Bill Haas returns to golf this week knowing the Valspar Championship will be unlike any of the previous 347 times he has played on the PGA Tour.
The deep bruise on his left leg and the soreness in his right ankle have subsided. Still tender are memories of a friend, Mark Gibello, who was killed Feb. 13 on a winding road outside Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles when his Ferrari clipped another car and slammed into a pole. Haas was the passenger.
“There’s not many templates to go by on something like this,” Haas said in his first interview since the accident. “I was in a state of shock, disbelief. It was a tragic event, traumatic. I’m still unsure how to handle it. I keep going back to focusing on the Gibello family.”
He described the Gibellos as mutual friends he planned to stay with during the Genesis Open.
Haas and Gibello played golf the previous weekend at Los Angeles Country Club, where Gibello was a member and played a role in the club hosting the Walker Cup last year. Gibello was a close friend of Bill Harmon, the swing coach who works with Haas.
“It didn’t take me long to realize how much his family loved him, how nice he was to me and my family,” Haas said.
His wife, Julie, has kept in touch with Gibello’s wife. The funeral service in Santa Monica, California, was Friday, the same day the final field was set for the Valspar Championship in Florida. Tiger Woods is playing for the first time. So is Rory McIlroy. That figures to deflect plenty of attention from Haas trying to get back to work.
The 35-year-old Haas returns with a greater appreciation of life and a level of support he never realized he had.
His golf bag remained in the Riviera locker room for the rest of the Genesis Open until it was shipped home to him in South Carolina. Haas hasn’t practiced much. He played golf Sunday in Greenville and planned to leave Monday night for the Valspar Championship in Palm Harbor, Florida.
“The amount of love and support and outreach I got from my peers and friends has been amazing,” he said. “At the same time, a friend of mine is not here anymore. … There’s just no real way to explain life, why it happens and how it happens. You can’t take tomorrow for granted. You have to enjoy today and prepare for tomorrow. All that said, I still feel like I have to go compete. I can’t just say golf doesn’t matter. That’s what I do. I think that’s what Mark would want.
“He was a golf fan. He loved golf. He would want me to care about how I play.”
Haas has not responded to all of the phone calls and text messages because of the sheer volume, but he looks forward to being back out again among his golfing family.
Webb Simpson, a fellow Wake Forest alum, is among those who reached out to him.
‘I remember waking up the morning after it happened. My wife got a text from Julie, and we were pretty emotional that morning,” Simpson said. “He hated it more than anything for that family. He needs to get over it mentally now probably more than physically, but I think it will be good for him to get out on tour.”
Simpson lost his father late last year and remembers how much it helped to get back inside the ropes.
“Time doesn’t necessarily heal, but with time it gets easier,” Simpson said.
Haas is a six-time winner on the PGA Tour, though he has gone three years since his last victory. He’s best known for saving par from the shallow water at East Lake during a playoff he won at the Tour Championship to claim the FedEx Cup, and making the clinching putt in the Presidents Cup with his father, Jay, as the U.S. captain.
Along with leaning on his wife and his family, he has spent time with a therapist to cope with the wide range of emotions and the lingering questions.
“I don’t know that I won’t have recurring images and thoughts and feelings about that night,” he said. “Why was he taken and I wasn’t? I ask, ‘Why?’ all the time. From the people who have reached out to me and the advice I’ve been given, you can’t ask, ‘Why?’ in life. Life happens in ways you can’t explain. There’s no point in asking. It won’t solve anything, and it only brings more questions.”
He doesn’t know what to expect at Innisbrook, only that he wants to focus on golf as much as he can.
Haas will need a good week at Innisbrook to get into the Dell Match Play in two weeks. Otherwise, he’ll take a few more weeks off.
“Once I get inside the ropes, I think there will be a sense of relief,” he said. “It’s what I know best, to be competitive. Every time we tee it up, we want to do well. That’s important to me. Hopefully, I can do that. I think I’ll be able to do that.”
What makes him most anxious about his return is the reception he might get from friends and from fans.
“This needs to not be about me,” he said. “This has got to be about golf and the Gibello family.”