The morning of May 12, 2011, was one of those biting, misting, bone-chilling Massachusetts spring mornings, the kind that makes you want to continuously hit the snooze button and stay wrapped up under the covers watching insipid daytime television shows.
Jon Curran and Jim Renner had other plans. Each pro owned an early tee time at Pinehills Golf Club for U.S. Open local qualifying and, as usual at local events, each was accompanied by his father. This was less tradition and more just a way of life. Peter Curran wearing his ubiquitous blue pullover, wielding a mighty cigar and using an umbrella as a walking stick. John “Buck” Renner large in stature and gregarious in nature, trailed by a few of his golfing buddies.
They ran into each other in the clubhouse that morning, both father-son tandems exchanging pleasantries like so many times before. Despite their age difference – Jim is three years older than Jon – they cut their teeth competing together in junior and amateur tournaments, later expanding that relationship to the professional ranks. Never best friends, they always enjoyed one another’s company and the mutual respect extended to their families, as well.
There aren’t many people in Massachusetts golf circles who don’t know the Currans and the Renners, but even a stranger could have witnessed the scene that morning and understood the shared admiration.
“I can’t remember if we sat down together,” Jim Renner recalls, “but we all shook hands and said 'hello'. I would see Jon and his dad all the time. My dad knew his dad. They were just two guys who were part of their sons doing what they loved. Two very similar guys, proud of what their sons were doing.”
The exchange was friendly, yet unremarkable in every way. Except one. It would be the last time the two sets of fathers and sons were ever together.
Peter Curran was never a great golfer. He didn’t take up the game until he was 25 and usually carried about a 12 or 13 index at his beloved Framingham Country Club; at his best, he may have gotten down to a 10.
When he got older, and as his son Jon started growing into an exceptional player, Peter stopped. He didn’t stop getting better. He stopped playing. Instead, he took greater pleasure watching Jon blossom into the No. 3-ranked junior player as a teenager.
Before Jon could drive, Peter would chauffeur him to tournaments. Up and down Route 95 and 495 and the Mass Pike. Peter referred to the latter as “The Pickle,” just one of his many famous sayings around the Curran household. Here’s another: “If you’re facing the right direction, all you’ve got to do is keep walking.” Or in their case most of the time, keep driving.
By the time Jon was old enough to drive, their partnership had already settled into a comfortable routine. But don’t mistake Peter’s presence for the contemptuousness of a domineering parent. Most of the time, he wouldn’t even watch, preferring to stay in the clubhouse and out of the way while Jon was on the course.
“He was never an overbearing parent,” Jon says. “He was into me figuring it out for myself, evaluating myself. He was a big analyst. He’d analyze why something happened and how I could fix it, but he wouldn’t harp on anything too much. He was basically a sounding board. If I said I three-putted, he wouldn’t grimace or anything. He was very positive and would just give me constructive criticism.”
Not that Jon needed much criticism. After starring on a Hopkinton High School team that also included his good friend Keegan Bradley, he received a full scholarship to Vanderbilt, where he earned All-America honors. He graduated, then turned professional and moved to Jupiter, Fla., along with Bradley and some other aspiring pros. He started playing mini-tour golf. Everything was going according to plan on the road toward success.
Until that one day in January, 2010. Jon received a phone call informing him that his father – his best friend and staunchest supporter – had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Typical of Peter, he implored his son to continue chasing his dream and not worry about anything. And so he did – or at least he tried. Jon played in the U.S. Open that year, while Peter underwent chemotherapy treatments back in Massachusetts.
It continued like that for most of two years, father and son remaining in constant communication, each one fretting over the other from afar.
“It didn’t really hit me until Christmas of 2011,” Jon explains. “I go home probably three or four times a year. On Thanksgiving, he was slowing down, then I came home for Christmas and he couldn’t do much. That was the first time it really hit me. It was tough to take. I was kind of panicked.”
Jon was home two months later on Feb. 15 of this year. Two days before his birthday, his father succumbed to cancer.
He was hit predictably hard by Peter’s death. Less anticipated was the impact it had around the golf world. Bradley, who is now housemates with Jon, rallied his PGA Tour cohorts to wear the initials “PC” on their hats at that week’s Northern Trust Open, saying at the time, “I kind of feel like I've got some good luck on my side. I know they're all watching.”
While Jon and his family mourned at Peter’s wake, Bradley made a clutch putt on the final hole of regulation before falling in a playoff at Riviera Country Club.
Jon’s game hasn’t been quite so prosperous. Without his biggest fan checking in during tournaments, it’s only been in recent months that he’s enjoyed improving results on the NGA and eGolf tours.
“It was the first time I’d really been shook up by anything – and I was shook hard,” Curran says. “But it’s a piece of adversity I needed in order to move on. You’ve got to pick yourself up and keep going. You’ve just got to keep going. I mean, what the hell else are you going to do?”
Buck Renner never knew a stranger. At 6-foot-4 and hard to miss, it seemed like everyone knew Buck – and Buck knew everyone. A truck driver by trade, he made friends wherever he went, but nowhere was that more evident than on the golf course.
Buck practically lived on the course when he wasn’t making deliveries. A scratch handicap, he won the Attleboro Area Golf Association Open in 1983 and was inducted into the organization’s Hall of Fame just over a decade later. It wasn’t his own playing career that got him excited about the game, though. That came from watching his son’s game develop over the years.
Jim started playing when he was 12 years old. By the time he was 15, he was winning influential local junior events – and more importantly, he was regularly beating his father.
“The most fun he ever had on a golf course was when I was 17 and had a chance to be youngest person to win the Mass Am,” Jim says of the prestigious tournament that dates back to 1903. “He caddied for me. We were up in Western Mass, scrambling around, trying to get a hotel. That was a lot of fun.”
Growing up in Plainville, just across the Rhode Island border, Jim was constantly surrounded by an amiable mass of friends and relatives. He worked his summers at Foxboro Stadium, attending concerts and football games for free, but always knew his career path would lead him toward golf. Good thing he had someone to navigate him down that road.
When he wasn’t working, Buck would always drive his son to tournaments. Even once Jim was old enough, he didn’t trust his driving skills, so the two of them would pile into his old red pickup truck and hit the road. Buck drove when Jim won the Attleboro Area Golf Association Open, making them the first father-son duo to claim the title. He drove when they won the Massachusetts Father & Son Championship, calling his buddies afterward as they drove down Route 3 in Plymouth, announcing with a laugh, “We broomed ‘em out there!”
Eventually, Jim took his game outside of the state. He attended Oklahoma University, then transferred to Johnson and Wales, where he became the NAIA individual champion. After some success on the mini-tour circuit, his big break came late in 2010 when he earned a PGA Tour card through Q-School.
As far as rookie campaigns go, it was hardly a failure. Jim claimed a pair of top-five results and finished 153rd on the final money list – just missing conditional status for the 2012 season. All the while, Buck was watching, either from back home in Massachusetts or at the course. There was the one time in Hartford when Jim grabbed the opening-round lead. That night they went to dinner and he found himself sitting next to someone he didn’t know. When he asked his father about the mysterious man, he said he’d met him in the hotel that morning and had convinced him to follow Jim on the course that day. Remember, Buck never knew a stranger.
This year Jim is playing the developmental Web.com Tour. He was preparing for a tournament on Tuesday, Aug. 7, when he received a phone call. While making a delivery, his father had suffered heart failure. He passed away that day.
“It was almost like an out of body experience,” Jim explains. “You really don’t know what you’re doing. Just going through the motions.”
Buck left an impression on everyone he met, the impact made immediately visible. At the wake, one out-of-town attendee asked a local the population of Plainville. “Just count all the people on this line,” he was told, “and you’ll have your answer.”
Two weeks after his father’s death, Jim was back playing the tour. Not because he was ready, but because, well, what else was he going to do? The mourning was compounded by the fact that Buck had planned to travel with him to Knoxville, Tenn., that week and watch him compete.
“I’m out there looking around. Where would he be standing? What would he be doing? Sometimes I laughed to myself, sometimes I felt really bad,” Jim says. “It’s just like anything, you’re constantly reliving it. I feel like he’s on my side, so I’ve just got to go out there and give it my best. Hopefully make him proud.”
The stories of Jim Renner and Jon Curran are congruous in many ways. Two kids from Massachusetts chasing their dreams. Two sons left pursuing those goals without their fathers. Without their best friends and biggest fans.
“Jon’s in the same boat as I am,” Jim says. “We’re on the road doing what our fathers wanted us to do.”
As for that brisk May morning last year, they both advanced to sectional qualifying, Jon earning medalist honors with a 73 and Jim one shot further back.
Their fathers may have seen each other again in the clubhouse as the scores were being posted. They may have shaken hands with a little extra gleam in their eyes and offered congratulations.
It was just another day in the life of two men who lived for their sons’ success.
Just another proud day being a father.