Merrell Noden was a reporter and writer for Sports Illustrated from 1986 to 1999. He died of cancer last month at age 59.
If Flannery O’Connor was right that a good man is hard to find, then it stands to reason that a good foursome is infinitely more difficult to assemble. Finding four people who get along even while doggedly competing, who don’t cancel at the first sign of bad weather, who are game for a road trip, who don’t want to see you four-putt, who don’t talk in your backswing, well, that’s a neat trick.
I was lucky to be part of such a group, a quartet of 60-ish players who collectively may have added up to one good golfer but individually were the picture of mediocrity. Merrell and I could hit a long tee ball, Jack is a solid iron player and short-hitting Steve is deadly from 100 yards in. We seemed like the perfect scramble team, but when we competed in a couple of tournaments, choking was evidently another of our failings.
For years we played regularly, probably 20 to 25 rounds every spring and summer. And then two years ago trouble struck. Indeed, the first inkling that anything was wrong seemed to come on the golf course. Merrell showed up one day complaining that his hip was hurting. He had been a college miler at Princeton, used to persevering through pain, but on the 4th hole he had to quit.
Though he never smoked, Merrell had previously dealt with a form of lung cancer, and a PET scan revealed that the disease was back and had moved into his pelvis. What followed was a cruel diminution, as this vigorous, able-bodied athlete moved to a cane, to a walker, to a wheelchair, to a hospital bed.
Yet golf remained a constant in our foursome. When Merrell was up to it, we’d take him along for the ride as we played a round. He eagerly asked for highlights when he couldn’t join us. We pooled our photographs of overseas golf trips and made a YouTube video that we hoped might remind him of happier times. We talked on the phone as Jordan Spieth performed so magically at the Masters. Golf gave us a language when there were no words that were adequate comfort.
In May, in the midst of a new round of chemo, Merrell was admitted to the intensive-care unit at the University of Pennsylvania hospital. His heart was racing at a dangerous 164 beats a minute. But his patient and loving wife, Eva, told us that as they wheeled Merrell into ICU, he did have the presence of mind to ask, “Do they get the Golf Channel here?”
Our long golf conversation continued as the month went on. During the second round of the Irish Open, I texted Merrell to ask if he was watching and to mention how much the relentless winds and teeming rain reminded me of a round we'd played in Scotland years before.
He texted me back, “What a round that was!” It’s a little thing, but that exclamation point lifted my spirits so. His enthusiasm was undimmed. My hope for a miracle could continue.
Two days later Merrell died. His poor, embattled body finally gave out.
Now I watch that YouTube video and I remember Merrell as the joyous, vibrant guy he was. And I'm thankful to golf for giving us a way to address the unspeakable.
If you ever wonder why you do the things you do to play golf -- spending time and money to be humiliated and frustrated, and for what? -- then perhaps this might be the reason. And if you're fortunate enough to have three friends to share those experiences with, cherish them while you can.