PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Clay Aderholt was driving to his Fair Oaks Ranch, Texas, home in the rain Thursday afternoon. He came to a bend in the road on Highway 46 near the town of Spring Branch, right past Guadalupe State Park, just as an 18-wheeler was coming in the opposite direction. The truck hydroplaned. Its tractor got stuck in a ditch. Its trailer suddenly jackknifed and struck his Toyota Land Cruiser head on.
A vice president with Texas Capital Bank, Aderholt was on his way to see his family. Reid is 4 and the baby, Gracelyn, turned 1 a few months ago. Maybe the former high school quarterback would toss a ball around with the kids. He’d probably check how lifelong buddy Ryan Palmer was faring at The Players Championship. Then he was going to take his wife Allison out to dinner.
Just another nice little evening in Fair Oaks Ranch.
When he started running late, Allison called him. No answer. She called again. And again. Still nothing. Getting worried, she hopped into her car and drove down Highway 46 looking for Clay.
Allison arrived on the scene just after the paramedics. The driver of the hydroplaned 18-wheeler was uninjured. Her husband wasn’t so fortunate.
Clay Aderholt died from the impact. He was 36.
Less than an hour later and more than a thousand miles away, Palmer’s phone buzzed. He was at dinner, enjoying a meal with sponsors after posting a 5-under 67 in the opening round of The Players, a tournament which has always frustrated him.
Palmer looked at the text message. It was from his longtime friend and business manager Shawn Gosdin. “Don’t answer your phone,” it read. “Don’t speak with anyone else before you call me.”
Gosdin had already broken the news to Palmer’s wife, Jennifer, who was back home in Colleyville with their three children. They decided that he would be the one to tell Palmer that Aderholt, one of his best friends since childhood, had just died.
Ryan and Clay had attended Bonham Middle School and Amarillo High School together. They competed on the same all-star teams in baseball and basketball. They played golf together, too. “We had some good games growing up,” Palmer recalled with a smile. Upon graduation from Amarillo, they both decided to attend Texas A&M.
Since then, they’d remained close. Aderholt loved watching his friend compete on the PGA Tour, attending a few tournaments every year. Palmer loved having him around.
As expected, it wasn’t an easy conversation.
“He called me and we spoke for a few minutes,” Gosdin said. “I told him, ‘Clay would want you to go play. He would want you to kick that course’s [butt]. That’s the best thing you can do tomorrow.'”
They spent the rest of the night texting, just sharing their feelings. Palmer was in shock. He spoke with Jennifer, of course. Called some other friends and relatives. He also called his sports psychologist, Fran Pirozzolo, who preached not getting too emotional on the course.
As for withdrawing, that was never an option.
“Nothing I can really do except keep him in my prayers and memories and just keep playing golf,” he explained.
When he arrived at TPC Sawgrass for his 7:36 tee time Friday morning, Palmer wore the scars of the previous day’s news. Literally. Scratched in white in four separate places on his black TaylorMade cap were the initials “CA” for Clay Aderholt.
It should come as little surprise that once he teed off, Palmer received a little divine inspiration. He chipped in twice for eagle, at the ninth and 11th holes, for perhaps the first time in his career. He added four birdies. He posted a 3-under 69. And he got himself into contention at a tournament where he’s 1-for-7 making the cut, with a tie for 75th place in 2007 serving as his lone payday.
“My mind was good today, all things considered,” he maintained. “It's great to be in contention here at this tournament where I've struggled. I am excited about the weekend.”
“He actually hung in there fine,” said his caddie, James Edmondson. “The type of person he is, he is going to try and win it for Clay. Sometimes it’s easier to play for somebody else.”
For 18 holes, Palmer visibly kept everything together in the wake of his friend’s death. On the final hole, he missed a 13-foot birdie putt, then tapped in for par. He picked his ball out of the hole, then buried his face in the hat marked with those “CA” initials.
Ten seconds passed. Twenty. Thirty.
When he finally looked up, Palmer’s eyes were damp and tinged with red. His round was over. He could finally let himself get emotional on the course.