soon.
 bp1, that's what it's all about. Keep up those traditions.
 Thanks Diane. It was definitely cathartic. One buddy in the group and I got rid of some of the sadness of the wake Saturday night at the Rush concert. The writing was a good release, though.
, ,  ... Did not mean to leave you guys out, invictus and thelarmis. ... we're the same age, invictus. your buddy story is awesome. A "wedding for all" is such a unique idea. And thelarmis, the university reunion has to be a blast. Get the old crew back together at the old hangouts and let the good times roll.
Just a lurker, but your mentioning Lido brought back memories that were too powerful to ignore. When I was a kid in Queens, my dad and his buddy, Lester, used to play golf every Saturday morning at Bethpage, but after they got tired of sleeping in the car they started to play more and more frequently at Lido. As a teenager I would join them every other week or so, and while it never replaced Bethpage in my affections, I thought Lido was a great track. I remember that there were places on the course from which you could see the World Trade Center towers in the distance, and that every Saturday morning at about 9 a.m. the Concorde would pass by (I can't remember if it was arriving or departing), with its beaked nose like a big droopy sea bird.
Lester died young, of lung cancer, and after he passed my father moved on to other foursomes and other courses. Maybe ten years later, my sister got married. My new brother-in-law was a golfer, had grown up on Long Island, didn't want a bachelor party (he was too old for that, this was his second marriage), but he thought a golf outing would be a nice way to celebrate. I tried to arrange an outing at Bethpage, but dealing with the state is just a huge pain in the ass, so on a gorgeous May morning we found ourselves, about two dozen of us, milling around the first tee at Lido instead. It was a great day. At the turn, we remixed the foursomes and I ended up playing the back nine with my Dad. He was quiet and pensive, and it took me a few holes to figure out why, but eventually I realized that he couldn't walk that course alone: his friend was with him every step of the way.
Jeez, Will, I never realized till now that golf was about mortality.