March 29, 2009

'A real-life tragedy'

Paul Goydos and his girls grieve their loss

Paul Goydos with daughters Courtney and Chelsea.

Paul Goydos with daughters Courtney and Chelsea.

It was Steve Flesch, one of the closest friends Paul Goydos has on the PGA Tour, who asked the question that rocked him. It was a text message, and it was brief and to the point: "I know everyone is asking about the girls," Flesch wrote. "How are YOU?"

Goydos hadn't given the question any thought until that moment on a Monday evening this past January. All his thoughts since 9:15 Pacific time on the morning of Saturday, Jan. 17, had been focused on his two daughters, 18-year-old Chelsea and 16-year-old Courtney. He had just gone to sleep, having flown home on a red-eye after missing the cut in Hawaii, when his ex-mother-in-law called to tell him that Wendy, his ex-wife, had died after apparently taking something to ward off the pain from another of her constantly recurring migraine headaches.

"In one sense, that moment was almost inevitable, given what had gone on in Wendy's life for most of 10 years," Goydos says. "But she was only 44 years old. She had fought her addiction--really fought it. Even though I'd dreaded it for years, getting the call was a complete shock. Having to tell the girls was horrible, the absolute worst moment of my life."

Chelsea was already up, so Paul sat her down and told her. Then he woke Courtney and gave her the news.

"There's absolutely no way you can say those words and cushion them: 'Mom died.' I can still hear myself saying it, and when I do, I flinch. I did then, I do now, and I think I always will.

"In truth, I'm OK," he says. "The support I've gotten from people has been amazing, really amazing. One thing I've figured out living through all this is, what makes golf a great game is the people in it. But I'm not the person people should feel sorry for. Wendy's the one people should feel sorry for, because she didn't get hooked on drugs for fun or because she was bored. She didn't end up getting cancer because she was smoking cigarettes, thinking they were cool. She had a serious medical condition and, trying to fight it, she failed. It killed her. That's sad--beyond sad. I've got two wonderful, beautiful daughters, and I'm alive. No one should feel sorry for me. No one."

Wendy Goydos

For 17 years, Paul Goydos has been someone everyone on the PGA Tour seeks when looking for a laugh or a different spin on golf's many issues. His deadpan humor--much of it self-deprecating--is often the subject of stories told on the range.

He has frequently claimed to be the worst player in the history of the PGA Tour, a statement belied by the fact that he has stayed on tour since 1993, won twice, made close to $9 million, and last year came within a few inches of winning the Players Championship before losing a playoff to Sergio Garcia.

"A lot of times he'll say something with a straight face, and a few minutes later you'll say to yourself, Wait, that was funny--really funny," says Kevin Sutherland, Goydos' best friend on tour. "He never smiles when he's getting off a line, so if you aren't listening closely, you might miss it."

Several years ago Goydos was asked to name his dream foursome. "Bobby Jones, Pamela Anderson and Kevin Sutherland," he answered. When the questioner asked why Sutherland was in the group, Goydos shrugged and said, "Because someone has to be willing to play the entire 18 holes with me."

There are very few things for which Goydos doesn't have a one-liner. His press conferences during the Players last year became must-attend events, and he even left NBC's unflappable Bob Costas speechless a couple of times.

Costas: "Why do you wear your shirts buttoned to the top on a 90-degrees day?"

Goydos: "I have no shoulders, and that's the only way the shirt stays on."

Costas: "Have you ever held the 54-hole lead?"

Goydos: "No, but I've only been out on tour for 16 years."

Costas: (on Sunday morning): "How did you sleep last night?"

Goydos: "On my back."

"What people lose sometimes amid all the humor is how smart the guy is," says Billy Andrade, another close friend. "He's very thoughtful and bright. I wish more people out here would listen to him, because he's right on most subjects most of the time."

She was looking for something--anything--to make her feel better.'

Growing up in Long Beach, Calif., Goydos realized at an early age that he didn't like trying to hit baseballs that seemed to be thrown right at his head. He found an old set of his dad's golf clubs in the garage, and Jim Hunter, the pro at Recreation Park Golf Course, a nearby muny, gave him six lessons for $40.

From there, Goydos was on his own. He began playing regularly at Recreation Park--known as The Boneyard because so many of its players were senior citizens--and was good enough to play college golf at Long Beach State. It was there that he met Wendy Medak. Paul did some part-time work for her dad, a mortgage broker, and she dated one of his friends. Eventually, they started dating. "Besides the fact that she was pretty, she had the kind of personality that made people feel comfortable," he says. "She was outgoing and friendly and happy." He smiles. "Sort of the opposite of me. Maybe that's what attracted me to her."

He graduated from Long Beach State in 1988, and he and Wendy were married a year later. By then, Paul thought his golf career was over. He had developed an arthritic condition in his left hand during his senior year that made it almost impossible to grip a club. After graduating with a degree in finance, he worked part time for Wendy's dad and as a substitute teacher in the Long Beach school system, often working in inner-city schools.

"It was, to say the least, interesting work," he says. "There were times when you would be in the schoolyard during a break, and you'd hear gunshots. Everyone knew you just had to hit the deck and hope."

While he was teaching, he stumbled onto a set of golf clubs with oversize grips that made it easier for him to swing the club. When the Ben Hogan Tour started in 1990, he decided to give golf one more shot. If he failed--as he fully expected to--he would go back to school for a graduate degree. "Or something like that," he has often said. "To be honest, I had no clue."

Chelsea was born in August 1990, and she and Wendy traveled with Paul on the Hogan Tour the next two years. He won $30,000 the first year and doubled that a year later after winning the Yuma Open as an alternate--with Wendy caddieing for him, which she often did in those days. At the end of '92, with Wendy caddieing for him three months after Courtney's birth, he made it through Q school and arrived on the big tour in 1993.

Wendy had dealt with migraine headaches for as long as Paul had known her. "I'm not sure there was a time in her life that she didn't get them," he says. "I know for sure that she had them in high school and college. They were always bad. She'd have to lie completely still in a dark room until they passed. But right about the time I got to the tour, they started to get worse."

They got so bad at times that Wendy had to go to the emergency room. There, a shot of the painkiller Demerol and an anti-nausea drug called Vistaril would leave Wendy "out of it," according to Paul. The drugs were only a temporary cure. The trips to the hospital became more frequent. "They went from three or four times a year to once a month to once a week," he says. "It just got worse and worse. The Demerol was a depressant. She would get rebound headaches after the meds. It became kind of a traffic jam of pain, and they just couldn't get at the root cause."

She didn't choose this path. In a sense, it chose her.'

To this day, Goydos isn't exactly sure when Wendy began taking crystal methamphetamine, or why. He suspects it was a neighbor who took the drug for recreational purposes who convinced her that it would help with the depression she often dealt with as a side effect of the prescription drugs she was taking.

"Misery loves company, I guess," he says. "She was looking for something--anything--to make her feel better. All of a sudden, she went from feeling depressed and out of it to thinking she could jump over tall buildings in a single bound. It became her way out of bed."

When Paul confronted her, Wendy's reaction was predictable: I don't have a problem. "It's easy to second-guess now," he says. "Maybe I should have been tougher on her right away. Maybe I should have said, 'Are you crazy?' I didn't. Even if I had, I'm not sure she would have listened."

Not long after the issue first came up, Wendy started telling Paul that he was the problem, that having a job that kept him on the road was making her life impossible. The family dynamic, which had been so strong and happy for the first 10 years of their marriage, began to crumble. In the summer of 2001, Wendy told Paul she was pregnant. "I can't tell you why," he says, "but something in my gut told me the baby wasn't mine."

An e-mail that Wendy left on-screen one night confirmed his suspicions. "She'd been seeing a guy she knew in high school," he says. "I would leave town, and he would show up."

On the same weekend that he missed the cut at Jackson, Miss., meaning he would not remain fully exempt on tour, Goydos got the paternity test results: He was, in fact, not the father. Soon after, he moved out of the house to an apartment nearby. In December 2003, a judge granted Goydos full custody of Chelsea and Courtney and informed Wendy she could see them--her other daughter is being raised by the father--only with adult supervision.

During that period, Goydos talked often to the girls, who were 11 and 9 when he first moved out of the house, about not thinking that their parents' problems were their problems. "I told them, 'Just because the two adults in your life have acted silly and stupid is no reason to let that ruin your lives,' " he says. "Looking back now, it's easy to see where we made mistakes. But when you're in the middle of it, your vision isn't nearly as good."

After balking, Wendy went to rehab. In fact, she went back repeatedly during the last seven years of her life but never could stay clean for long. Sensing that the girls were struggling, Goydos decided to take 2004 off from golf even after rallying late in 2003 to become fully exempt again. He had sinus surgery that he had needed and was granted a major medical exemption. Only a few of his closest friends on tour--Sutherland, Flesch, Andrade--knew what was really going on.

"Paul is not the kind of guy who just goes around and talks about his troubles," Flesch says. "If you're in the small group he trusts, and you ask him, he's apt to tell you. But it's hard to tell sometimes when he's hurting, because he's almost always matter-of-fact about everything. But it was pretty obvious back then how serious this all was."

Goydos agrees, but he still doesn't see it as a reason to play the woe-is-me game. "First, I was lucky that I was in a job where I could afford to take a year off like that," he says. "Did I miss playing? Sure. But the best year of my golf career was the year I didn't play. It was an important time for me to be home, and I'm grateful that I was able to do it. This notion that came up during the Players last year, that I'm some kind of super dad because I'm raising my girls, is crazy. I'm doing what any decent father would do, and I'm lucky to have all the help I've had doing it."

Wendy's mother and sister helped with the girls when Goydos was on the road, and his play improved after the divorce became final in 2005. In January 2007, he won in Hawaii.

"People simply did not understand how amazing it was that he won again after everything that had gone on," Andrade says. "He'd had physical problems, which a lot of guys face, but what he'd gone through at home, which I never once heard him complain or whine about, was unbelievable. We live in a world where guys have fits if they don't get the right courtesy car. You think about what he's lived through, and it boggles the mind."

Andrade remembers sitting up late with Goydos one night and hearing the details of the story. "At one point," Andrade says, "he looked at me and said, 'I know someday I'm going to get a phone call, and it isn't going to be good news.' "

"Wendy was trying--I know she was trying to deal with her addiction," Goydos says. "But she just couldn't ever get over the next wave. A lot of times when I was away, she would tell the girls or her mom that she was sick, that she needed one of them to come and take her to the hospital. It was a cry for attention, and after a while it sounded like she was crying wolf."

At about 5:30 in the morning on Jan. 17, Mary Medak, who was staying with her grandchildren while Paul was returning from the tournament in Hawaii, got a phone call from someone who identified himself only as a "friend" of Wendy's. She'd had a headache that night and had gone to the hospital. She had taken some pills after coming home, and, according to the caller, "she's not looking too good."

Mary had heard this before. "If you really think she's sick, call 911," she said.

"No, I'm not going to do that," the caller said--and hung up.

Mary told Paul she was going to swing by Wendy's house just to make sure she was OK. That was when she found her--unconscious. Her call to 911 was too late. Wendy Goydos was dead on arrival at the hospital. Goydos is still awaiting the toxicology reports to determine the exact cause of death.

"I had worried about receiving that phone call for years," he says. "Even so, it was a complete shock. One thing people don't understand when they ask how the girls are dealing with it is that they've been dealing with it for 10 years. This is the ultimate, horrible result of it all, but it's a culmination. It's different from if she'd been killed in a car crash. This was a progressive disease. She just never could get off the path once she was on it. She didn't choose this path. In a sense, it chose her. She was sick, very sick.

"When I think about what she went through, I think about what everyone should think about: There but for the grace of God go I."

The memorial service for Wendy Goydos was conducted a week after she died, at the Bay Shore Community Congregational Church in Long Beach, the place where she and Paul had been married almost 20 years earlier. The church was filled to capacity--and beyond.

"It reminded me that a lot of people really loved Wendy," Goydos says. "There's been a tendency to focus on the last few years of her life, which is sad, because there were 35 very good years before that. "People tell me all the time what a great job I've done with the girls, because they really are good kids. Well, the person who was with them the most the first 10 or 12 years of their lives was Wendy. People act as if Wendy didn't exist before all this happened, that there was never any good in her life.

"There's a tendency in society to look at people who are addicted to drugs as being lowlifes. I've probably been guilty of it myself. This was a tragedy--a real-life tragedy. My only hope is that I've learned enough from this not to look down on other addicts, and that I can convince some others to fight to help people who are dealing with an addiction, because I have some idea of how hard it can be--for the person who's addicted more than anyone.

"There's a lesson in all this, a sad one, but a lesson nonetheless for all of us: Be careful who you judge. No story is as clear-cut as you might think."