Halfway across the world, tragic news from New Zealand arrives with its native sons on Tour

March 16, 2019

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — The tragic news from New Zealand has reached The Players championship in a variety of ways.

Frank Nobilo, the former Tour player and criminally underrated Golf Channel analyst, is here, plying his trade with a broken heart. He grew up in Auckland.

Grant Waite, who won his national championship in 1992 and finished second to Tiger Woods in the 2000 Canadian Open, has been on the range all week here, as a noted swing instructor.

Craig Perks, like Waite a native of the small North Island city of Palmerston North, has his portrait on a clubhouse wall here, as the winner of the wildest and most unlikely Players winner ever, in 2002. He is here as a TV analyst, and because it is the scene of his greatest golfing moment.

Steve Williams, one of New Zealand’s most famous sports figures, caddied for Woods when he won here in 2001, and when he didn’t the year before, finishing a shot behind Hal Sutton. That was the year Sutton gave this guttural command to his airborne golf ball: “Be the right club today.” Williams got a kick out of that, and out of Sutton’s gutty performance.

Nobilo, in a Tweet that surely spoke volumes, wrote, “Watched the news last night and this morning. Still can’t believe it.”

Williams, back home in New Zealand, wrote this in an email to GOLF.com: “The first ever terrorist attack in New Zealand has shocked the country. Living in this part of the world where we consider it very safe goes to show these acts of terror can happen anywhere. It’s a sad day for New Zealand and for all those affected.”

Williams, now a retired caddie but still active as a race-car driver, lives on New Zealand’s North Island. Christchurch, site of the two mosques where the violence that claimed 49 lives occurred, is on the South Island.

Williams said he did not know any of the victims, or emergency personnel involved in the response to the shooting, “at this stage.” His qualifier is insightful. After the Sept. 11 attacks in this country, innumerable people discovered long after that date that they did in fact know people injured, killed or changed by the violence of that day.

Those attacks resulted in the cancellation of the 2001 Tour Championship, scheduled for Bellerive in St. Louis. Woods drove home to Orlando and reconsidered the focus of the Tiger Woods Foundation, from junior golf to education. Last year, at the Honda Classic, the players wore ribbons, remembering the victims of the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School as they played about 50 miles away. The PGA Tour can seem like an escape from the various real-world evils, and it is, but only to a point. Last year’s winner at Honda, Justin Thomas, had a brief exchange with a student who escaped the shooting last year.

As a golf-mad nation, New Zealand is hot on Scotland’s heels. There are about 390 courses in the tiny country and only Scotland has more courses per capita than New Zealand. You will never hear Tom Doak, the golf course architect and the least animated of men, more excited than when he discusses his seaside work in New Zealand, at Cape Kidnappers and Tara Iti.

Michael Campbell, the 2005 U.S. Open winner, was born in a small town, Hawera, on New Zealand’s North Island. Bob Charles, winner of the 1963 British Open and a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, was born in a small farm town on the North Island called Carerton. LPGA star Lydia Ko was born in Seoul but raised in New Zealand.

Ko was on the range last week at Bay Hill, watching Zach Johnson hitting balls on Saturday night. The evening was warm and mellow. Nobody could have known what was going to unfold, on the other side of the world, in a house of worship, in five short days. Given the state of the world these days, the news was disturbing but not shocking. The players are not wearing ribbons this week. But something will happen before too long here and ribbons will come out again, just as surely as there will be more rules disputes, four-putt greens and hoisted trophies on pleasant Sunday nights.

Michael Bamberger may be reached at [email protected]