Before I teed off, I took in the scene. The ocean was rolling toward the shore, a deep shade of blue, and the sun was still orange on the distant horizon. Birds flitted above me. I put down my bag on the tee box and snapped a picture of the view, readying myself to walk 18 holes without my brother Tim. The morning air felt crisp, marking the passage of summer. I had spent most of the season traversing golf courses, taking in one spectacular setting after another, but of all the places I’d planned to visit in 2022, Cabot Cape Breton in Inverness, Nova Scotia, was the one I knew would be the most difficult—and the most rewarding. I put my peg in the ground and placed the ball atop it.
I wanted very badly to hit a solid tee shot, to send the ball flying straight and true. I took a breath and looked down at the expanse of green grass, heard the waves call in the distance, and then I let it go. The ball flew; not straight, but it flew. I wasn’t in trouble. I picked up my bag and placed it over my shoulders. A solitary walk awaited. It would be even harder than I’d expected.
The week before Tim was diagnosed with cancer, in 2018, we were together, on the golf course in Pinehurst, North Carolina. I was on a magazine assignment—my first feature, the kind you dream about when you start freelancing—and brought him with me. Tim had introduced me to golf when I was in college, while he was earning his PhD in chemistry. For the next 20 years, the golf course was where we spent our time together. The week we were at Pinehurst, Tim was hitting it better than he ever had. He’d received a bonus from his job a month earlier, and his bag was full of new equipment. Although the pall of his biopsy results loomed over us, we tried to enjoy ourselves. We willed ourselves to believe that he was going to be just fine, that nothing could go wrong. Too young, I thought. Too much left for us to do together. When I look back at that trip now, I think about how much we talked. At dinner one night, we talked about our kids, about our childhood, about what we wanted from this life and what we wanted for them. We’d never done that before. We never did it again.
For 10 years, we had a regular foursome that traveled together to play golf. The youngest of the group, I was just starting my career, while the others were all in the middle of theirs. Right at the time when we could finally start traveling to all of the places a golfer dreams of visiting, Tim got sick. The place Tim had always wanted to play most was Cabot. I suggested once that we go to Bandon Dunes in southern Oregon first, and he firmly shook his head. “Nova Scotia,” he said.
A year into his illness, as if I could make up for all the lost time, both from the past and perhaps into the future, I made the call to Cabot Cape Breton. I reserved a room and rounds of golf on both of its courses. Golf there is walking-only, but carts may be used if medically necessary, so I reserved one of those, too. Tim’s cancer had progressed, but at the time I booked the trip there was still hope the drug he was on would keep it from killing him. “I just have to hang on five years,” he told me one night, “and then they’ll develop a new drug.” He believed that, and, as a chemist at the FDA, he understood the complexity of everything he ingested and every domino that needed to fall for him to survive. “
I made the reservations at Cabot for us,” I told him.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to go,” he said.
“Sure, you will,” I said. “I got us a cart, too, so you won’t have to walk.”
“When do we go?”
“Next summer,” I said. “June.”
The plan was a product of magical thinking—something that I sort of knew even as I made the arrangements. We’d almost lost him earlier in the fall, when a bout of pancreatitis had put him in the hospital for a week.
“OK,” he said. “I hope we can make it.” Even if the pandemic hadn’t occurred, Tim never would have made it to Canada. His cancer accelerated, and the drug he was on was killing him as well. He was in and out of hospitals for much of 2020, and because of COVID restrictions, we had to let him go in those rooms alone.
Tim died in the spring of 2021. I sort of sleep-walked through the summer, and in the fall I went back to Pinehurst, where I spread his ashes on the famous No. 2 golf course. It was on that trip, with two of our closest friends, that I resolved to take proper lessons and improve my game—and to spend most of 2022 memorializing my brother on the course.
I played more golf last year than I ever had before, visiting courses Tim and I had played as young men, and many more places he and I had wanted to visit but never had the chance. I started in March, taking my family to Kiawah Island, South Carolina. There, I played the Ocean Course, where a 50-year-old Phil Mickelson won the PGA Championship in 2021, while Tim lay dying in a hospital bed. I had held his hand on the morning the tournament started and told him the scores. He could no longer speak, but he gave me a soft smile and squeezed my hand back.
I played the Ocean Course in a driving rainstorm, which reminded me of a round long ago, when Tim and I were still in our 20s and playing outside Richmond, Virginia, with our friend Rob. Buckets of rain started falling while we were on the second hole; golfers were bailing out left and right, turning their carts around and heading in. We put our rain gear on, pulled the cart’s rain cover down over our clubs, and kept on swinging. At the turn, we went into the clubhouse to get a hot drink and some food.
“You boys calling it a day?” the pro asked.
“Just getting snacks,” Tim replied.
The pro shook his head in disbelief.
“We are,” Tim said.
On the 10th hole that day, we took the cart to the top of a hill. The wheels began to skid, and Tim turned into the slide. The cart picked up speed, and then we were moving, spinning around twice before coming to a stop at the bottom of the fairway. Tim had both hands on the steering wheel, clearly shaken, but then he looked at me and said, “That was fun.” I have no idea what I shot that day, no sense of how I played, but it’s the most fun I’ve ever had on a golf course.
I thought about that moment as I approached the 18th at the Ocean Course, rain pelting me. Although I longed for Tim to be there, I smiled at the memory. All summer and fall, I tried to cling to memories—and to rediscover ones I’d forgotten. In May, I went to Charlottesville, Virginia, to visit Rob, and on the anniversary of Tim’s death we played Birdwood Golf Course. The last time I’d been on that course was with Tim on a cold November afternoon. He’d been agitated by our playing partners, one of whom insisted on walking. “What if I just clip him with the cart?” Tim said. “Then he’ll have to get in and ride and we can finish this round.”
“Yeah,” I said, “but he might start playing even worse.”
“Is that possible?” he asked, letting out a big laugh.
Every round I played in 2022, even if I was with a group, I would take a moment to break away and walk by myself. Really, though, I was walking with Tim, imagining him at my side, remembering his long, athletic swing, the way he hit the ball with such power, the funny things he would say to me after a bad drive or good strike. My favorite thing he said, after a poor round, was, “I couldn’t play dead in a cowboy movie.”
At Bandon Dunes Resort’s Bandon Trails, I found myself alone on the course. The hilly terrain reminded me of the woods our father used to take us to when we were boys in southeastern Kentucky. I snapped a picture and sent it to my parents. I remembered the days before we were golfers, the way we would tromp through the woods together. Once, because I was so much younger than Tim, I hadn’t been able to clear a creek we were crossing, and I fell into chest-deep water. I screamed, and then Tim’s arm was reaching down and pulling me out.
I arrived at Cabot tired, full of trepidation. I don’t like saying I felt guilty, because Tim wouldn’t have wanted me to feel that way—but I felt guilty about being at this resort he’d always wanted to visit. Tim was the one who taught me to play golf, showed me how to hit certain shots, watched me on the range when I was struggling and got me to play better. He taught me about golf course architecture and how to appreciate each one individually, which equipment to use and how to pick it. He was into every facet of the game, which has lots of niches, and, because of him, so was I. Toward the end of his life, Tim began saying he wasn’t into golf anymore, which was hard to hear, because I knew he still was—it was just that he couldn’t play it anymore. Cancer doesn’t just kill you; it eats away at everything you enjoy, too.
So, it was hard for me to be there, but there was no way I couldn’t do it. I had to see and experience what he had been denied.
Cabot Cliffs is a gorgeous course that rises above the Atlantic Ocean, feeling not so much like the edge of the world but its beginning. The sea stretches far past your eye, but that morning, rather than feeling small, I felt like a bigger part of the world. Tim wasn’t a fan of the ocean, but he would have loved the way the breeze here pushes your ball off course. He would have loved hearing the waves while lining up a putt. And he would have loved walking into the tall, wispy grass to find an errant tee shot, calling himself a billy goat as he stood at some awkward angle to make a crazy shot out of that grass.
In an act of supreme hospitality, knowing why I was visiting, the resort, although it was high season, secured me a Sunday morning tee time on Cabot Cliffs so I could go out alone. I wanted to think. I wanted to remember. I wanted to play my best. And, for a few holes, I did play really well, but each step, each stroke of the club, each cloud in the sky, made me think of Tim and what he was missing. The weight of his memory, the weight of wanting to do something special, was too much for me to bear.
At the 16th hole, a par-3 that asks you to hit from one cliff to another, I paused my round, walked to the edge, and talked to Tim. My mother says she does this often, but I rarely do, and only on the golf course. I tell him I miss him, naturally, but what always tears me apart is the question, Why did you have to leave? At every phase of my life, from high school to college, marriage to kids, Tim was always out in front. I had his advice, the lesson of his examples—successes and mistakes—and I feel so alone when I think about how I must navigate whatever the next steps are on my own. It’s only on the golf course that I give into the waves of grief, that I let myself fall into thinking of my brother, of all the days we spent together, of how everyone we met always marveled at how close we were, of how only death could break us apart. I let a pair of golfers coming up behind me play through, but I knew I couldn’t stand on the clifftop all day. I wiped my eyes, put my tee in the ground, and hit my shot.
Whitecaps were forming by now, and the warmth of the sun had made me shed my jacket. I saw golfers all over the magnificent course, the grass gleaming like a green blanket unfurled over a tumbling landscape. Most of those golfers were likely on their own trip of a lifetime, while I was here trying to honor and celebrate the ending of Tim’s. For me, life and death will be forever intertwined on golf courses.
I finished out the 18th with no hands to shake, no hugs to give, and took a long look at the water. I cried, because the person I had shared this game with was gone. Golf fills us with memories; its courses foist memories upon you. Atlantic waves crashed against the cliffs, and I thought of my wife, Mary, at home in Ohio. I wanted to sit with her and watch our children chase each other in the sun; to see my young boy swinging his golf club in the sunlight; to pick up my daughter in celebration after she drained a putt; to hold Mary’s hand while we walked down the fair-way during an evening round, when the world seems to go quiet. I wanted to be truly happy on a golf course again. I’d believed Tim’s death would forever make that impossible, but in visiting the place he most wanted to go, I’d found a path forward. I don’t believe he’s watching over me, but I do think that, by leading me to this game, he led me to a deeper understanding of my life, my loves. It’s as if, even in his death, I can sometimes feel him reaching down to pull me up once more.