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When COVID takes a golf friend

January 13, 2021

THE GLORY DAYS Ed (the Bear) Billus was the partner everybody wanted to have.

Courtesy of The Billus/Phraner Family

I got a call the other night from my old buddy Moon Man who wanted to let me know that the hero of our glory days had died of COVID. Close readers of this column might remember him from a 2004 ranking of the Top 5 Putters I’ve Ever Seen: (1) Tiger Woods, (2) Jack Nicklaus, (3) Bobby Locke, (4) Billy Casper, (5) Ed (the Bear) Billus, an opponent of mine on Philadelphia munys who did not miss a single putt that mattered, 1973-’88. Actually, upon reflection, I think he was a little better than Locke and Casper.

The Bear is what we called him at Juniata Golf Course in Northeast Philly, where everybody had a nickname, and the regular wager was $2 per nine holes. I’d stand on the first tee with about 30 other coffee-drinkers and take a partner, like Stiff Arms or Wawa, and we would “box” the field—playing 15 matches against all the other pairs. These were the free-wheeling days of my youth, long before house payments and college tuitions. The player you wanted as a partner was the Bear because he never lost. He would take somebody like Cosmo the Fat Man who didn’t even play golf and win big money matches with a lot of side action against the best-ball of Plucker, Long Hair and Chollie Binoculars. I was known as Pro Shop because that’s where I worked.

The first time I met Ed, he was chipping to the putting green by the clubhouse. His daughter, Cheryl, was playing with a doll on a picnic table nearby. The Bear was hunched over at address; on chips he looked like he was tying his shoes. His hands were far forward, and he lifted his pitching wedge straight up and dropped it sharply onto the back of the ball, which squirted off the face with backspin, skipping three or four times until it ratcheted near the hole. He did this for hours, and Cheryl never seemed to get bored.

“I remember that,” she says now, “although I preferred to play in the maintenance piles of sand.”

On weekdays after work, we’d play a four-hole loop cross-country that we called the fire drill. The ground was hardpan, with sunflower stalks replacing flagsticks that had been stolen. It wasn’t unusual for the Bear to play the loop in nine or 10 shots, hitting low-slinging wedges that started 20 yards right of the green and hooked and bounced to the hole. Did I say he never missed?

The Bear had kind of an Arnold Palmer build, narrow at the waist and broad shouldered with callused hands, blacksmith forearms and a dark tan even in the middle of winter. His father and a brother were coal miners. Ed was a machinist, working the presses at the Philadelphia Inquirer. His wife, Barbara, died young and it was just him and Cheryl. He spoke quietly, humbly and had a gentle soul, but he was the man you’d want on the next barstool if a fight ever broke out in a neighborhood saloon.

We used to meet before golf to have breakfast in a diner where the bacon and eggs were 99 cents. All these years later, he still went to the diner with the crew every morning at 6 o’clock. Afterward he would drive his granddaughter, Chelsey, to school. She works in a primary-care center now, where she contracted the virus right after Halloween. Then Cheryl got it. Stuffiness and fever, a lost sense of smell and taste followed. They tried to quarantine, but it’s a small rowhouse, and the Bear caught it a day later. Chelsey’s boyfriend, Alex, had to carry Ed to the car and drive him to the hospital; then Alex tested positive. This is an insidious disease. It leaves the strong and takes the vulnerable.

The Bear had been suffering since March with a preleukemia condition called MDS. COVID compromised his breathing. The Bear had fought through months of chemo, but nothing was left for COVID. Cheryl says, “They tried everything, plasma, remdesivir, the best doctors [at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where Cheryl works].” She and Chelsey recovered but weren’t able to enter his room in intensive care. They talked to him through the glass window. He died on Thanksgiving at 80.

“For a guy who never sat still, who was always so strong,” says Cheryl, “he seemed very content at the end. He liked to watch football and golf on television. He really loved his golf. He told us he wasn’t afraid, he’d had a full life.”