AUGUSTA, Ga. – William Harold Kellogg attended a Masters practice round this week.
It was a big moment for Willie K, as friends and relatives affectionately call him. Those closest to the man thought it might be impossible. Born May 4, 1923, in Jamaica, N.Y., the World War II veteran doesn’t get out much anymore. In fact, he hadn’t left the care of his family in years, remaining under their supervision in Florida every single day.
And yet, there went Willie K on Wednesday. Right through the front gate of Augusta National Golf Club, surrounded by fellow spectators, all eager with anticipation to witness the undulating grassy hills and hear the cheers reverberating through the towering pines.
It was the first time he had traveled to the venerable grounds since another practice round back in 1986, the precursor to an unmistakably magical occasion which saw 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus claim his sixth green jacket.
Willie K (above with grandson Chris, far left, grandson Tyler, bottom left, and Chris' uncle, Matt) was joined that day by his two sons, Jeffrey and Alexander, and grandson James. It was hardly an ordinary occurrence. He was never a man fortunate enough to be draped in a green jacket as a member of the club nor one for whom Masters badges come easy.
You won’t find a bigger fan of the game, though.
When he could still play, Willie K was the type of guy who infuriated opponents. Often donning a cap from his beloved University of Georgia – where two of his grandchildren attended college – he would plink drives that maxed out at 210 yards, but rarely missed a fairway. That wouldn’t intimidate anyone, but a few strokes later, he’d invariably be knocking in a par putt.
Not that it was always so easy. There was that one time when he got a little upright on a tee shot and topped his golf ball. You know that long-standing deal guys always have when it comes to not hitting it past the ladies tee? Well, Willie K made good on it. Played the entire hole that way, much to the roaring delight of the other members in his foursome. To this day, Jeffrey calls it the funniest thing he’s ever seen.
Another time, he walked into a Golden Pantry convenience store after a round. Still wearing his metal spikes, Willie K took one step onto the terrazzo floor and lost his footing. Slipping and sliding down the aisle, each time one foot hit the floor, the spikes produced sparks, like a cigarette lighter low on butane.
His most memorable moments were connected to golf, or Georgia, or family – and often all three.
On Wednesday, Willie K attended the practice round with grandson Chris Lange, his wife Amy and two of their friends. They made their way past the colossal clubhouse, around the back of the first tee and down the 10th hole. Right past the cabins on the left side, where Rory McIlroy’s infamous collapse began at last year’s edition of the event. All the way until they found two tall, skinny pines bordering a smaller, bushy, green tree.
That’s where they stopped. Chris opened two small plastic bags and turned them upside-down. He whispered, “I love you Grandpa and you’ll be a part of Augusta forever.” And then, at the base of that small, bushy, green tree, he poured out the ashes of Willie K.
William Harold Kellogg died on April 18, 2005.
He had cancer.
Bubba Watson never knew Willie K, but as a former attendee of the University of Georgia, there’s no doubt he’s known plenty of guys just like him. Mad about the Bulldogs football team and, when it doesn’t conflict with game day, mad about the game of golf.
He also knows about losing a loved one to cancer. Just 18 months ago, Watson’s father, Gerry, passed away after a lengthy battle with the disease.
As he always does, Bubba was thinking about his dad while competing at Augusta National this week. Gerry was an ardent supporter of Bubba’s golf, dating back to the days when his son would be whipping wiffle balls around the outside their Bagdad, Fla., house with all sorts of overstated hooks and cuts.
Even if he wasn’t in the forefront of his thought process when he was making four straight birdies on the back nine on Sunday or tapping in a par putt to force a playoff, somewhere in the recesses of Bubba’s mind recollections of his father were percolating.
Asked later what he thought Gerry would say if he had watched him during the final round, Bubba joked, 'You still need to practice. You missed that fairway. You were under the trees a couple of times. You missed the first putt.' Then he acquiesced, admitting, “No, he would be excited.”
Willie K would have been excited, too. After all, a good ol’ boy who went to the University of Georgia, in contention at the Masters? No question there would be a few, “Go Dawgs!” hollered toward the proceedings.
Coincidentally enough, when Chris is asked what Willie K would have thought of Bubba, his answer echoes Bubba’s assessment of his own father’s contemplations: “If my grandpa were to see Bubba Watson play, I’m sure he would like him, but I’m sure he would also shake his head and wonder what the heck he was doing sometimes.”
Call it serendipity. Call it dumb luck. Call it some strategically placed ashes.
Whatever destiny brought Bubba Watson and Willie K together on Masters Sunday can either be easily explained or forever mystifying, depending on your belief in fate. What we do know is that after Watson halved his opening playoff hole with Louis Oosthuizen, the sudden-death format continued at the 10th hole. Willie K’s new home.
After pulling his drive on the par-4 hole to the right, Watson found himself mired amongst some trees. Not the same trees under which Willie K now rests, mind you, but he undoubtedly had a brilliant view as Bubba lofted a wedge shot over those trees, authored his ball to make a right turn halfway there and landed it some 8 feet from the hole.
When he tapped in for a Masters-winning par putt just a few minutes later, Watson was thinking about his family. He was thinking about his father, Gerry, later saying, “It's just a dream come true. My dad is not here. I hope he's watching in heaven.”
At the same time, the family of Willie K was thinking of him, too. Of his love for golf, and for Georgia, and for family. And how on one special day at Augusta National, he was able to witness it all through the tall pines once again.