WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. – George McNeill called his family back home in Fort Myers, Fla., on Sunday morning, prior to competing in the final round of The Greenbrier Classic.
This had become a regular ritual, continuously checking in with them to receive an updated status report on Michele, the oldest of five McNeill siblings.
Only 46, Michele wasn’t doing well.
Two years ago, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy, followed by radiation and chemotherapy. It was a lengthy battle, but eventually doctors offered some good news. She was finally cancer-free.
Last November, though, she was having problems with her speech. Doctors found a tumor in her brain and within a few weeks, they performed surgery to remove it.
Then about a month and a half ago, Michele started having headaches. The cancer had metastisized throughout her brain. The doctors called it the most aggressive kind of cancer imaginable.
It was in her spinal fluid. In her spine. Within a few days, it paralyzed her from the waist down. She’d spent the last few weeks in a wheelchair.
Last week, Michele traveled to Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, requesting a second opinion. The doctors there, though, only confirmed the original diagnosis.
“They said they could do some really invasive off-the-wall stuff,” said George, the fourth of the five McNeill siblings. “She wasn’t tired of fighting, she wasn’t quitting, but she’d accepted it.”
When he called home Sunday morning, his regular ritual of checking in, he wasn’t expecting any positive news.
This time the news was even bleaker.
“They said it’s going to happen soon,” he later confided. “They said it might be the next couple of minutes, it might be the next couple of hours, but it’s going to happen soon.”
Feeling helpless, George put his mobile phone away in his locker and headed toward the driving range. Thinking about Michele every step of the way, he walked from the range to the practice green to the first tee, beginning his round at exactly 11:55 a.m. ET.
He doesn’t know how to explain what happened soon after.
He birdied the fourth hole. Then the fifth. Then the sixth and seventh.
On the eighth hole, a par-3 playing 220 yards, McNeill hit a towering 4-iron that plopped into the bottom of the cup for a hole-in-one.
The entire time, he barely showed any emotion.
“That ball went in the hole and we just kind of knew something was happening,” said Ernie Rose, a high school friend who is caddying for him this year. “Normally he’s pretty fiery, but this week he just had a peace about him.”
When the full scorecard was tallied up, it showed a 9-under 61 – the lowest round of his lengthy PGA Tour career.
McNeill couldn’t explain why he played so well under such dire circumstances.
“I don’t know … I really don’t know,” he said. “I’d be over a putt and she’s going through my head.
“Maybe it was good that I had something else in my thought. I knew what I was doing, I was aware of what I was doing, but it really wasn’t the first and foremost thing that I was concentrating on.”
Immediately after he walked off the final green, his phone still tucked away in his locker, he was interviewed on live television. The reporter artfully asked about Michele without directly asking about her.
“I know it's really difficult, and I will not press the issue with you. But sometimes perspective comes in different forms, doesn't it?”
George started to speak, but got choked up. Tears formed in the corners of his eyes. When he spoke, he alluded to his oldest sister.
“It does. It's ‑ yeah, you go out and, you know, golf doesn't really mean a whole lot. So it's hard. I played good today. And got finished, and you know, it was a nice middle part of the round. And so like I said, you know, golf doesn't mean a whole lot sometimes.”
A few minutes later, he shuffled off to the locker room, pulled out his phone and called his mother, Dorothy.
She told him that Michele had passed away at 11:35 that morning.
Twenty minutes before his tee time.
For most of the next two hours, George was alone with his thoughts. That round of 61 had placed him in a holding pattern. Waiting for the final groups to finish, he was periodically shown on television in various states of mourning and shock.
When the round was finally over, he had finished in second place, two strokes behind Angel Cabrera.
His golf bag strapped across his left shoulder, his spikes in his right hand, he stopped near his locker. He spoke about Michele and her two grown children, Julie and Sean. He spoke about what a difficult time this was for his family. He spoke about needing to go see them.
Once again, he choked up, tears forming in the corners of his eyes.
He paused to collect himself.
“It sucks,” he said, shaking his head.
Then he shuffled through the exit and up the stairs. He needed to start the journey back home.