The green hills ofWest Virginia rise at the steps of St. Zita Parish Church in Masontown and rollaway in rounded ranks like men bent at their work in the coal pits. This is thelandscape of Nick Helms's memory. These are the comfortable hills of home.Helms grew up here. He learned to play golf here. And on Jan. 2 his father,Terry, was killed in the soft coal heart of these hills. ¬∂ Terry Helms wasamong the 13 men trapped in the Sago mining accident. During a thunderstorm abolt of lightning apparently struck a pocket of methane in a sealed shaft,knocking down a wall near the entrance. Terry, a fire boss, had checked forhazardous gases before the other miners were allowed inside. At age 50, he wasa man of compassion and courage who was always willing to help others to thelimits of his ability and his wallet. He was the first of the 12 miners to die.¬∂ It's now Jan. 10, the day of Terry's funeral, and the utility poles inMasontown are adorned with black bows and ribbons. Inside St. Zita, theReverend Michael Bransfield, bishop of the diocese of Wheeling-Charleston,presides at the liturgy. Hundreds of mourners sit listening intently. They nodand weep and praise Terry in a ceremony full of testimony and hymn singing. ¬∂Nick watches the service from the front pew. When he learned of the cave-in, hewas 560 miles away, in Myrtle Beach, S.C., struggling to pursue his dream ofbecoming a professional golfer. He drove straight home and hasn't slept muchsince. The priest calls him to the lectern. Looking frazzled, tired andconsiderably older than his 25 years, Nick stands for a long moment in thesilence of the waiting church. He smooths out a sheet of paper and speaks in ahalting, breathless voice, struggling to define his father. A small muscleworks in Nick's face each time he mentions Terry.
"I heard asong on the radio that reminded me of my dad," Nick says, checking histears. "It kind of sums up how my sister, Amber, and I feel about him."Suddenly Kenny Chesney's Who You'd Be Today echoes through the nave of theplain brick church:
Sunny days seem tohurt the most
I wear the painlike a heavy coat
I feel youeverywhere I go
I see your smile,I see your face
I hear youlaughing in the rain
I still can'tbelieve you're gone.
Less than a yearbefore, Terry had literally kicked his only son out of West Virginia. "Mydad worked 12-hour days and came home dog-tired," Nick said after thefuneral. "He didn't want me to be a coal miner. He pretty much forbade it.He didn't want me to bust my butt to put food on the table, like he had. Hedidn't want me to wear down, like he did. He wanted me to have a differentlife, a better life. When I took my time, he got the point across with a bootin the ass. It hurt like hell too."
Though Nick hadnever taken a formal golf lesson, was saddled with a childhood disability andhadn't played competitively since high school, Terry encouraged him to movesouth and give professional golf a shot. "I'd always fantasized aboutplaying against guys I idolized," Nick says. "Dad kept telling me to gofor it."
Which Nick did,settling in Myrtle Beach with his girlfriend, Kristen Sauro. He pulled his ownweight, as they say in the mines, working small jobs to pay down hissubstantial debts and finance the $20,000 he needed for golf school. "I canmake the pro tour," he says, even though he is a seven handicapper. "Ihave the game. I only need a little bit of help, like everybody else. The bigdifference between Tiger Woods and me is opportunity. He got a chance to startplaying at a younger age than I did."
Helms reckons thatall he needs is a year or so of instruction and six to eight hours a day on thecourse. "Once I get down to scratch, it'll all be course management,"he says with unshakable certainty. "By the time I'm 35 I'll be pretty muchset. I'm not saying I'll go out there and win the Masters the first time out,but, hey, who knows?"
To those whosuggest that 26 is a bit old to embark on a career in pro golf, Helms, whosebirthday was on June 3, says, "Anybody who tells me it's too late, that'san ignorant opinion. They don't have my drive."
That drive, hesays, comes from Terry. "Dad always said you get what you work for,"Nick says. "If you don't have what you want, you didn't work hard enoughfor it."
Nick has had towork hard for just about everything in his life. "It's been tough for himsince the very beginning," says his mother, Mary. "He was a tornadobaby." Nick was born two months premature during a terrible tornado and wasdelivered in the dark. He was placed in a neonatal unit, where for days he wastubed and suctioned. "His lungs weren't developed," Mary recalls."The doctors didn't think he'd make it. At two weeks Nick's heart stoppedbeating and he actually died in my arms."
He was revived,but not relieved. "Nick cried for a whole year," Mary says. "Ithought he hated me and didn't want me as his mother." The problem turnedout to be a staph infection that raged through his right side. The damage wasdiscovered during exploratory hip surgery when Nick was a year old; hesubsequently spent about six months in a full body cast. "His legs were atright angles to his torso and bent at the knees," Mary says. "He lookedlike a goalpost." The infection left Nick's right leg an inch shorter thanhis left and accounts for his lopsided gait.
Born inMorgantown, Nick lived for five years in a trailer in Tunnelton, a snip of avillage named for its location at the eastern end of the Baltimore & OhioRailroad tunnel, once the longest in the world. Eventually his parents built ahouse in Newburg, a hardscrabble town in which people die at home with theirfamilies around them or in the mine with the mountain fallen on them. "Weweren't poor and we weren't rich," Nick says. "We had what weneeded."
The Appalachiancoalfields run from the West Virginia panhandle down through Kentucky, andnowhere underground is the life of a miner easy. "It's good money,"says Nick, "but awful work." Terry had wanted to be a forest ranger,but he had a family to support. He began harvesting coal at 18 and stayed at itfor 32 years. "Dad never said anything about how dangerous his jobwas," says Nick. "He downplayed everything."
Perhaps thatexplains why Nick downplays his infirmities. Hobbled and unable to raise hisright arm above his head, he still played baseball and basketball, and tried toplay football. "My physical problems don't matter," he says."They've never mattered. You do what you have to do."
He picked up golfat 14. One day his grandfather Francis Barlow drove him to the Paradise Lakecourse near Morgantown and handed him a club. "I started beatin' it and gothooked," Nick says. He practiced every day, often with his father, who wassuch an ardent hacker that he'd play nine holes after a long shift in the mine."I'd practice regardless of the weather," Nick says. "Me and Dadonce played in a downpour for three hours. Sleet, snow--it didn't matter if thesky was black. It just didn't matter."
In his senior yearat Preston High, Helms made the taxi squad of the golf team. "It took greateffort for Nick to compete, especially on courses that were hilly," saysMike Contic, the Preston coach at the time, "but he never complained. Morethan anything, Nick was an inspiration to the team. The other golfers had moretalent but not more desire. His heart is as big as the ocean."
Helms picked uppointers and pocket change working in the bag room at three area courses. Thebest part was that he could play for free. "Nick's game had seriouslimitations," says Brad Westfall, a four-time West Virginia PGA player ofthe year, who worked at one of the clubs. "His handicap limited his swing;he couldn't hit for much distance." Even now, Helms's drives average onlyabout 265 yards.
His golf educationtook a setback when he was 18. While Helms was working in a roof-bolt factory,the tip of his left index finger was crushed in a 5,000-ton housing press."You'd be surprised how much you miss your fingertip," he saysblithely. "At first it was really painful every time I swung a club, likethe worst pinch you ever felt. I had to learn to deal with it."
He dealt withtuition at West Liberty State (95 miles northwest of Newburg, near the Ohioborder) by driving a truck and delivering pizzas. He studied golf managementbut didn't make the golf team. After three years he quit school, dead broke."I put golf on the back burner to make ends meet," he says. But theends never met. By the time he got to Myrtle Beach last July, Helms owed$35,000. "It doesn't seem too much until you're paying it," hesays.
The $250,000 hegot from his father's life insurance policy and the mining company changed allthat. He settled his debts, bought new cars for himself and Kristen, andsplurged on a $6,000 engagement ring. His biggest extravagance has been the$20,000 he plunked down to enroll at the Myrtle Beach campus of the San DiegoGolf Academy. Nestled in a Waccamaw Boulevard strip mall, the school offers acurriculum heavy on teaching techniques and psychology. Students earn anassociate of applied business degree in 16 months and play a bunch of golfwhile doing it. Some graduates go on to become teachers, course managers, salesreps or club technicians. Others wind up working in pro shops for minimumwage.
Classes began onMay 1. Helms had his first lesson two days later. In his first openrounds--competitions that are part of the curriculum--he shot 80 and 82."Nick has a long way to go if he wants to qualify for a PGA Tour card,"says Brian Hughes, an academy instructor. "Of course, making the PGA Tourwould be long odds for anybody. But if he has the desire and the work ethic,well ... it wouldn't shock me."
Helms's earlyresults have prompted some reevaluation. "If I don't become a pro golfer,I'd like to teach golf," he says. "After I get my certificate from theacademy, I'll have a good chance of getting a job in the industry." Untilthen he'll devote much of his spare time to funding golf lessons for WestVirginia schoolkids.
He has alreadysunk $2,000 of his inheritance into the Terry Helms Scholarship Foundation forCoal Miners' Children. He plans to bankroll the charity with donations, silentauctions and celebrity tournaments. Miles Blundell, the head pro at NemacolinCountry Club in Farmington, Pa., has offered to help organize an event there in2007.
"My goal is tomake my dad proud of me," Helms says. He sighs and his voice drops to awhisper. "Dad gave his life to get me to this point. Golf is what he wantedme to do, and I'll try my damnedest to find a way to do it."
"He didn't want me to be a coal miner," Nicksays of his father. "HE PRETTY MUCH FORBADE IT.... He didn't want me towear down, like he did. He wanted me to have a different life."
"It took great effort for Nick to compete,especially on courses that were hilly," says his high school coach,"but he never complained. More than anything, NICK WAS AN INSPIRATION tothe team."
Photographs by Gary Bogdon
Helms, about a seven handicapper, hasn't played competitively since highschool.
Photographs by Gary Bogdon
Not long after his father's funeral in West Virginia, Helms returned to MyrtleBeach, S.C., to make his mark in golf.
LYNN JOHNSON (LEFT AND CENTER)
LEFT BEHIND Nick (center) was given the helmet (right) worn by Terry on Jan. 2, the day of his death in the Sago accident.
Photographs by Gary Bogdon
Photographs by Gary Bogdon
COURSE WORK Helms (center, in dark shirt) and his classmates are studying to be pros at Myrtle's San Diego Golf Academy.