Golf and Life and Death Too
Had you heard of Michael Christie? Maybe you did, maybe not. He was born June 25, 1969. Tragically, he took his life with a single gunshot to the head at his parents home in Greenville, S.C., on April 22, 2004.
Just like that - the promise of resurrecting a once-promising PGA Tour career was gone.
As the obituary tells it, Christie, who attended the University of South Carolina in the early 1990s before rocketing up the ranks toward the life hed worked so hard for, was prepping for a lesson with his teacher in hopes of finding his way again on the Nationwide Tour.
Michael Christie won four times on the Nationwide Tour in the '90s, including his hometown Greater Greenville Classic during a spectacular three win season in 1996.
Stewart Cink led the money list that year. Christie finished second and earned his PGA Tour card.
After a successful PGA Tour rookie season in which he made more than $200,000 and finished among the tours top 125, things really changed.
He suffered one injury after another (back, shoulder, sinuses, etc.) and one missed cut after another (PGA Tour/Nationwide Tour, etc.) And as the story goes, one painkiller after another which ultimately took him down a road he struggled to navigate.
From 1998 until the day his story found a terribly sad conclusion, Christie made little more than $35,000 in PGA Tour sanctioned events.
I remember Christie. I saw him play on both tours. He had fantastic skills and a tremendous confidence in his ability. I interviewed Christie. He had a way about him that could rub you the wrong way, yet he could also seem upbeat and excited about the chance to talk about his day. And he certainly gave me a strong sense that he respected the game and its demands.
Apparently though, Christie was shooting for the stars under a dark cloud of unrelenting depression attached to the struggles of trying to reach golf stardom himself.
Very sadly, Michael Christie is gone. Only he knows for sure the reasons why.
But I really cant believe it. And I believe that in losing him, weve now gained a bit of insight into Tour life that might change the way we perceive golf at its highest level.
These guys and gals might be living the life we as golf fanatics would all like to live. But it isnt always as we think. When theyre not playing the game, theyre thinking the game. When they leave the course, its not always easy to leave the mental load behind.
Those who are lucky enough to be among their respective tours very elite dont worry about keeping their card, but there is always something to occupy the mind. As for those who find themselves on the bubble of exemption each year, well, they find themselves in a world of insecurity. Itll all change when I get that top-5 finish, they probably say to themselves. Just one good week, and Ill be able to settle down and relax a bit.
And in the case of a guy like Christie, heaven forbid injury halts progress and stalls the confidence. Heaven forbid a bout with depression becomes a weight that cant be lifted.
Make no mistake - the life of a professional golfer, while potentially profitable beyond ones dreams, is a never-ending pressure-cooker. GRIND is a good word.
No one really knows what drove Christie to the point of putting an end to his life, but on the day that I sat at my desk, looking to take a bit of a breather, I found myself thankful that I do what I do. Im also a bit more sympathetic now to the plight of every golfer who dares to dream of being like Tiger, or Phil, or Annika. Remember, nothing is given without it being earned by good play. There are no guaranteed contracts for the likes of a Michael Christie.
The message to myself - Be darn careful what you ask for. Dont strive for more than you can realistically handle. If you ever get it, appreciate it. Spend as much time quietly patting yourself on the back for your achievements as you do working hard to go even higher. Never take it for granted. And if it ever slips away, consider yourself a success simply for having reached your goals ' if even for the shortest of time.
I never played on the PGA Tour, or any other professional circuit. But having spent much of my professional life talking with athletes - and golfers in particular - Im wondering if Michael Christies quiet moments before that fatal gunshot were much different from those dealt with by other tour professionals at some time or another.
Are they so single-minded in their quest that they dont often enough stop to smell the roses? Is there a fear that competitive golf is all I know, and thus it becomes too hard to search for happiness outside the game? In other words, is ones perception of a worthwhile life based more on the outcome of each days score than on what goes on around each days round of golf?
I was talking with a PGA Tour player the other day who, in a rather serious moment, confessed to me, Im really struggling right now with the job of being a professional golfer. For that matter, he continued, Im struggling even more with being a father and also a husband.
Think about that the next time you hear someone quip of how great it must be. Think about Michael Christies personal struggles too.
Obviously, tour golfers are really no different than anyone when it comes to dealing with lifes tough times. And yes, they've chosen the life they lead. But, now more apparent to me than ever before, golf as a life, is a life thats pretty tough to keep in its proper perspective.
Email your thoughts to Kraig Kann
Move over Lydia, a new Ko is coming to LPGA
Another gifted young South Korean will be joining the LPGA ranks next year.
Jin Young Ko, the Korean LPGA Tour star, informed the American-based LPGA on Sunday night that she will be taking up membership next year. Ko earned the right by winning the LPGA’s KEB Hana Bank Championship as a nonmember in South Korea in October.
Ko, 22, no relation to Lydia Ko, first burst on to the international spotlight with her run into contention at the Ricoh Women’s British Open at Turnberry two years ago. She led there through 54 holes, with Inbee Park overtaking her in the final round to win.
With 10 KLPGA Tour titles, three in each of the last two seasons, Ko has risen to No. 19 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings.
Ko told GolfChannel.com Sunday afternoon that she was struggling over the decision, with a Monday deadline looming.
“It’s a difficult decision to leave home,” Ko said after the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, when she was still undecided. “The travelling far away, on my own, the loneliness, that’s what is difficult.”
Ko will be the favorite to win the LPGA’s Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year Award next year. South Koreans have won that award the last three years. Sung Hyun Park won it this year, In Gee Chun last year and Sei Young Kim in 2015. South Korean-born players have won the last four, with New Zealand’s Lydia Ko winning it in 2014. Ko was born in South Korea and moved to New Zealand when she was 6.
Piller pregnant, no timetable for LPGA return
Gerina Piller, the American Olympian golfer and three-time Solheim Cup veteran, is pregnant and will not be rejoining the LPGA when the 2018 season opens, the New York Times reported following the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.
Piller, 32, who is married to PGA Tour pro Martin Piller, is due with the couple’s first child in May, Golf Channel’s Jerry Foltz reported.
Piller declined an interview request when GolfChannel.com sought comment going into the CME Group Tour Championship.
Piller told the New York Times she has no timetable for her return but that she isn’t done with competitive golf.
“I’m not just giving everything up,” Piller said.
As parity reigns, LPGA searching for a superstar
Apologies to the LPGA’s golden eras, but women’s golf has never been deeper.
With the game going global, with the unrelenting wave of Asian talent continuing to slam the tour’s shores, with Thailand and China promising to add to what South Korea is delivering, it’s more difficult than ever to win.
That’s a beautiful and perplexing thing for the women’s game.
That’s because it is more difficult than ever to dominate.
And that’s a magic word in golf.
There is no more powerful elixir in the sport.
Domination gets you on the cover of Sports Illustrated, on ESPN SportsCenter, maybe even on NBC Nightly News if the “D” in domination is dynamic enough.
The women’s best chance of moving their sport to another stratosphere is riding the back of a superstar.
Or maybe a pair of superstar rivals.
A constellation of stars may be great for the devoted regular supporters of the women’s game, but it will take a charismatic superstar to make casual fans care.
The LPGA needs a Serena Williams.
Or the reincarnation of Babe Zaharias.
For those of us who regularly follow the LPGA, this constellation of stars makes for compelling stories, a variety of scripting to feature.
The reality, however, is that it takes one colossal story told over and over again to burst out of a sports niche.
The late, great CBS sports director Frank Chirkinian knew what he had sitting in a TV production truck the first time he saw one of his cameras bring a certain young star into focus at the Masters.
“It’s this player coming up over the brow of the hill at the 15th hole to play his second shot,” Chirkinian once told me over lunch at a golf course he owned in South Florida. “He studies his shot, then flips his cigarette, hitches up his trousers and takes this mighty swipe and knocks the shot on the green. It was my first experience with Arnold Palmer, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, who is this guy?’
“The thing about golf, more than any other sport, it’s always looking for a star. It’s the only sport where people will root against the underdog. They don’t want the stars to lose. They’re OK with some unknown rising up to be the story on Thursday or Friday, but they always want to see the stars win.”
And they go gaga when it’s one star so radiant that he or she dominates attention.
“It didn’t matter if Arnold was leading, or where he was, you had to show him,” Chirkinian said. “You never knew when he might do something spectacular.”
The LPGA is in a healthy place again, with a big upside globally, with so much emerging talent sharing the spotlight.
Take Sunday at the CME Group Tour Championship.
The back nine started with Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie making the turn tied for the lead. There is no more powerful pairing to sell in the women’s game today, but there would be no duel. It would have been too far off script as the final chapter to this season.
Parity was the story this year.
Sunday in Naples started with 18 players within two shots of the lead.
Entering that back nine, almost a dozen players were in the mix, including Ariya Jutanugarn.
The day ended with Jutanugarn beating Thompson with a dramatic birdie-birdie finish after Thompson stunned viewers missing a 2-foot putt for par at the last.
The day encapsulated the expanding LPGA universe.
“I’ve never seen such crazy, brilliant golf from these ladies,” said Gary Gilchrist, who coaches Jutanugarn, Lydia Ko and Rolex world No. 1 Shanshan Feng. “It was unbelievable out there. It was just like birdie after birdie after birdie, and the scoreboard went up and down. And that’s why it’s so hard to be No. 1 on this tour. There’s not one person who can peak. It’s all of them at a phenomenal level of golf.”
If Thompson had made that last 2-footer and gone on to win the CME, she would have become the sixth different world No. 1 this year. Before this year, there had never been more than three different No. 1s in a single LPGA season.
Parity was the theme from the year’s start.
There were 15 different winners to open the season, something that hadn’t happened in 26 years. There were five different major championship winners.
This year’s Rolex Player of the Year Award was presented Sunday to So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park. It’s the first time the award has been shared since its inception in 1966.
Thompson won twice this year, with six second-place finishes, with three of those playoff losses, one of them in a major championship. She was close to putting together a spectacular year. She was close to dominating and maybe becoming the tour’s one true rock star.
Ultimately, Thompson showed us how hard that is to do now.
She’s in a constellation we’re all watching, to see if maybe one star breaks out, somebody able to take the game into living rooms it has never been, to a level of popularity it’s never been.
The game won’t get there with another golden era. It will get there with a golden player.
Love's hip surgery a success; eyes Florida swing return
Within hours of having hip replacement surgery on Tuesday Davis Love III was back doing what he does best – keeping busy.
“I’ve been up and walking, cheated in the night and stood up by the bed, but I’m cruising around my room,” he laughed early Wednesday from Andrews Sports Medicine and Orthopedic Center in Birmingham, Ala., where he underwent surgery to replace his left hip. “[Dr. James Flanagan, who performed the surgery] wants me up. They don’t want me sitting for more than an hour.”
Love, 53, planned to begin more intensive therapy and rehabilitation on Wednesday and is scheduled to be released from the hospital later this afternoon.
According to Love’s doctors, there were no complications during the surgery and his recovery time is estimated around three to four months.
Love, who was initially hesitant to have the surgery, said he can start putting almost immediately and should be able to start hitting wedges in a few weeks.
Dr. Tom Boers – a physical therapist at the Hughston Orthopedic Clinic in Columbus, Ga., who has treated Fred Couples, Phil Mickelson, Greg Norman and Brad Faxon – will oversee Love’s recovery and ultimately decide when he’s ready to resume normal golf activity.
“He understands motion and gait and swing speeds that people really don’t understand. He’s had all of us in there studying us,” Love said. “So we’ll see him in a couple of weeks and slowly get into the swing part of it.”
Although Love said he plans to temper his expectations for this most recent recovery, his goal is to be ready to play by the Florida swing next March.