Theres a reason why storybook endings are called storybook endings: They almost never happen in real life.
When I first began this year-long series of columns, I had a beginning ' that of a 45-year-old man yearning to recapture his glory days on the links -- and a plan as to how this would all end. It was the 50 interceding columns that were a bit hazy.
I wanted to reconnect with Chris Hunt, my final-round playing partner of the 1980 Al Esposito Junior Invitational, and a golf legend around Charleston, S.C. In my mind, the only way to end this journey would be by replaying that final round with Chris.
When we first met at The Al, Chris was 13, weighed 100 pounds and had already won the Vance Simmons and the Azalea Junior. I was who stood between Chris and the 'Charleston Triple Crown' of Junior Golf.
No matter how much I refer to Chris as my nemesis at The Al, to the gallery of 150 and the two TV news film crews that day, I was the hated outsider who came to steal glory from the hometown golf prodigy. Worse, I was a college student, and Chris was barely out of middle school.
Chris survived the humiliation of losing to me by two strokes and took it out on future Junior golfers. He went on to a scholarship at Georgia, and his legend only grew. Small crowds would gather to watch him hit a bucket on the range when Chris was home for the holidays.
Years later I saw Chris at the muni and he was smacking the ball 300, with incredible touch. Watching him, I was jealous in the same way I got when I left the stage after working my ass off, and Jeff Foxworthy would have the crowd without hardly a word. OK, not jealous; it was awe.
Moments after my victory at The Al, Chris told a news reporter that he wanted to break all of Jack Nicklauss records. If not for an injury, he would have had that shot. Instead, Chris became the most popular bartender in Charleston, a job that left him free to play the game that he loved, and to meet and marry Tamara, a woman beautiful on so many levels.
A few hours earlier, I left the muni, the place where I should have met Chris, on the range, or perhaps on the course while I was looking for my ball, a fairway or two over from the hole I was playing. We would have talked about old times, and how fun it would be to play that final round over again.
Instead, I was headed toward Room 441, where Chris was recovering from a stroke. Only, when I got to the room, it was empty. The entire floor seemed unoccupied, except for a lovely woman tending to a thin man of perhaps 50 or 55 in a wheelchair.
And I thought, That can't be Chris?
I introduced myself to Chriss wife, Tamara, by telling her, 'I'm an old friend of Chris's. We played golf together when we were kids. I haven't seen him much in years...but I came as soon as I heard.'
Tamara asked if I would like to talk to Chris.
I looked briefly into Chris's eyes. His eyes were glazed. I could see that his entire right side was paralyzed. I saw no hint of recognition, which either meant that Chris no longer held a grudge for my ruining his Charleston Junior Triple Crown at The Al or, more likely, he was exhausted.
'Hey Chris, I'm Michael Fechter. It's been a long time,' I said, trying to be upbeat. 'You beat me in golf so much I have to take years off between seeing you.'
Chris tried to speak, which just led to frustration.
Tamara, Chris and I faked our way through a conversation about their 6-year-old daughter, her school and puppy and whatever other little topics came up. I told Tamara and two nurses that had joined us that Chris was a 'great champion and loved by everybody, especially when he would beat whatever snot nosed punk from out of town came to a local tournament'. One of the nurses said she didn't know that Chris had been so good. I told her 'Oh, Chris was the best. The most popular. The most handsome. The most confident. And I hated him for it.'
Thankfully, Tamara and the nurses laughed. Thankfully, they laughed a lot at whatever other nonsense I was spewing as I tried to grasp the severity, the absolute devastation of this stroke.
My guess was that at 6-foot-2, Chris now weighed perhaps 130 pounds. A couple of weeks earlier, my friend and reluctant swing coach, Brian Ferguson, said that Chris might need a liver transplant and that his weight and strength were down. 'Chris can probably still outdrive you, Brian said, because he's still hitting it 180.'
I won The Al by shooting 1 over for three days. A record at the time. In the years to come, Chris won this tournament with scores as much as 17 under. Tiger Woods won the 2000 U.S. Open by 15 shots. Chris won The Al by a lot more. He went on to star at the University of Georgia and thoroughly recovered from his loss at The Al to some guy who had a lucky three days.
Chris sighed, content for a moment, as Tamara stroked his hair, which I took as time best left for them.
'Youve always had such beautiful hair.' Tamara said to Chris, gently, as I walked away. 'Even now, such beautiful hair.'
In my golf mind, Chris Hunt, my 'nemesis' is 14 and matching me shot for shot on the back nine, not 41 and fighting to stay alive.
Every round of golf takes twists that you would never expect standing on the first tee. Life takes even more bizarre, confounding twists.
Why can't even simple stories be simple?
And what I wouldnt give for this story to end by playing just one more round of golf with Chris.
Tom Werner contributed to this column.
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