124th U.S. Open

Pinehurst No. 2

First Person

Why I spread my brother’s ashes at Pinehurst No. 2

The author's connection to the game and to his late brother is never stronger than at the site of this year's U.S. Open

Golf was a strange game for my brother to play. It was not a typical sport for athletes in our hometown. Golf was a country club game, and we were not country club kids. Both our parents had grown up in a sort of desperate poverty that I think, to them, made joining the country club, even in our little town, seem like something that didn’t involve just dollars and cents for initiation fees and dues. It was the currency and comfort of a certain class that we could only view from afar.

My brother found golf during graduate school at Mississippi State. The school had a Professional Golf Management program and a nice course the university maintained. I was surprised when he called to tell me he had taken up the game and more surprised when I saw how deeply invested he already was. We had a sense of ourselves that was imprinted by the time and place of where we grew up--Corbin, Kentucky, a town built by the railroad in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.

Our mother grew up in Korea with very little but with an insatiable appetite for more. Dad might have grown up with even less, lacking everything except books thanks to the Book Mobile from the public library, which changed his life. He became an avid reader, allowing his intelligence to blossom, then he went off to college and his brothers and sisters all followed him out of their small home and deep holler and into the middle class. So, while their childhood hardships were not ours, we felt a connection with their struggle.

When Tim started playing golf, my father scoffed. This was not a tough game. From its fashion to its (lack of) actual physical action, golf just seemed a little too easy. Too soft. Even prissy and fussy. I was a little embarrassed he had even decided to play golf, but one thing I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is that one generation’s values always gives way to the next and my brother and I were able to leave those notions of golf and the country club behind. Shortly after Tim started playing, I did, too.

A year after I graduated from college, I went to live with Tim after both of our lives needed to hit reset. I was with him for 18 months and most of our days ended on golf courses in and around Richmond, Virginia.

I cherish those memories with Tim playing in the gloaming. Even then they reminded me of the evenings with our father in our mountaintop cabin, watching the lightning bugs spark to life and the night’s blanket of stars covering us from above. I was with my brother, my hero, on the course, but I was thinking of Dad, too—how he had worked himself out of poverty to give us so many opportunities and the privilege of being able to play a sport that was not cheap.

Golf is aspirational. So many of the greatest courses are out of reach to so many and that was true of my early golfing life. Time, as much as money, is golf’s great expense and often when you have a lot of one you often don’t have a lot of the other. As an English graduate student and single professor in my 20s and 30s, most courses were aspirational, not just the great ones, but then I started writing about golf and I started to find my way into those fields of play I longed to walk on, including Pinehurst No. 2, the site of this year’s U.S. Open. And the best part of going there the first time was that I got to take Tim with me.

Three years ago, this past May, my brother passed away from complications with cancer. When he was first diagnosed, it was a week after we had been in Pinehurst together, where I was writing my first travel feature. We had been to the resort before and had played No. 2 the previous year for my 40th birthday, but the visit, which should have been joyful, was filled with dread awaiting his biopsy results. Every time I go back to the resort, I think about our last visit there together and how hard we both tried to not let our fears of the worst take over.

I’ve written a lot about my brother’s passing and our relationship as well our relationship to golf. Sports always connected us, but golf hit something deeper. Maybe it was because we were outside in nature—a version of it, anyway—and it, too, reminded Tim of the days we spent in the woods with our father growing up. I’ve often wished my father played golf because I think he would have enjoyed those walks up the fairway of the 18th and testing both his mind and his athleticism in the way only golf can.

After Tim died, I took his ashes and spread them on No. 2 in a spot that was just for me, his wife, and our closest friends to know. I have been back to the course several times since and every occasion is about more than golf. It’s a chance to visit with my brother. I only ever talk to him on golf courses. I only say his name out loud when I’m playing and it’s only on No. 2 that I stop and squat down and tell him that I miss him, I wish he was here, and I wish he could see all the things I see. On my last visit, playing with strangers, I told him I had to keep it quick but that I would come back, that there was much to tell him.

The one time Tim and I played No. 2, we hardly spoke. I think we were just so thrilled to be there we were both soaking in the moment of being there and being together.

Recently, I met a reader for a round at his club and he asked what I love about golf. He didn’t know about Tim, and I try not to foist the memories of my dead brother onto new friends, so my answer was weak and ineffectual and filled with lots of golfer platitudes about nature and camaraderie. But here is my real answer.

What I love about golf is that it reminds me of everything. It reminds me of everything that is important and everything that is trivial. It lets me be close to my brother again, and when I play with our friends, his presence visits us for a few moments every round. I love golf because every good swing feels great and every bad swing really doesn’t matter. Because I have lost so much, I know how fleeting all these moments on the course are. I love golf because it lets me be present with my brother, reminds me of the love of our parents, and makes me long for the days with my own family. Golf is everything. And golf on No. 2 is always where those converge.

I may yet get to more great courses in this life—and I will certainly try—but if one can have a golfing home, mine is Pinehurst No. 2. It is the place where I feel my brother’s spirit most and no matter how poorly or well I play, the day will end with me having talked to my brother once again.

On our lone round at No. 2, a friend took a video of Tim and me walking down the fourth fairway and what I love about the video is that we aren’t talking to each other. We’re just there together.