As a broadcaster, the fall always brings drama as players fight to the bitter end to improve their lot in life for the following year. Whether it was the Buy.com Tour Championship, the Southern Farm Bureau Classic, or Q-School, the stories are easy to tell because each of those represents a last chance of some sort.
In covering these stories, Ive often used terms and anecdotes that are an attempt to represent the importance of certain situations to a players career: Fighting for his life; Do or die; there is no tomorrow; unimaginable pressure; courage; heart; guts; character and the like are often-used terms and phrases in sports reporting. The problem is that all too often something happens that reminds us of that one fact that is so often forgotten ' its just a game.
It was three years ago that Payne Stewart was tragically taken from us as his private jet fell from the sky. Just over one year ago, Lewis Chitengwa died suddenly while competing on the Canadian Tour. This time, meningitis was the culprit, but his death was equally as unexpected as Stewarts. This year alone, the golf world has been reminded of the delicacy of life and the fragility of our health. The Golf Channels own Mark Lye was stricken with a bout of recurring melanoma. PGA Tour sophomore Michael Muehr is also battling the same illness. Fortunately for both, the prognosis sounds promising.
Once again, the world of golf was recently blindsided by news that another one of the good guys is in a fight much more significant than a sport could ever portray. Jace Bugg, a gritty, gutsy 26-year-old Buy.com Tour player, was diagnosed with acute mylogenous leukemia.
The story of Jace Buggs career is an easy one to tell - and a good one as well. Jace is a product of the ranks. He wasnt the most celebrated amateur after his Rend Lake Junior College career. A few nice results in national tournaments highlighted by a quarterfinal appearance in the U.S. Amateur in 1997.
Jace turned pro shortly after that U.S. Amateur and it was then that he joined the ranks. Unable to vault directly to stardom as so few do, Jace turned to the Canadian Tour to gain experience and prove his ability.
During his third season on the Canadian Tour, Jace fired a final-round 63 to win the South Carolina Challenge in early 2001. This year, he started the year with only Canadian Tour playing privileges. However, he was committed to making this his breakout season. Jace dedicated the early part of the season to playing his way onto the Buy.com Tour through the Monday qualifying process. Despite the overwhelming odds against succeeding in this manner, Jace forged ahead with a confidence.
The Arkansas Classic was only the fourth tournament of the year on the Buy.com Tour schedule; the second if you dont count the first two which were played in Australia and New Zealand and offered no chance to Monday qualify.
Well, Jace didnt waste much time. After surviving a six-way playoff for the final four spots in the field, Jace went about his business like it was nobodys business.
Each year, at least one player who starts the year without any official Buy.com tour status manages to earn his way on to the tour. Usually its an experienced player or a pedigreed young star. The Jace Buggs of the world are supposed to wait their turn.
A final round 65 brought Jace a come-from-behind, career-altering victory. Exempt status on the Buy.com Tour and a legitimate chance to graduate to the PGA Tour is a long way from the Canadian Tours South Carolina Challenge.
Jace ultimately didnt graduate to the PGA Tour. He finished 26th on the year-end money list. Had he been able to play a full schedule, his chances of graduating would have been far greater, but Jace always seemed to be bothered by some type of injury.
Much of last year and some of this year, Jace had severe shoulder pain in both shoulders. He would attribute some of this to swing changes, but he never seemed to be pain-free. As his shoulders got better, he would discover an injury somewhere else. Tendonitis here, sore muscles there; he couldnt seem to get completely healthy.
Eventually, these nagging injuries led him to Las Vegas to seek some expert physical therapy and rehabilitation. It was after a few weeks of not improving that his doctors suspected the worst. Excessive bruising, muscle pain, and joint pain are all preliminary symptoms of leukemia.
Just a few days shy of his 26th birthday, Jace and his wife, Misty, received the explanation for why his aches and pains wouldnt go away. Jace was diagnosed with leukemia.
One of the covenants by which I live is that good things happen to good people. Its my own version of faith. Unfortunately, reality is that bad things can also happen to good people. And in Jaces case 'really good people.
I remember when Jace won that Canadian Tour tournament in Myrtle Beach. He was priceless. Heres a guy who was willing to leverage just about everything he had in order to pursue his dream. Jace and Misty traveled much of the different tours in an RV to save money and Misty would caddy. It was fitting that he chose this form of travel, because it just has a romance about it that says, 'The heartbeat and backbone of America.' Jace fits this description perfectly. Hes the type of guy that anyone would feel lucky to count among their friends. And hes the type of guy who wouldnt know how to display a hint of arrogance even if he wanted. As they say in Kentucky, hes good people.
Heres one example: When Jace was feeling a bit better during his rehabilitation stint in Vegas, he made plans to fly out of Phoenix to play the final regular season Buy.com tournament in Shreveport, La. He was to fly out of Phoenix because thats where the Buy.com Tour was the preceding week, and he was hoping to be well enough to play there. Well he wasnt, but one of his closer friends was.
David Branshaw was having a career week in Phoenix. Carrying a four-stroke lead into the final round, David admitted to being as nervous as he had ever been. At 33 years old, David was well on his way to a jouneymanlike career. The thought of him winning on the Buy.com tour didnt cross many minds late in the season, but Jace believed in his friend.
'I owe so much to Jace and Misty,' said a teary-eyed Branshaw just after the trophy presentation. 'He believed in me, called me every night so I could look to him for advice, and then he shows up today out on the course to support me.'
I didnt know it at the time, but Jace wasnt supposed to be there that day. He was planning on driving down from Vegas in time to catch his Monday flight. Saturday night he told David good luck and that he would see him Monday morning. But Jace couldnt stand not being there. Instead, he got up at the crack of dawn Sunday, drove the six- plus hours to Phoenix, and was there to walk every step of the back nine with his friend.
I was following Davids group that day and at one point Misty walked over to me and said that Jace was far more nervous than hed ever been while playing. My loyal production assistant and cart driver, Faye Mattevi, pointed out that Jace and Misty looked like expectant parents out there rooting for David.
With aches and pains everywhere, Jace made the arduous drive to Phoenix just to be there for his friend. The thought of not being there was something Jace just couldnt stomach.
Jace and Mistys lives are now much different. If there is any good news to come out of all this, it is that Jace is receiving the very best medical care available. His doctor is reported to be one of the very best. Jace now has a sponsor (financial backer) with considerable resources. He is in very good hands, but its quite obvious that hes now living those phrases so overused in sports. He is indeed in a fight for his life, and if his heart, courage, guts, and character are any indicator of his chances for long-term survival, then Jace should be able to look forward to a long and enduring career.
If indeed good things happen to good people, then Jace will earn a victory greater than anything sports can bring. When Jace tees it up next year as a leukemia survivor, it will be a moment on the Buy.com Tour (Nationwide Tour) akin to when Paul Azinger returned to the PGA Tour after beating cancer. When that moment happens, a lot of people will be on hand, a lot of eyes wont be dry, and a lot us will see the significance of the redemption of a good guy playing a game.
Its now our turn to root for a friend. Godspeed, Jace!
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