Golf came easy last week for Ryan Palmer, as it always has. Sleep did not.
The beauty of golf is that it presents its own world, a game in a bubble if you play it correctly. There's always the next shot to focus on, and it is always, always the most important shot of the round. Life is not so neatly ordered. Palmer found that out last week when his best friend died.
On a TPC Sawgrass Stadium course where he had struggled previously, Palmer walked off the 9th green last Thursday afternoon pleased after shooting a five-under-par 67. Yet there was no time to enjoy the moment. Early that evening he received a text from Shawn Gosdin, his business manager, asking him to call. Gosdin broke the awful news: Clay Aderholt was dead, killed in a traffic accident in Texas. Aderholt, Palmer's best friend since childhood in Amarillo, left behind a wife, Allison; a four-year-old son, Reid; and a one-year-old daughter, Gracelyn.
There was no meaningful sleep that night. Palmer talked to his wife, Jennifer. He talked with his sports psychologist, Fran Pirozzolo, Gosdin and other friends. Palmer's family and the Aderholts were back in Texas. Palmer was a thousand miles away, but his heart was with his friend. He decided to play on because it's what he does. It was all he could do. Palmer wrote Clay's initials, CA, on all sides of his golf cap.
Palmer's circle of family and friends "kept me strong," he said later, and he played well. On Sunday evening, after flirting with the lead and finishing tied for fifth, three shots back of Tiger Woods, Palmer took a minute to marvel at how his friend's life had been so intertwined with his own. Ryan was a good quarterback at Bonham Middle School in Amarillo. Clay was better. Clay was the starter, Ryan the backup. "He had a hell of an arm," Ryan remembered.
On the baseball diamond, Ryan pitched and played third base and shortstop. So did Clay. "He was a big-time pitcher," Ryan said, smiling at a memory. "I was just O.K." Clay owned the batter's box as well. "I actually got worse at baseball because I was playing so much golf," Ryan recalled. "I ended up in rightfield."
Clay went on to star at quarterback at Amarillo High. The friends went to Texas A&M together. Ryan, who gave up other sports in high school to focus on golf, made a prudent choice. He is still living the dream after 13 years, three PGA Tour victories and $13.7 million in winnings.
Aderholt graduated to real life as a bank vice president. He was 36. The freakish accident occurred near Spring Branch, in the San Antonio area. It had been raining. An approaching 18-wheeler apparently hydroplaned, its tractor plowing into a ditch while its trailer jackknifed into the oncoming lane and Clay's sport utility vehicle. He was killed at impact.
The numbers from the Players don't seem to matter, although Ryan was two shots off the lead with three holes to play—remarkable for a man who'd missed six cuts in seven previous Players appearances and was playing with a heavy heart.
At the 18th, Ryan scrambled from the right trees and holed a six-foot putt for par. He retrieved his ball, tugged his cap down and covered his face while playing partner Henrik Stenson finished. When Palmer pulled the cap away to shake Stenson's hand, his cheeks were flushed. He wiped his eyes as he walked off the green. The large gallery, unaware of the moment, offered polite applause.
The golf was done. Next comes the hard part. Flying home. Serving as a pallbearer at the funeral. Saying goodbye.
Golf? That will be easy. Always has been. He's in the field at this week's HP Byron Nelson Championship, back in the same state where he and Aderholt shared so many great memories.
Sleeping? Soon, perhaps.
The golf was done. Next comes the hard part. Saying goodbye.
FRED VUICH FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
WITH SADNESS After missing six of seven cuts at the Players, Palmer tied for fifth.