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Petrovic brothers bond through illness

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PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Tim Petrovic is having trouble concentrating while lining up a 15-foot putt on the first green during a practice round for this week’s Transitions Championship. Shoulders heaving up and down, cheeks puffed beyond their default setting, a great big guffaw echoes from somewhere deep within his body. It’s an infectious laugh, and as soon as Tim starts, his brother Stephen joins in, a bit more muted, but no less joyful.

They are recalling a favorite story from their youth in the Hartford, Conn., suburbs. The year was 1984 and in an effort to score prime tickets to a Van Halen concert, the brothers slept overnight in a frigid, beat-up El Camino with limited supplies. At one point in the evening, Tim (pictured above right) handed Stephen (left) a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich, only for it to vanish seconds later.

“I look over and he’s going like this,” Tim recalls, brow furrowed and palms upturned in mock exaggeration of his brother’s disbelief. “I go, ‘What the hell are you looking for?’ He says, ‘I’m looking for my sandwich.’ Then he turns toward the window and I look over and somehow the sandwich is stuck to the middle of his back.”

The punchline elicits more roars of delight from the Petrovic boys, who easily segue into other tales of sibling revelry. Like their games of backyard “bat ball,” in which a left-handed blast into the neighbor’s pool was an automatic grand slam. Or the time they traversed the neighborhood armed with only a garage door opener in an attempt to find out where it would work. Or when Tim shot an arrow through a hornets’ nest, receiving about 100 stings in the aftermath.

Separated by two-and-a-half years – Tim was a high school senior when Stephen was a freshman – it wasn’t until after their parents’ divorce that they were separated by life.

“He went on his golf way and I went on my work way,” explains Stephen, who owns a law degree, but builds gas stations in the Northeast. “So it’s tough to spend a lot of time together.” 

That hasn’t been true throughout their entire adulthood, though. After filling in as Tim’s caddie for a tournament in late-2004, Stephen decided to take the role on a part-time basis the next year, helping his brother to his lone PGA Tour win in New Orleans – their very first week working together that season. He remained on the bag about 10 times per year through 2008 before deciding to stay home full-time with his wife and two young daughters.

Since then, the memories of peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches and garage door openers remain, but the brothers have been further separated by life. Tim has a family and career; Stephen does, too. Like so many grown brothers, they try to stay in touch about once a week, but too often Tim might be at dinner when Stephen calls, or Stephen might be at the driving range with his girls when Tim rings him back. Keeping in touch gets tougher with age, you know.

Until it becomes a necessity.

On Christmas morning at their mother’s house, Stephen wrapped himself in two blankets, but was carrying an elevated fever and couldn’t stop shivering. Thinking it was his annual flu, he was treated for the symptoms by a doctor, only to have them return shortly thereafter, this time accompanied by swelling in his joints. Again, he received flu treatment and again the swelling returned throughout his body, now coupled with lightheadedness.

One month after that Christmas fever, Stephen was once again at his doctor’s office, having blood samples drawn for various tests.

“She called me at noon on a Sunday,” he remembers. “She’s like, ‘You’ve got to go to the hospital right now.’ My white blood cell count was 161,000. Normal is 7,000-10,000. She said, ‘It looks like leukemia and you’ve got to go to the hospital right now.’”

Stephen was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a fairly common and treatable yet still dangerous form of cancer that starts from inside the bone marrow.

He called his brother that day, sharing the news with Tim as he prepared to compete in a Monday qualifier for the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Stephen implored him to remain there and continue playing golf, but the next morning Tim showed up in his room at Hartford Hospital, much to his brother’s surprise.

“He kept asking, ‘What are you doing?’” Tim recalls. “I said, ‘What do you mean? I had to be here.’ I think that’s when it really hit him what was going on.”

Stephen started undergoing chemotherapy treatments almost immediately while Tim – the brother with whom he tried to stay in touch once a week – slept on the chair next to his bed, only leaving his side to procure meals from nearby restaurants. To bide the time, they watched “Law & Order” reruns, Stephen mixing in some mental training for his older brother whenever he could.

“I was taking advantage of the time to coach him,” he says. “I was kind of working the ropes, planting little seeds in his head.”

After watching his brother react to the chemo with what he describes as “flying colors,” Tim invited him back on the bag in a cameo role. They each believed a reunion at the site of their only victory in late-April would work best – and they’re still optimistic for a return to New Orleans – but Stephen’s doctors cleared him earlier, and so he’s caddying at this week’s event outside of Tampa.

That doesn’t mean he’s out of the woods. In fact, the worst part is yet to come. Stephen needs a stem cell transplant; when a suitable donor is found, he will undergo that procedure and spend 4-5 weeks in a Boston hospital, followed by approximately nine months of at-home care.

Tim is among those hopeful he’s a donor match. It would require about two weeks away from competition – a small price to pay in order to help his brother. In the meantime, he’s gained some perspective from Stephen, who isn’t afraid to remind him to not take anything for granted.

“If he gets pissy or starts pouting, I’m going to be like, ‘You’re hitting a golf ball. I’m the one who’s fighting,’” Stephen says earnestly. “He’s going to be loose and more focused on me than golf. For him, that’s a good thing. When he’s focused too much on golf, that’s bad.”

If there’s a positive to the disease that has gripped Stephen, a glint of silver lining to this otherwise dark cloud, it’s that two brothers who grew up as best friends no longer talk only once a week. They don’t even limit themselves to once a day, instead checking in on one another every few hours.

That’s when they aren’t together, of course, which has been an awful lot lately. If Tim wasn’t playing a tournament these past two months, he was likely found in the Hartford area, simply providing a shoulder on which Stephen could lean.

This week they’ll lean on each other. Tim will try to play his best golf for his brother, while Stephen will attempt to get the most out of his game. Sure, the conversation during their rounds will turn to such topics as white blood cell counts and chemotherapy treatments, but it will more often include recollections of peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches and garage door openers and Van Halen tickets.

When it does, the Petrovic boys will laugh their distinctive laughs, putting aside fear and distress in favor of camaraderie. Like so many brothers, they were once separated by life. Like too few, they are separated no longer.