Ty: I have a confession. A confession that is completely unnecessary for anyone who lives near any of the local golf courses in my community.
I have been, and likely always will be, a terrible, horrible golfer.
I’m almost embarrassed to even call myself a golfer. I do a lot more sand digging and deep-woods exploration than I do golfing when I hit the course.
I could fill an entire book with stories of my atrocious golf exploits. There was the time my friend Chris (most of my horrible golf stories involve him) coerced me into trying out for the high school golf team. I quit halfway through after slamming one of my wooden (yes, I had woods that were actually made with real wood) into the ground, only to start again with about four holes left in the round. I think my groupmates gave me eights on all the holes I skipped.
There was the time I nearly got into a fight with a man who “claims” I almost nailed his wife with an errant Nike Mojo ball. It wasn’t my fault. I yelled fore as loudly as I could, but I guess it didn’t carry the two holes over where my ball landed within a few feet of his wife. I told him rather than yelling at me he should probably get his ears checked. He didn’t care too much for that response.
Then there was the sign from God that almost made me give up the game entirely. This was when I hit a tee shot that went so far right so quickly that it actually nailed a tree to the right of the tee box, bounced straight back, and nailed me in the chest. I HIT MYSELF WITH MY OWN BALL. I didn’t think that could even happen. Between Chris’ hysterical laughter and my writhing on the ground, the local residents must have thought we were going insane. They weren’t far off in their estimation.
As bad as I am at golf, I’ve always wanted to be a great golfer. And in high school, I always remember thinking one thing: I wish I could be like Jeff Sullivan.
Jeff didn’t know me in high school, but I knew of him. Rather than equitably distributing golf talent across all the boys at Fairfield High School, God had taken mine and consolidated it all into Jeff Sullivan. Jeff was a graceful golfer. He would hit shots that I wouldn’t even believe I could hit in my own dreams. Natural talent? Maybe a bit. But more than anything, Jeff is one of the hardest working athletes I’ve ever seen. He spends more time honing his abilities than anyone, and it shows in his competitive spirit.
I got to know “Sully” in earnest when I helped emcee the Fairfield High School Athletic Hall of Fame where he was there to support a friend being inducted—he’ll be inducted soon enough, I have no doubt. If it weren’t for my ability to speak in public, I’d never come within a hundred yards of one of those functions.
Jeff and I are miles apart on our golf capabilities, but we have one very unfortunate thing in common: we are both grieving. We are both members of a club where unexpected loss is the common denominator. And although the mechanisms causing our grief are very different, we are both trying our best to honor our loved ones in ways that keep their memories alive. He reached out to me shortly after the Seeya Bub launch, shared his story, and together we’ve been finding ways to support one another through a similar journey.
Jeff has an unbelievable story to tell. He’s been sharing his exploits on a fantastic golf-themed blog he created called Sully’s Sunday Feels, but I’ve invited him to share his story of grief, loss, and the journey that follows here at Seeya Bub. Together, we are creating a community of sufferers to prove one truth: Yes, we all grieve differently, but we never, never have to grieve alone.
Jeff: Thursday, May 12th, 2011. A day and date that I will never forget for as long as I live. This is the day that I unexpectedly lost my Dad.
Before we get into that day, I want to tell you a little bit about the time leading up to that day.
For those of you that know me, especially throughout high school and college, you know a couple things for certain.
- If I’m not working, I’m prooobably thinking about, practicing or playing golf.
- Wherever and whenever I was doing that, my Dad was there. If for some reason he wasn’t, it was because it was physically impossible for him to be and you better believe he was always the first person I’d call after a tournament.
Another thing you might know is that my birthday is two days before the date I mentioned above. We’ll talk more about that in a minute.
Me, my Dad and my brother were ALWAYS playing sports growing up. It didn’t matter what time of day, what the weather was like or what he had going on. If there was an opportunity to help us be better at a sport, my Dad was going take that opportunity to do whatever he could for us.
Like most kids, when I was younger, I had no idea what he and my mom did in order for me to be able to play whichever sport I wanted when I was a kid, and that support continued all the way through college. I didn’t realize or appreciate the time and ungodly amounts of money spent to allow me to do that, and now that I’m old enough to understand, it’s unfortunately a little bit too late for me to show that appreciation to one of them…
Now, what role did my Dad play in my love for golf? THE role. Well, maybe with a little help from Mr. Eldrick Woods. For those of you that are unfamiliar, that’s Tiger’s real name. What a nerrrd, amirite?! (Don’t tell him I said that.)
I was 9 years old when “Papa Sully”, as my high school teammates would later name him, first took me to the driving range. One trip, and I was hooked. As I mentioned before, this was when Tiger madness was really starting to hit its peak. Tiger had already won 3 U.S. Junior Amateurs and had just locked up back-to-back U.S Amateurs. The next year, he would turn pro, and I was probably on my Dad’s last nerves!
Every single chance I got, I was trying to get him to take me to the driving range or to head over to Golden Tee or Lake Gloria to play. The really cool part about playing and practicing with him is that he was a lefty, so I would always just try to mirror what he was doing. Eventually, there came a point when I was able to take his 7 iron and hit it almost as far as he could. As much as he loved that and got a kick out of it, I’m sure the competitor inside him hated losing. Hmm, wonder where I got that from?!
Once Tiger turned pro, Sundays turned into the best day of the week, always. Early in his career, you could almost guarantee that Tiger would be in the hunt on Sundays, so my dad and I basically planned our entire day around that.
First, I’d bug the crap out of him to make a tee time, typically at The Mill Course (shout out to the place where I had my first win!) and we had to make sure it was an early one! We’d finish that round around noon and from there it was lunch time. Skyline or Penn Station. To this day, there has never been a trip to either one of those places when I haven’t thought about him. We’d talk about our round, I would probably be a little upset for no reason and was too hard on myself while he probably just laughed on the inside at how silly my expectations of myself were. After that, we’d start talking about Tiger, who was about to tee it up just a couple hours later and most likely bury whoever his challenger was that week. My dad and I would commiserate with every bogey and jump off the couch and celebrate every birdie. It was just great. This is how my love for Tiger was born.
Fast forward to high school and college golf. Now, for the sake of length, I’m not going to go into all the great times, wins and celebrations I had with my Dad during these years but instead, I want to focus on the thing I regret most now that he’s gone. My completely idiotic and utter misunderstanding of what was really important.
College is where this stands out to me the most. If you know college golf, you know that it’s not easy for parents to make it to tournaments and even when it is, who in their right mind would want to watch mediocre, spring, college golf when it’s 37 degrees and raining?! Papa Sully, that’s who. A lot of people don’t know this, but he actually tried to find and took certain jobs in life just so he could make it to as many of my events as possible. He also worked at a golf course just so I’d be able to afford to practice as much as I wanted to (shout out to Meadow Links and Golf Academy for letting me hit a zillion balls and destroy natural turf from 2000-2004). A typical week during college golf season for my Dad was to drive from Hebron, KY to Laredo, TX and back which took him about 3 days. And then, as soon as he was back, he’d be heading somewhere else in Kentucky or Tennessee to come watch me play again. My teammates would always be so bummed when I told them he couldn’t make it, but that might have been like twice a year. Oh, on top of this, he was also spending a LOT of his money on things I needed to play the game. Right before a tournament started he would buy me new gloves in the pro shop because he saw my hands slipping on the range or go buy a towel and umbrella if I forgot mine. Whatever I needed, it was done thanks to him.
Now that you know the lengths that he went to support me, let me tell you about how stupid I was. I had, and still have VERY high expectations of myself any time I step on the golf course. I had these for a few reasons. Number one, I know the amount of work I’ve put into my game and I always want to win. Number two, I always wanted to help my team win. Last, but certainly not least, I wanted to make my Dad proud because I knew how much he had done for me. At the time, I thought that shooting low scores and winning was what made him proud and what would make me happy. Boy was I wrong.
Younger golfers who may read this: If you don’t take ANYTHING else away from this, PLEASE take this advice. No matter how you perform on the golf course, as long as you prepare, give every shot all that you have and carry yourself well, I PROMISE you that you’ll never walk around from any round of golf with regrets.
Unfortunately for me, it took losing the one person who mattered the most to make me truly understand that.
My skewed perceptions of what mattered, and my extreme competitiveness made me do some things that I’ll never be able to take back. So many times, my Dad was there to greet me after a round and because I was so dumb in those moments, I would walk right by him, slam my clubs in our team van and just sit in silence, pouting for absolutely no reason other than my own selfishness and lack of perspective. Other times I literally threw plaques and trophies in the trash because they weren’t for first place. I didn’t support teammates like I should have, and I didn’t respect my coach like I should have. I hope that those of you who end up reading this understand how sorry I am for that and can or have forgiven me. Most importantly for me, all my Dad wanted was to be there and to spend time with me. It didn’t matter if I shot 65 or 105, all I had to do was have fun playing the game and enjoy that time with him, but I didn’t. That is my biggest regret and something I will never be able to take back.
That attitude didn’t start to change after college either. I remember a tournament that I ended up winning by 10 shots, and I was pissed off when I walked off the course in the final round because I didn’t break the current course record. I mean, who the hell did I think I was?!
When did it start to change? Thursday, May 12, 2011 at 5:30am.
5:27am – I wake up from a dead sleep to see that my brother is calling me. That’s weird, probably just a butt dial.
5:28am – My brother calls again but I don’t answer and tell myself I’ll call him back when I’m up for the day which would have been around 6:30-7:00am.
5:30am – My mom calls me. Okay, this is crazy, and something isn’t right. I answer and immediately know it’s something terrible. All she can tell me is that the police called, and something has happened to my Dad but she can’t say what other than that he is at a hospital in Springfield—roughly an hour or so from where I was.
When she told me that, deep down I knew he was gone no matter how much I tried to tell myself to have hope. If the police call you and they can’t say what happened, it’s pretty obvious.
My Dad had a history of heart problems for a few years leading up to this day but hadn’t mentioned any recent issues in the weeks and months leading up to the day. The last time I talked to him was on my birthday, May 10. Two days before he died, and you know what we talked about? You guessed it. Golf.
He was out on the road and based on what I was told, he had a heart attack, was able to call 911 from his phone and pull off the side of the road; but by the time they got to him, it was too late. I’ll never, ever forget showing up to the hospital after what seemed like a 4-day car ride. I walked to the front desk praying that they were going to tell me something. I told them I was one of Rick Sullivan’s sons here to see him and they told me where the room was. There was no mention of what state he was in or what had happened, so I had a small glimmer of hope that he was okay. I walked down the hall, turned the corner, looked at my brother Matt and step mom Sheryl, they looked at me, and then I saw my Dad.
I’ll never be able to find the words to describe that moment when I saw him laying on the table with a breathing tube that was used to try and resuscitate him still in his mouth. Utter disbelief. Anger at the receptionist who could have warned me about what I was walking into. Shock. All the strength in my body left me, I dropped to the ground and sat against the wall, head in my hands, sobbing, while my brother and Sheryl walked over and tried to console me (they had already been there for a while). I glanced over and saw the bag with my Dad’s clothes and belongings in it, shirt and jeans torn from where the paramedics cut them off him. All I remember saying out loud was “No way, no…way” (with some sporadic adult verbiage inserted throughout) because I couldn’t believe that he was gone. this wasn’t real, it couldn’t be. Sometimes I’ll still have dreams with him in them, but then I wake up and know that yes, it was real, and my biggest fan is gone. Physically, that is.
The days following that were a blur and for those of you that have gone through something similar, you know what I mean when I say that.
The year or so following that were hard to say the least. The moments immediately after traumatic loss are actually some of the easiest because your friends and family all know that you’re in pain and want to offer support. It’s no fault of their own, but after a couple weeks or months go by, people just forget and that’s when loss was the hardest.
The one place I could feel okay about things was the golf course.
I actually ended up at my home course the morning after my Dad had passed. I was off work and that was the first thing I could think of. How do I get my mind off this? Well, that was impossible, so the next best thing was to go to the place where I knew my Dad would want me to be. It wasn’t just any golf course though, it was my home away from home, Fairfield Greens South Trace. Most of you know how much I love that place and how much passion I have for our city tournament but may have never known why. Now you know. That was my Dad’s favorite tournament to come to. That’s where he got to watch me play the most matches. He and I played countless rounds together there and I also know he had something to do with the love and support I felt from everyone there after he passed whether they were friends or employees. Dave, Crutch, Kess & Mrs. K-dog, Wyatt, Meow, Ryan, Sara, T.J., Schnee, Trotter, Tyler, Siggy, Verbs, the rest of the Sunday Skins game buddies and the list goes on. Without all of you, there’s no way I’d be the player and person I am today, and I’ll never be able to thank you enough for that. You helped me through the toughest time in my life to date and I hope you are all proud of who I’ve become.
From that day forward, my golf is played for him. Not only to win, but to show him that I can be the man and player that he always wanted me to be. To show great sportsmanship, character and class on the golf course. That’s why I play the game now. In 2011 and 2012 I wanted to win our city tournament SO bad, even more than ever before because I wanted to do it for my Dad. I couldn’t get the job done until 2013 and I will remember that win more than any other as long as I play the game.
I’m 7 shots behind with only 15 holes to play. 99 times out of 100, you don’t win that battle, but this was a day when I knew I had something more on my side. That something was Papa Sully. From holes 4 through 16 I was able to rattle off 7 birdies and tie for the lead. On #17, I had a putt to take a one-shot lead from about 12 or 14 feet. I guessed wrong on the break, but somehow the ball wiggled its way into the hole and I took the lead heading into the last hole. Pumped full of adrenaline, I blew a 7 iron over the back of the green to a back pin and then hit one of the most nervous flop shots of my life to 8 feet. Make this putt and you win for pops.
I hit the putt, see that it’s rolling dead center, it goes in and I look straight up in the air. I knew who made this happen, and it wasn’t me.
The exhilaration and love for my Dad in that moment was great, but the best feeling I’ve had was actually the following year. Same 18th hole, now I have only a 2 foot putt to win. I missed it and now we’re headed to a playoff. Not a playoff with just anyone, but with a great friend and mentor of mine, T.J. Oddly enough, 4 years prior to this is when my attitude on the golf course was at its worst. You know, that time I talked about winning by 10 and was pissed off? I knew that this was happening for a reason too and with T.J. being involved, it was the perfect time for me to dig deep and show everyone, including Papa Sully, that I get it. T.J. hit an incredible shot on the first playoff hole and made birdie while I missed my putt to tie him. I held my head high, congratulated him and little did I know that the response and praise I got for how I LOST that tournament would be more meaningful than any tournament I could ever win.
This post was extremely hard to write, but I can’t thank my buddy Tyler enough for allowing me to share my story on the wonderful platform that he has created with Seeya Bub. If you haven’t read any of his posts yet, you need to. I haven’t known him long but I can tell you that he’s one of the most brave and influential people I know and I can’t wait to see where his courage takes him next.
Thank you all for reading!
Ty: Sully has a deep admiration for Tiger, but I have a deep admiration for Sully. He has done what we are all attempting to do when loss is dealt into our lives: to stand back up, to never forget, and to let that loss lead us into a more consequential life.
I have no doubt in reading this story that Papa Sully is watching over his son. Yes, guiding the extra wiggle on a clutch-putt, but more importantly he is there guiding his son’s character. Even though he isn’t physically here any longer, he is still teaching his son. He is still instructing him. He’s giving him a greater reason to play the game he loves. It’s more than wins and course records, although those things are good and admirable and worthy of the chase. It’s the character, more than anything, that matters to Jeff’s Father and his memory.
And every time Jeff steps on the course, his Dad is watching over him—just like he always did—giving him the courage he needs to step through the fire and cope with his grief.
“My son, obey your father’s commands, and don’t neglect your mother’s instruction.” Proverbs 6:20 (NLT)
Jeff “Sully” Sullivan
Jeff Sullivan is a 32 year old weekend warrior who still has a huge passion and love for the game of golf. Jeff was introduced to the game by his Dad at age 9 when Tiger Woods was making his run through U.S Junior and U.S. Am titles. Ever since his first trip to the driving range, he’s been hooked. Jeff lives in Charleston, South Carolina with his wife Sarah after growing up and living in Ohio his entire life. He played high school golf at Fairfield High School and went on to play college golf at Campbellsville University in Kentucky. Currently, Jeff writes for his blog Sully’s Sunday Feels where he shares his love of the game and purpose for playing.