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My 2014 moment: McNeill handling sister's death

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(Editor's note: This is part of a series in which staff reveal their favorite or personal moments of 2014.)

The assignment here is to write about my favorite moment covering golf in 2014, and I’ve got plenty of ‘em.

There were weighty moments, such as listening to Martin Kaymer deftly articulate the importance of winning The Players Championship on Mother’s Day in honor of his late mother or watching Erik Compton embrace his father after a runner-up finish at the U.S. Open on Father’s Day. There were eye-opening moments, like Jordan Spieth telling me on New Year’s Day about his long-term goals while we rode around Kapalua in a golf cart. And fun moments, like taking the Ice Bucket Challenge on live television from The Barclays while Ernie Els walked past laughing.

Nothing will stick with me longer, though, than the five-minute, 51-second conversation I had with George McNeill after the final round of The Greenbrier Classic.

During that day’s telecast, it was revealed that McNeill oldest sister, Michele, was very ill. Without offering too much detail, the announcers ably conveyed that it was a bleak scenario.

Knowing this, McNeill went out and posted the best round of a lengthy PGA Tour career.

After starting the day well off the lead, he shot a 9-under 61 that included a hole-in-one. Interviewed on the telecast, he wouldn’t speak about Michele directly. Instead, choking back tears, he was able to produce a few eloquent thoughts that ended with, “Golf doesn’t mean a whole lot sometimes.”

Two hours later, Angel Cabrera had successfully traversed the course in fewer strokes than anyone else in the field, leaving McNeill two shots back and a million miles from the winner’s circle. Believing that the runner-up was the better story, I found him in the locker room, alone, packing up his belongings. 

I told him that I knew he didn’t want to speak about his sister, the oldest of five McNeill siblings. I also told him that I wanted to tell his part of the story and didn’t want rumors or innuendo to overtake a situation of such gravity. I wanted to give him the forum to convey anything he wanted the public to know.

He nodded his head and, his voice cracking, said, “She passed away at 11:35 this morning.”

That was 20 minutes before his tee time. He didn’t find out until after he had finished the round.

Choking back tears again, he told me about her recurring battles with cancer. He shook his head at trying to explain how he played so well under such circumstances. He stared softly at the blank wall while wondering how Michele’s two children were taking the news.

We spoke for five minutes and 51 seconds - him offering pertinent details of her life, me trying to figure out what to ask a man whose big sister had just died.

When it was over, he shook his head again. “It sucks,” he told me as he walked out of the locker room and shuffled his way up the clubhouse steps, the first steps on the journey to be with his family.

It wasn’t my favorite moment of the year. It was my least favorite, having to speak with a player in the aftermath of such tragedy. But it was also the one I’ll most remember, the class and grace and sorrow on McNeill’s face leaving an indelible imprint.