My good friend died on our golf trip. Here's why we kept playing
“Did you keep playing?”
That’s the question I fielded most after returning from my annual buddies golf trip last August, and it’s one I still feel funny answering. The response never changes, but my tone does, depending on who was asking. Yes, we kept playing. To close family, friends and co-workers (I work at GOLF Digest, after all), I’m not worried about sounding like a monster. But with others, I feel the need to add further justification.
I hate to say, “You had to be there,” because being there for the death of a longtime friend during what’s supposed to be our favorite week of the year was as horrific as you can imagine. But, well, you kind of had to be there. Playing on felt right. Playing on even felt good. And hopefully, this will help explain why.
I participated in my first HGGA Championship in 2001 following my freshman year at Wake Forest. Due to my age I was an outlier on this annual golf trip started by my varsity basketball coach, Mark Finegan (“Fin”), but it instantly became a highlight of my first summer back from college, a break from partying with high school friends to play pretty serious golf with middle-aged men, and, yes, doing a bit of partying as well (two decades later, I’m still hearing about the time I had too many rum and cokes in Ocean City). Tom Roksvold (“Roks”), nine years my elder, was the next youngest in age among this interesting bunch, which began before I was born as the “Hair Gang”—apparently, Fin and his friends used to have great hair—so Roks and I roomed together for many years. It was a comfortable pairing except for one thing: the thermostat. The big guy turned that sucker down as far as possible, often comparing our room’s conditions to that of a meat locker.
As much as I loved the trip, no one enjoyed it—and looked forward to it—like Roks, who served in the all-important role of Director of Travel, while I had the least important role of Director of Communications (Fin is our Commissioner, and yes, we take this all way too seriously). I saw Roks fairly often during the golf season, but also at Pelham Middle School, where he taught eighth-grade Earth Science and where I substitute taught to supplement my part-time job as a sports reporter at a local newspaper during my first few years out of college. It could be the dead of winter and he might pass me in the hall or see me hanging out in Fin’s office and say, “163 days ‘til the trip!” with that wide grin. If he was trying out a new shot—putting with a hybrid or hitting a knockdown off the tee—he’d often say, “You’re going to see a lot of that on the trip!” Of course, he usually abandoned whatever strategy he planned on employing, but his love of our annual five-day pilgrimage never waned.
Sadly, much of Roks’ spryness on the course did, though, as he crept into his mid-40s and his golf game deteriorated. The full turn in his swing that we always marveled at shortened, causing a precipitous drop in pop off the tee. Most par 4s suddenly weren’t reachable in two and his hybrids went so short that his irons were basically rendered useless. Roks had always lumbered getting to and from his golf ball, but now he was frequently picking up his ball after a bad tee shot and plopping down in the cart to save energy. Still, he loved just being out there.
Until, suddenly, he wasn’t out there.
Roks was nowhere to be seen on the morning of Aug. 2 as our 8 and 8:10 tee times at Turning Stone’s Kaluhyat Golf Course approached. With Roks’ reputation as an early riser—sometimes getting completely dressed in the middle of the night and waiting quietly for everyone else to get up—this was odd, but not yet a reason to panic. In fact, we first joked about the possible sanctions the Commish would impose on him for his tardiness. With each passing moment, though, things got more serious.
We sent a first group off No. 1 while Fin, unable to reach Roks by phone, drove a cart back to Roks’ room. Suddenly, our group of seven was down to five and we did everything we could to stall, still thinking Roks would join us. Then we got word Fin had gotten no answer when he banged on Roks’ door so he was getting security involved. Moments later, standing on the second tee, an eerie silence was broken by an ambulance’s siren that got louder. And louder. Another text told us medics were there, but Fin wasn’t sure what was happening since he wasn’t allowed in the room. We should come back, he said. Moments later as we made our way back to the clubhouse, another, more chilling text came: “Come back now.”
Nothing was said as we rode and then hoofed it by foot to the nearby hotel where we saw a shaken Fin. He could barely muster two words delivering the tragic news: “He’s dead.” It didn’t seem real. Nor did the next three hours filled with coroners and cops and teary phone calls.
The experts said Roks’ heart stopping couldn’t have been prevented, but it was hard to keep from wondering. I had ridden in a cart with him less than 24 hours before. Should I have noticed something? Three of us had passed him in the hotel on his way back to his room the previous night. Should we have sensed something? What if we had roomed together like old times instead of him springing for his own suite? Could I have done something? Anything? I also couldn’t help but wonder about the strange timing. Following Wednesday’s practice round, Roks had made the stunning announcement he was passing on his Director of Travel duties to a younger member. Did he sense something?
Roks had left behind a son who was a high school sophomore and a daughter who was at her freshman orientation at SUNY Buffalo with his wife that week. Just two days before, he told me her leaving for college had really hit him during a recent trip to Bed, Bath & Beyond. Now, as a father to a 16-month-old girl, it was really hitting me. I suddenly felt like an asshole for waking up that morning worried about straightening out my driver.
When there was nothing else to do, we decided to get some lunch at the clubhouse and figure out our next move. “How many are you?” the hostess asked. “Seven,” I quickly responded before correcting myself. “Six, sorry.” I always thought the worst part of the trip was not coming home with our coveted green jacket. I never considered we might return without one of our own.
It was at lunch where we shared a few drinks and laughs in Roks’ honor. If there was anything he had loved more than golf, it was having a good chuckle about the game—especially if it involved him needling us. Once after shooting my career-low round over the previous weekend, Roks interrupted whatever class I was teaching* (*babysitting) on Monday. Sporting that same big grin, he didn’t say anything as he walked over to my desk at the front of the room and plopped down a clear plastic bag filled with sand before walking out. The elaborate message was clear to me, but the students had no clue what to make of it.
Funny enough, it was Roks who was officially accused of being a sandbagger at the Lake Isle Club Championship once. And for good reason. He fired an 80 as a 23-handicapper for a net 57, prompting Fin to have to testify in front of the club pro that he was in fact, not a good golfer. Roks would eventually settle to around a 14-15 handicap for many years, an impressive feat considering constant struggles with his weight. On that year’s trip, Roks showed up with a hat embroidered with “Mr. 57,” a nod to his “statistically improbable” net score. He was positively giddy to unveil that clever gem.
Nearly as statistically improbable was another 80 shot by Roks and I in alternate shot the only year the HGGA Championship featured a two-man tournament. After Roks, wearing a Wake Forest shirt he bought to match mine for the occasion, rolled in one final putt to cap an Ian-Poulter-Ryder-Cup-at-Medinah-esque putting performance and all but wrap up our team title, we danced a jig in the gloaming. We exclaimed, “Love ya, buddy!” so much that week I thought the rest of the guys might leave us in Myrtle Beach. I could go on and on, but you get it … good times.
It was also at that Aug. 2 lunch where Fin relayed a message from Roks’ brother-in-law, a founding member of our little golf group. “He says to go play because Roks would have wanted us to.” That phrase—“so-and-so would have wanted you to”—is often used in situations like this, but it’s hard to imagine a case where it would be more true. Even Roks’ heartbroken wife wanted us to play, going as ridiculously far as to apologize for her husband ruining our trip. So we decided to play on with one change. Our suddenly silly tournament would be canceled, and the modest prize money would go to Roks’ family.
After lunch, we kept Roks’ clubs on the cart for one final round. It was weird—and yes, nice—to get back out on the course, but it was also impossible not to see those clubs and realize he’d never spin another wedge to kick-in range or hit another hybrid (the guy was an artist with those clubs). People always say after someone dies that you should hug your loved ones, but you should also hug your loved things from time to time.
Perhaps that’s why we were able to still enjoy that afternoon’s round so much. And the final two days of the trip, although Fin and another Pelham teacher left the next morning. In the moments when we were able to forget what had transpired, never had we felt so grateful to be playing. Never had a perfect summer day seemed so glorious. Never had the on-course camaraderie brought so much joy. How could we waste that opportunity?
Besides, there would be plenty of time for mourning in the days to come. Plenty of tears at the wake in which Roks’ personal green jacket that he bought after his maiden major win in 2001 was draped over a golf-themed casket. And plenty more at his funeral the following day at which the priest mentioned Roks’ love of the game just seconds after mentioning his love for his family. Playing golf had temporarily kept us from being engulfed by the sadness of it all. But in that sadness, there was the silver lining that as far as last days on Earth could go, Roks couldn’t have scripted it much better.
He played golf with his friends, he ate some good BBQ, he got a great report from his wife and daughter from freshman orientation, and he hit the tables (Big Daddy also loved to roll the bones). The last text he ever sent that evening came as we readied for dinner. “Enjoying a T&T (Tanqueray & Tonic) across from the entrance to Tin Rooster. #Delish.” Hours before that, he had tweaked our tournament leader for having an inflated handicap. Classic Roks.
Back to that first, surreal round without our fallen friend, Kaluhyat’s 18th hole is fittingly named “Journey’s End.” But while we won’t be making any more journeys there or anywhere with Roks, our sacred golf trip—one that he will be inextricably linked to as long as it exists—will continue. So, too, will the journeys of those he touched. In September, the Pelham varsity football team, for which he had served as an assistant coach, wore helmets with a “ROKS” decal—and pulled off its biggest win in decades. This spring, Fin will take over the reins from Roks as the school’s varsity boy’s golf coach. And this summer, we will all have a Carolina Peach Tea at Pinehurst’s Ryder Cup Lounge in his honor, a nod to the time the two of us badly misjudged just how potent they are.
Finally, Roks’ tragic death has also spawned plans for a special trip to Caledonia Golf & Fish Club in Pawleys Island, S.C., an HGGA favorite and where we also played for my bachelor party. There, we will fulfill his wish—albeit, much, much sooner than anyone expected—by spreading his ashes on the beautiful par-3 11th. Perhaps, on the steep bank from where once, after taking a tumble, Roks regrouped and chipped in. It’s hard to imagine such joy, but it’s even harder to forget when you’ve seen it. So thanks for the memories, Roks. And, yes, for the excuse to go on an additional golf trip (Love ya, buddy!). Know that as we keep playing on, we’ll never stop missing you.