Tomorrow is Memorial Day. Most Americans will take part in some sort of tribute to members of the armed forces, past and present, that have served their country proudly so all Americans can enjoy the freedoms we hold so dear.
To quote President Abraham Lincoln from a rather famous speech, "it is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this."
Most of us know of a family member who served in the military. Perhaps you have friends who were in uniform. The vast majority of servicemen and women are total strangers to us. I can think of no nobler pursuit than to serve one's country. Though we should thank them daily, at least we have one day of the year where we can bestow our gratitude to those who put themselves in harm's way for the benefit of us all.
I have decided to dedicate this column to four former golfers. You may recognize these gentlemen, or you may not. They all have had an impact on the game as well as family values that are much more important than any sporting event. The four all have passed on, a couple of them way too soon, but like our proud soldiers who gave the ultimate sacrifice, they never should be forgotten.
Most people remember Bob Hope as an outstanding comedian. While that certainly is true, his love for the game of golf always was evident. He could play the game too, as his 4 handicap will attest. In 1960 he created the Bob Hope Desert Classic in Palm Springs, Calif. The first tournament was a five round affair as it is today. In fact, it's the only five-round event on the Fed Ex Cup schedule.
The pro-am format always drew many famed celebrities. In the 1990s Hope played with three former Presidents including Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The master of the one liner, presidents were not immune to Hope's quips. He once made this remark about President Eisenhower: "Ike gave up golf for painting - fewer strokes, you know."
His love for golf only was surpassed for the love of his country and the men and women that served in the armed forces. Bob Hope performed 60 USO shows that spanned a half century for troops stationed far from our shores. He thought it was the least he could do for those brave people.
Bob Hope lived to be 100 years old and never lost his wit. On his deathbed, Delores, his wife of nearly 70 years, asked him where he would like to be buried. His response was classic as he said simply, "surprise me."
The late Byron Nelson was 94 when he passed away in 2006. He is considered one of the greatest golfers the game has ever seen, but is known more for his character than his game. When you look at his accomplishments in 1945 you quickly will realize how significant the previous statement is.
People talk about sports records that never will be broken. Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, Cy Young's 511 wins, Secretariat's 31-length victory in the Belmont Stakes all come to mind. Well how about Byron Nelson winning 18 PGA tournaments in 1945, including 11 in a row! Can you say "untouchable?"
Yet Nelson walked away from the game at the age of 34 to return to his beloved Texas to take up ranching. He did lend his name to the tournament that is being contested as you read this. The Byron Nelson Classic always has been a favorite stop of the best golfers in the world. When each golfer finished his round on Sunday, he would climb the steps to the tower, to accept congratulations on his performance from Byron and his wife Peggy. To be able to shake the hand of the nicest gentleman the game has ever known was one of the biggest thrills a golfer would have all season long.
I still can see the fist pump with his leg off the ground. Payne Stewart had just made a long putt on the 72nd hole to win the U.S. Open in 1999. The scene is immortalized in a statue that stands at Pinehurst, the site of Stewart's third major victory. Turns out it would be his last.
Stewart, who made short pants and the funny little cap famous, was battling a young Phil Mickelson that day. There was a concern that the drama would be upstaged as Mickelson had a communication line open to his wife Amy, who was expecting their first child. If the call came, he would walk off the course to be with his wife.
The call didn't come and when Stewart's putt dropped in the cup, Mickelson was a one shot loser. In typical Payne Stewart fashion, he chose to console Mickelson rather than bask in his own glory. He grasped Mickelson's hand and let him know that there would be other tournaments that Phil would win. For now, he should get ready for the miracle of childbirth. Stewart's parting comment to Mickelson: "you will be a great father." Stewart's quote was prophetic.
A couple of months later, Payne Stewart boarded his private jet in Florida bound for Texas. Shortly after takeoff the plane veered off course and communication was lost. The military scrambled planes to see what was going on and the report that came back was grim. The windows were frozen over, the plane was on auto pilot and everyone on board likely was dead from cabin depressurization.
In a surreal scene that played out on national TV, the plane was followed until it ran out of fuel and crashed in a remote area of the Dakotas. Payne Stewart was dead at the age 42.
Before play got underway at the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, in a twist on the military 21-gun salute, the same number of pro golfers teed up a ball and simultaneously hit a shot into the Pacific Ocean to honor their lost friend.
If you have never heard of Jace Bugg, perhaps it is time that you did. About a decade ago I was involved in a fantasy golf league. While looking up the field for a PGA event to see if my golfer was playing, I ran across an unusual name - Jace Bugg. I never had heard of the man and his name drew an immediate interest on my part. He was playing on a sponsor's exemption, as he was not a full-fledged member of the PGA tour. He never would get that prized and elusive card.
Jace Bugg hailed from Henderson, Ky. He won on the Nationwide Tour and with his wife Misty (his high school sweetheart) on the bag, captured a Canadian Tour event shooting 63 in the last round, overcoming a six shot deficit to win by three. It was apparent to those in attendance that Jace was happier to share the moment with his wife than he was with the victory itself. That was the kind of person he was.
After the Nationwide championship in 2002, the nagging pains he had endured during the season were diagnosed as leukemia. The man who never said a bad word about anybody was convinced he would beat the disease. Chemotherapy was tried for four weeks. When that didn't help Jace received a bone marrow transplant. That too would not be the answer.
Throughout his ordeal, Jace Bugg was still the upbeat friend of many golfers. His closest friend, David Branshaw was in contention for his first win on the Nationwide Tour. Despite having just completed his chemotherapy, Jace and Misty hopped in their motor home and drove for six hours to be there for David while he played the final round. Branshaw won that day and cried while accepting the trophy. In the stands Jace and Misty also were fighting back tears, as they knew how much the win meant to their friend.
In December 2003, Jace Bugg died after a courageous battle with leukemia. He was 27.
On this Memorial Day weekend, it is time to remember those who have passed away. A family member, a friend or neighbor and all those people who served their country. Say a prayerful thank you to the people who have made this nation great.
Al Stephenson is the golf columnist for The Advertiser-Tribune.
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