After a favorite golf partner's death, a new life as a single
After my brother passed in May, we drove back to his house from the hospital. In the driveway, where his truck still sat, his wife, Callie, said, “Would you like his golf clubs?” I had been there two weeks prior, when he’d gone into the hospital for the last time, and after visiting with him, holding his hand while he slept, I returned that night and stood in the garage, looking at his still-new clubs. He’d gotten them in 2018, just a month before he was diagnosed with cancer. As I thought of my brother lying in the hospital, all those months of his life lost to hospital rooms, I knew then that I would probably take his clubs home with me when he died.
“Are you sure you don’t want to keep them?” I said to Callie. The whine of cicadas filled the air around us.
“I can’t do anything with them,” she told me.
So, I began packing them up along with all the other golf gear he had acquired over years of playing: balls, towels, divot-repair tools, spare putters. Then I came across the yardage books. There were more than 50 of them from nearly every course he had ever played. He’d put them in Ziploc bags, and I knew that as I collected these, I would have to start making my way to these courses, that I would go back to walk the ground he had walked.
The author (glasses on hat) with his late brother, Tim, as golf partners, and as boys.
There is nothing in my life that does not remind me of Tim because there is nothing he and I did not share with each other. It was golf that bound us closest as adults, yet to go back and walk the courses he played felt complicated. Since he’d become ill, I’d lost most of my enthusiasm for playing and had been openly contemplating quitting altogether. I didn’t want to do it anymore without him. I’ve never been much good despite lots of time and money invested in golf over the years, and I’ve always felt a tinge of guilt playing. We grew up in a hardscrabble area of southeastern Kentucky, and though our childhoods were not lacking anything, our parents had both lived through near intolerable poverty in theirs—my mother in Korea and my father in a holler not far from my hometown. (And just like that—in one sentence—they are now my mother and my father and not our mother and our father.) I don’t know if Tim ever felt this same kind of bougie guilt. He didn’t plunge himself into the humanities departments of academia, where we judge, well, everything through some critical lens. Tim was a chemist at the FDA and was always stronger at running to his own pace. But no matter how I felt about golf, once I was out on the course with him, I always knew it was where I was supposed to be. Even as an adult I got a charge out of being around my big brother. It felt like he was still letting me tag along with him all these years later.
As I begin the New Year here in the deep chill of winter in Ohio, I’m remembering this is when he and I would have begun planning our golf trips. This coming year, of course, my first without him, I’ll have to make these plans alone. On my way into work, I pass the golf course near the university where I teach, its grass dormant and brown, and I think of spring, of the anticipatory feeling of warmer days when he and I would meet in an airport lounge ready to play again. Now those plans, like the days we have behind us, are gone and not to be regained. I have spent much of this year grieving him, absent-mindedly picking up my phone nearly every day since his death to text him about something and only feeling emptiness when I recall that I can’t. At Thanksgiving, I told my mother, “I miss all the stupid things we did. All the dumb stuff we said to each other while watching sports.” She cut me off before I could go on. “They’re not stupid. That’s what you two had. You had a routine. That’s how you communicated.”
This past autumn I traveled to spread my brother’s ashes on a course he loved. Afterward, I didn’t know how I could face another round without him. I wondered how I might ever enjoy an afternoon trying to master this impossible sport without having some trip with my brother to look forward to.
I told myself I couldn’t stop playing golf. It wasn’t because Tim would have hated the idea of me quitting, but because I knew golf would be the one thing that could always keep him close to me.
On the day I said goodbye to my brother, spreading his ashes on the course as I labored through the round, I had barely gotten the ball airborne. Golf was a secondary purpose but the duck hooks, ground balls and my own sense of dread all increased the closer I came to the moment when I would need to remove Tim's ashes from my bag. Mercifully, I struck a tee shot that found the fairway. Then I found a spot for Tim to rest. I walked the remaining holes with my ball in my pocket.
I returned home that night, emotionally spent. When my wife asked how it went, I told her the obvious, that it was hard and sad, that I said to my brother what I couldn’t when he was very sick because none of us wanted to voice our worst fears. “Do you think you’ll keep playing?” she asked. My game was profoundly awful, the worst it had ever been, but I told her, “I think I will. I think I want to get better.”
And it was true, something I had resolved to do in the airport as I waited for my flight home, as I tried to think of how many of those thousands of travelers around me—masked, their eyes searching—had also lost someone in this hellish stretch of illness and death we continue to live through. I told myself I couldn’t stop playing golf. It wasn’t because Tim would have hated the idea of me quitting, but because I knew golf would be the one thing that could always keep him close to me. Even if it hurt, it was better to have him near than to push that part of my life away.
So, a few weeks after I returned, I committed to a coach and system that would force me to improve. Every two weeks, I drive a half-hour to a studio that is filled with the latest in golf technology: Trackman launch monitors measure every conceivable data point of importance in a golf swing, iPhones set up on tripods film my swing, and then computers send the data and image captures to a cloud for me to retrieve after my lesson with audio notes from my coach on what to work on. There are more analog items as well: a pool noodle pointed at a forty-five-degree angle forces me to move my arms into the proper position during my swing, a traffic cone sits parallel to my right hip so I can’t take the club too far inside (and behind my body).
I listen intently to my coach, and I’ve started to make strides, but I’m thinking of Tim the minute I step inside the building. When the lesson concludes, I always wonder why I didn’t do this years ago so I could have played better then and matched Tim’s level of ability.
As I leave the building, I feel his loss all the more because I know I would have called him while he was at work to give him the details on what I learned that day. I ride home in silence, wondering what he would think if he could see my new swing, and how he would react when I reported my progress.
Like the rest of my family, I’ve tried to absorb this void. I notice, though, that I lean on my friends more than I did before. These friends, even the non-golfers, humor me when I send them the photos of my golf lessons that show me in the proper position, but if Tim were alive, he’d be the only person I would share them with. My brother was so much to me that I have, consciously and unconsciously, foisted upon my friends all the roles he played in my life. I have even, in some instances I realize afterward, assumed a closeness and familiarity that is not there because when it comes to a life of golf without him, I feel at sea.
But I will turn the page on this year and hold on hard to those long walks we had, remembering how we stood right next to each other when another person teed off and, as if we were strangers, we removed our caps at the end of each round and shook hands before we hugged. I’ll take this new swing of mine and learn to love golf without Tim, and I’ll take it to all the places he went and the ones he wanted to travel to but never had the chance. For the first time in my life, it’ll feel like I’m letting him tag along.
Michael Croley has written for Esquire, The New York Times, Bloomberg Businessweek, VQR, Golf, The Golfer's Journal, and McKellar. He teaches at Denison University and is on the visiting faculty at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.