DUBLIN, Ohio – Bud Cauley’s comeback story here at the 44th Memorial Tournament has more than just ample amounts of feel-good providence and recompense. There’s the slightest whiff of Hogan mystique to it. And it brings to mind another promising golfer named Bud, who was not as fortunate and whose tragic end changed the life of Arnold Palmer.
There’s a lot to unpack there, but stay with us. After two rounds at Muirfield Village Golf Club, Cauley is composing a parable worthy of operatic adaptation.
Exactly one year after missing the cut here and then later the same night suffering serious injuries in an automobile accident, Cauley has played his way into contention for his first PGA Tour victory. On Friday, the Florida native briefly held the lead alone, eventually settled for a two-under 70, and finds himself in a logjam at seven-under 137, two behind Troy Merritt.
If you’re going to rise like a Phoenix, might as well do it near the place where your life and career nearly turned to ashes. That is not an exaggeration.
“I’ve had a couple of decent finishes this year,” Cauley said with a wry grin, “but to have the best week going so far here is a little ironic, I guess.”
After last year’s second round, when he followed up a 77 with a 76 to miss his first cut in five Memorial starts, Cauley repaired to the home of James Wisniewski, a former NHL player for the Columbus Blue Jackets. He and fellow pro Justin Thomas, one of his best friends on tour, were staying together at Wisniewski’s house.
Around 11 p.m., Cauley decided to venture out to a nearby, pub with Wisniewski, David Crawford, a local surgeon, and another friend. Shortly after departing, Crawford, who was driving, lost control of his BMW M6. The car struck a driveway culvert, went airborne, hit one tree, then two others before coming to rest in a ditch — across the street from the home of former Ohio State University football coach Urban Meyer. The accident site is less than a mile from the Muirfield Village clubhouse.
All but Crawford were injured seriously, but, amazingly, no one was killed, even though Wisniewski, sitting in the front passenger seat, was thrown through the front windshield. Cauley and the other man, Thomas Nichols of nearby Granville, were in the back seat and sustained a variety of injuries. Of the three, Cauley was the most seriously hurt because the car struck the tree at the rear passenger side, crumpling the door. He suffered a concussion, six broken ribs, a punctured lung and a broken left leg.
Though he since has seen a video of the accident, Cauley, 29, has no memory of it. But he carries around a reminder – the four plates attached to his ribcage to stabilize his right side. It was only natural to fear he never would play golf again. “It was the scariest time of my life,” he said.
Cauley was able to return to tournament golf in early October at the season-opening Safeway Open in Napa, Calif., having kept his card by virtue of his play prior to the accident. He was 74th on the FedEx Cup list when he was injured. By season’s end, he was relieved to have remained in the top 125 and retained his exemption. He ended up 124th.
A tie for 46th place in Napa was an encouraging start after a painful but steady rehab period. He hit his first shot at The Bear’s Club in Jupiter, Fla., in late August, and by coincidence Jack Nicklaus, the Memorial founder and host and owner of The Bear’s Club, happened to be watching. “He saw the first, like, little thin wedge,” Cauley said.
There was, however, more than just injuries to overcome.
“I've had a lot of time to think about it and, I guess, get over it. But there for a while, you talk about coming back here and trying to get over that, there were little things after the accident like getting in a car again,” he said. “And then driving a car. There were kind of little things. And I never had to pull over on the side of the road. But your mind is funny in how you remember certain things at certain times.
"There were little, small things to kind of get over but I think I was so worried about golf and getting healthy and being able to play again that took a lot of my attention.”
Cauley, No. 192 in the world, said he was apprehensive for weeks leading up to his return to Muirfield Village, but “once I got here it's actually been a little bit easier than the weeks leading up to it, just wondering how I would feel or what I would think about. It's nice to play well. I haven't really thought about it too much, which has been nice. Just trying to treat it like a normal week.”
The Memorial using one of its sponsor exemptions on Cauley was an astute and sympathetic selection that has facilitated the events now unfolding. Obviously, Cauley could not be making better use of the opportunity.
“When the Memorial Tournament’s exemption committee started to look over the list, they didn’t hesitate to give Bud a chance again, because he’s been playing well and he’s fought so hard to get back,” said Dan Sullivan, the tournament’s executive director. “For him to turn it around and put together the golf that he’s played so far is pretty incredible. He seems inspired by the exemption, and he’s appreciative of the chance he’s been given.”
It was the fall of 1950 when Bud Worsham and another golfer at Wake Forest, Gene Scheer, lost their lives in a one-car accident while driving home from a party in Durham, N.C. Worsham was the best friend of Arnold Palmer, and it was through Worsham that Palmer got a scholarship to attend Wake Forest.
Palmer had opted to not join his roommate, and the decision, while it saved his life, haunted him until the day he died. A part of him felt guilty, too, for if he had been with his friend, perhaps the accident never would have happened.
Justin Thomas is the man in Palmer’s shoes in this tale. He had made the cut last year after a second-round 69 and opted to rest rather than venture out with Cauley and the others. He was awakened at 11:30 that night by a phone call from Wisniewski’s wife with the news of the accident and barely slept before his third-round tee time. He has never spoken about the bullet he dodged. It was enough just fearing for his friends, particularly Cauley, his former University of Alabama teammate.
“That was probably one of the hardest nights I've ever had in my life,” Thomas said Wednesday. “We're all very happy to see him back. I'm excited for the time that he does win and just hope I'm there when he does.”
Eerily, his emotions mirrored Palmer’s. “I felt like it was somewhat my fault somehow," Thomas said, "and it was like what if something happens he can't play golf again? And there were a lot of things that run through your head when something like that happens and it's one of your best and closest friends.”
Coming back from a wrist injury that sidelined him for six weeks, Thomas said he would relish an opportunity to watch his friend win his first tour event, whether it is this week or in the near future. Cauley, who turned professional in 2011, is more than ready to accommodate him.
“Yeah, it's something I think about all the time, every day I go out and practice or every tournament I show up,” Cauley admitted. “But I try to worry more about what I need to do to finally have that breakthrough rather than obsess over just winning and wanting to win. I want to win as bad as I want anything.”
In February, 1949, Ben Hogan was driving an automobile that was struck head-on by a Greyhound bus. He’d have died had he not thrown himself across his wife Valerie, but he still sustained a double fracture of the pelvis, a broken collarbone, broken left ankle, chipped ribs and near-fatal blood clots. Miraculously, the following summer, he won the second of his four U.S. Open titles.
The Memorial might not be the U.S. Open, but it carries its own considerable prestige, with a world-class field and Nicklaus as host to shake the winner’s hand, something even Tiger Woods, with all his victories, relishes. On Monday, Cauley will compete in the Columbus U.S. Open sectional qualifier. Who knows, his success there could lead to a Hogan-like fairy tale at Pebble Beach.
Regardless, a victory won’t change him. He has been changed enough. Cauley feels fortunate, not only for his health and his ability to play golf again, but also for the perspective that has been brought to his life. He could have sued the driver of the car that nearly took away everything from him. “It was unfortunate what happened, but I didn’t want anyone to be affected more negatively than we already had been,” he explained. “We all have kind of been through enough.”
He is moving on, and grateful for it.
“I think I learned a lot from it. I’ve always appreciated playing golf. When you’re laying there, and you don't know if you’re going to be able to do it again, it puts everything in a different perspective,” Cauley said. “One minute everything is OK, and the next minute you’re worried about the rest of your life. I’ve definitely taken a lot of things from it, tried to learn from it and just do the best I can going forward.
“It definitely changed me. I think it changed me for the better.”