A Tuesday with Mr. Hearn

May 8, 2007

We don’t know what Eddie Lowery or Rodney Dangerfield or Byron Nelson thought about the game in the gathering darkness, but we do know what Tom Hearn thought. He was an insurance man and a duffer, and John Updike would have put him in his novels had he ever known him. Tom Hearn spent a day when his days were numbered assessing how golf fit into the last 66 years of his life, the freckled early ones and the speckled ones at the close.

He was in a cozy little room in his Hobe Sound, Fla., house. On the shelves were books about golf and war, and on the walls there were prints of the great holes of Scotland. He was white-haired and gaunt, but alert. His blue eyes, magnified by glasses, were gigantic. His home course, the Jupiter Island Club, was down the road. Very fancy, but he hadn’t grown up that way.

It was a Tuesday, a Tuesday with Mr. Hearn. He was remembering his final hole from his final full round, the 18th at Jupiter, a par-5: “Driver, three-wood, three-iron that ran up to the green. One hundred and sixty-five yards out, from the light rough. I made a good turn and said to myself, That’s the way you’re supposed to turn your shoulders.”

A visitor asked, “How many putts?”

Up went three fingers and a smirk — a jock’s smirk. Some things you carry forever; Mr. Hearn was a football player in high school, in the late ’30s and early ’40s.
A follow-up. “Did the pleasure of the three-iron outweigh the disappointment of the three putts?”

“Oh, definitely,” Mr. Hearn said. “I’ve three-putted thousands of greens, but how often do you hit a three-iron to 30 feet?”

He was noting, near his end, things that had not occurred to him before. You’re driving, and you see a sloping swath of green in the distance; you think it’s going to be a golf course, but it turns out to be a cemetery. Or, in Scotland and Hawaii in particular, how often courses and cemeteries abut.

Mr. Hearn knew about the Augusta National member who was buried in his club coat and the tennis star who was laid to rest with his Ping five-iron. Ends are personal, he said, well qualified to say so, but he had no desire to go out with a golfing artifact.

“I’ve heard golfers speak of heaven as a place where you birdie every hole,” he said. “If there’s a golf in the hereafter, I hope it would have the quality of golf on earth, with its joys and disappointments.” He felt a stronger kinship to Hogan’s recurring nightmare: 17 straight holes in one followed by a lip-out. “That’s golf,” said Mr. Hearn, who made four aces. His best score was a 78. That’s it.

He knew the jokes involving golf and the pearly gates, but he preferred the ones that captured the earthly game. He liked this old chestnut: A foursome of regulars is on the 18th green, hard by a road. A funeral procession goes by, and one of the golfers, Herb, doffs his cap and lowers his chin.

“Herbie, gee, when’d you get so ceremonial?” one of the golfers asks.

Responded Herb: “She gave me the best 60 years of her life.”

Tom and Helen Hearn were married in 1950. Mrs. Hearn never played the game, and if she ever sees another twice-baked potato — the standard starch of the country club dinner — it will be too soon. Yet golf widow was never a meaningful term to her. She made great friends through her husband’s golf, and she has pictures showing a foursome of Hearns (there are five Hearn children) standing on various 1st tees. That still left three at home.

During the Depression years Tommy Hearn was a middle-class kid who went to a public high school on Long Island. On weekends he caddied at a club for business titans called the Links. He had a dream about going to Yale — pictures of Yale football players captured his boyhood notions of manliness. The man he often caddied for, Cornelius Bliss, wrote a letter for him to the dean of admissions at Yale, and Tom Hearn remained grateful to old Mr. Bliss for the rest of his life.

Mr. Hearn went to Yale for a year, played the Yale course when he should have been in the library, then left the university for 40 months to serve in the Navy on a destroyer in the Pacific. There was no golf for him in those years, save for a brief moment, the snapshot of which he filed in his head: September 1945 on the island of Luzon, in the Philippines, watching golfers putt on greens made of sand, smoothing their footprints with long bamboo sticks. On the Long Island courses and at Yale, there were no sand greens. He finally graduated from Yale in 1948, with another fast duffer, the first George Bush.

Mr. Hearn faced his final days with courage and regrets. For years he drank too much, and then one day he stopped. Smoking, the same. There were relationships in his life that needed more attention. But he had no regrets about the hundreds of times he rose in the predawn darkness to play Bethpage Black, or the money he spent to join clubs when he was beyond midlife: Piping Rock, on Long Island; Mid Ocean, in Bermuda; the Golf House Club at Elie, on the east coast of Scotland; and Jupiter Island. For 20 years Greg Norman was his neighbor in the Sunshine State. Mr. Hearn would often see Norman’s helicopter, but the Shark himself only once.

With the end coming, Bill Campbell, a former USGA president, would drop by from time to time to say hello and also goodbye. On one visit they spoke about Tom Morris Sr. as a vestryman at Trinity Church in St. Andrews and about some contemporary subjects, if you consider Tom Watson’s chip-in on the 71st hole of the 1982 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach contemporary. Mr. Hearn was remembering that Campbell was a witness to that shot, as a rules official, and Campbell was supplying the details. They were golf buddies. More precisely, they were friends through golf.

Facing his end, Mr. Hearn said he was “undaunted,” and he seemed it, colon cancer notwithstanding. “Golf enriched every aspect of my life, but it was collateral to my life,” he said. Golf Channel bored him; it was an enabler, he felt, to the one-dimensional. Golf didn’t narrow Mr. Hearn; it did the opposite. His favorite player was Julius Boros, for his tempo and his face, “a face you could put on Mount Rushmore.”

His favorite golf quote was exceptionally brief. He was playing a casual game with his son David, a good golfer. David drove his ball into a greenside bunker on a short par-4, nearly holed his shot from the sand and tapped in. “That’s 4,” David said. He had grounded his club, by mistake, in the sand and took the penalty without complaint.

Mr. Hearn was a devout Catholic, but in his own way. Not all of the rules worked for him, and he had no use for rote, formal prayer. But he prayed to God daily to have mercy on his soul. If there’s golf at his next stop, he hoped it was like the game he played here: miss ’em quick, count ’em right.

Preparing for his death, he had planned to have a friend in Scotland, a golfer and a carpenter, make a simple pine box for him and have it shipped to Florida. But in the end he decided he didn’t want to take up so much real estate, so he left instructions to be cremated.

In early April, Tom Hearn was talking about making a summer trip to Scotland, but he never made it that far. On a Saturday morning in late April, at quarter to five, he grabbed a son’s finger like he was gripping a club and took his final breath, at age 82. His family knows what to do next: take his ashes and have them thrown to the sky, as if testing the wind, at the three courses he loved best — Jupiter, Mid Ocean and Elie. And so he will return to his courses, not as a man in cleats and a green V-neck sweater, but as fairway dust. His time on the links, Tom Hearn said near his end, was time well spent. He should rest in peace.