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Saving Par

Jimmy Dunne would have been in the World Trade Center’s south tower 20 years ago, if not for golf. The mantra he has adopted since has lifted many, including Tom Brady.

It’s just like we like it, they say. It started as an inside golf joke between Tom Brady and his friend, Jimmy Dunne. They would wake up before their round, the wind would be blowing fiercely, and before teeing off, they’d agree, It’s just like we like it. The next morning, it might be oppressively hot, and when they met at breakfast before their round, they would declare, It’s just like we like it.

They quickly realized this strategy for outwitting yourself came with broader applications. Says Brady: “It’s just like we like it is a really great model for life. … However a situation unfolds—it doesn’t matter whether you’re winning or losing; whether you’re hot or you’re cold; whether you’re the underdog or the favorite— you’re going to deal with whatever comes at you the best way you can.” Or as Dunne, 65, puts it: “There is going to be a randomness in everything we do. The idea is you accept what you can’t control; you accept and you try to embrace it.”

Brady, of course, has his fans, the innumerable masses who provide unconditional affection, the kids who lionize him with classical terms like hero, icon, idol. But he also has the benefit of another entirely different demographic: mentors who are older, often even wealthier, and have ridden comparably successful trajectories. Quietly and without Instagram chronicling, Brady keeps the company of a cadre of Wise Men, who offer lived experiences and advice.

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They, too, have stories of wins, losses, setbacks, comebacks every bit as remarkable as seven Super Bowls. It’s just like we like it, this bit of self-styled philosophy, might provide a sliver of insight into Brady. But perhaps it says even more about the other phrase co-founder, as it were. Today, as we near the 20th anniversary of 9/11, let the story be not about the most accomplished quarterback in NFL history but about his friend, Jimmy Dunne.

It was early, but the sun took its position in a cloudless sky that hung over the course. Leaves swayed lazily in a light breeze. Jimmy Dunne started his round playing with his usual steadiness, all poise and precision. After four holes, he was one under par. Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, was shaping up to be a hell of a morning.

In his day job, Dunne, then in his 40s, was a finance titan and already wealthy to the point of abstraction. He worked at Sandler O’Neill, an investment bank then headquartered on the 104th floor of the south tower of the World Trade Center. Dunne had a reputation as one of those firm-but-fair dealmakers who issued terms in a clipped Long Island accent.

He brought the same impulses to bear playing golf. And, over the years, he’d gotten damn good. As a kid growing up on Long Island, he worked as a caddy—exaggerating his age from 11 to 14 in order to get the job—and honed his game on municipal courses. One summer, he painted the house of a nearby patrician and was rewarded with a round at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, a track on the fringe of The Hamptons. Walking around this Elysian field, seeing all these suburban squires on their off-days, Dunne envisioned himself inside the gates, and not simply peering over the hedges. As an adult, Dunne not only joined Shinnecock, one of the most exclusive clubs in the world, but also began to pile up club championships. “Golf,” says Dunne, “is a meritocracy trapped in a caste system.”

To get to the next caste as a golfer, in that late summer of 2001, Dunne attempted to qualify for the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship, essentially the top level of competition for amateur golfers who are neither seniors nor college kids with eyes on the PGA tour. He had designs of playing a qualifying round on Monday, Sept. 10 at Round Hill Club in Greenwich, Conn. He figured he would make a three-day weekend of it, and start his workweek that Tuesday.

But Chris Quackenbush had different advice for his colleague and friend since high school. Also a rainmaker at Sandler O’Neill, “Quack,” as he was inevitably shorthanded, took a look at the USGA brochure and surveyed the other possible qualifying sites. Mixing and matching his buddy’s skill set with the courses, Quack off-handedly suggested that Dunne forget about Round Hill and instead play the course at Bedford Golf and Tennis Club. The Bedford qualifier was the following morning, September 11. Dunne ought to try that course instead. And don’t bother coming to work. Just concentrate on playing your best. It should be a slow day in the office.

At 9:03 a.m., a plane collided violently with the south tower. Dunne’s buddy, Quack; his mentor, Herman Sandler; his assistant, Debbie Paris, were in the office, among the 66 of Sandler O’Neill’s 171 employees who died on 9/11. When Dunne found out from a USGA official that planes were crashing into Manhattan skyscrapers, he was 50 miles north of lower Manhattan and had just finished playing his fourth hole.

Dunne with Rory McIlroy.

Dunne with Rory McIlroy.

These kinds of stories, thousands of them, became a byproduct of 9/11. The smallest and most casual decisions—often not even decisions, but unthinking, arbitrary acts—determined who died and who survived. One broker who worked on a high floor didn’t want to trouble his pregnant assistant with greeting a visitor in the lobby. He went downstairs instead. When the plane hit, he was on ground level and survived; the pregnant assistant he was trying to help perished.

The comedian Seth McFarlane, creator of the Family Guy, had spent the week after Labor Day back in Rhode Island, his mother country. On September 11, he was supposed to fly home to L.A. from Boston on American Airlines Flight 11. But his travel agent had mistyped the departure time on the itinerary. Admittedly hungover, McFarlane scrambled to get to the airport but arrived a few minutes too late to catch his flight … which was hijacked and crashed into the north tower, killing all 92 passengers and causing more than 1,400 casualties.

Often, these stories came laced with a sports theme. On the night of Sept. 10, the Giants opened their season against the Broncos in Denver, that week’s Monday night game. Who knows how many fans were up late watching and thus slow to arrive at their jobs in the Towers? On the other hand, also on the eve of 9/11, Roger Clemens was seeking his 20th win of the season, pitching at Yankee Stadium. But the game was rained out. Had the weather played ball, how many fans in the stands and suites and home past midnight might not have arrived to work promptly? Diane Pucin, then a Los Angeles Times sports columnist, was supposed to cover that game and fly home to Boston on Flight 11. She absently changed to an afternoon flight when a business class seat opened.

Likewise, the seam of sports ran through the aftermath of 9/11, sometimes gracefully, sometimes not. At a time that cried out for national unity (remember national unity?) there were sports, serving as a binding agent, for some, at least. George Bush threw that perfect strike in Yankee Stadium, a borough up from Manhattan, and created a moment that felt bright, at least at the time.

There was our vocabulary: all those sports metaphors about overcoming adversity and getting up off the canvas. When a parade of experts likened the attacks to a “Hail Mary” or a “halfcourt shot,” it helped for context, somehow reassuring that the bad guys had gotten lucky, and terror attacks weren’t going to be everyday occurrences.

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There was a danger of straining here. There are no sports equivalents or locker room homilies for planes slicing through buildings, killing 3,000 Americans and transforming structures of government and capitalism into so much atmospheric dust. The same way, say, Drew Brees leading the Saints to a Super Bowl is a morale-boost for New Orleans but doesn’t undo the devastation of Katrina, it was folly to connect sports too closely to this national tragedy.

It's complicated business—using sports to lubricate healing and unity, without trivializing. All the talk about Sports As Unifier and the Bush First Pitch and Not Letting the Terrorists Win had a dark side to it. Who was part of the unity and who was left on the outside? What did it mean to beat the terrorists? In a post–Patriot Act, post–Afghanistan War world, it’s hard to look at all the nationalist pregame pageantry and still feel good. Still, at the time, the rhythms and lessons of sports helped many process 9/11.

That includes Jimmy Dunne, who was suddenly in charge of his firm. As he puts it flatly: “We have to decide if we are going to hide or play. And I choose to play.”

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Dunne might not have been able to confront Al-Qaeda directly; but they became a rival team he needed to defy. But first he needed to tend to his teammates. That meant easing the financial concerns of the families of Sandler O’Neill colleagues who died on 9/11. He vowed to continue their salaries and health coverage and double the bonuses they were otherwise due. He helped set up a trust to fund the education of their children, which has since paid more than $20 million in tuition.

Then he set out to rebuild the firm. In addition to the 66 lost employees, virtually every financial record—contracts, phone numbers, agreements—had been lost. “Pretty much all we had was our remaining human capital,” he says. Soon Sandler O’Neill would go back to posting record years. It would rehire, rebuilding its roster, eventually nearly doubling its work force to more than 300 employees. (Last year, with Dunne overseeing the deal, Sandler was sold to Piper Jaffray for a reported $485 million.) “I was going to use our success as a return volley,” he says.

Dunne took the same approach to his own life. He says that today, within a minute of waking up, he’d already thought about 9/11. “What most people go through on anniversaries, I’ve gone through by the time I’m out of the shower.” But he’s not a man incapacitated by survivor’s guilt. He wasn’t going to let the trauma impact his marriage. He wasn’t going to let it impact his work. And, damn if it was going to keep him from the tee box.

It took a few years before Dunne could fully commit himself, but soon he was back to breaking par. In 2010 at Shinnecock, Dunne shot the course record, a 63 that included an ace on the par-three 11th hole. (That 63 has since been matched by pro Tommy Fleetwood, who, Dunne admits, did it in tougher conditions ... in the final round of the 2018 U.S. Open.) He was overcome with a smear of emotions as he reached into the cup to pick out his ball. It was adorned with a “Q” in honor of Chris Quackenbush.

Dunne also expanded his membership to other clubs, including to Augusta National and Cypress Point Golf Club, on California’s Monterey Peninsula, which is where he met Brady a decade or so ago. Dunne says they hit it off immediately. “I think he’s one of the best humans I've ever met.” Brady returns the compliment. And then some. “When you’ve been around people a long time, you see the 360. Jimmy is an amazing leader, a great dad, a great husband ... honest as the day is long.”

Brady also marvels at the way Dunne delivers criticism. “He has an amazing way of telling you the truth with compassion and empathy. … So many people take things personal when you give them critiques. Jimmy does it with love. I wish I could do the same. My delivery is not nearly as polished as his always is.”

Brady rolls in a putt.

Brady rolls in a putt.

Brady’s relationship with Dunne wasn’t some fan interaction or a sponsor meet-and-greet. It unspooled over time, and it took a while before Dunne told him of his 9/11 experience. When he did, Brady listened with rapt attention: “The way Jimmy confronted the challenges and dealt with the way only Jimmy could? That’s what endears Jimmy to everyone.” What else did Brady glean from the story? “You don’t do amazing things by taking three knees and punting, hoping someone else makes a decision for you.”

In the summer of 2018, almost two decades since he had tried to qualify for the USGA mid-am that Tuesday morning in Westchester, Dunne shot a 73 at Tavistock Country Club in New Jersey. That was good enough to earn a spot in the 64th U.S. Senior Amateur Championship. (When the roster was announced, a who’s-who of golf sent congratulations, including Justin Thomas, who tweeted: “The first USGA event for the Dunne-Man!”)

Saturday will mark 20 years since Dunne happened to be out of his office when one-third of his firm died in the offices. It will mark 20 years since Dunne began his mission of rebuilding. He’s come to accept the randomness of life. Even on this day, he says: “Someone, somewhere is going to die tragically because they stepped on the wrong side of the street. Perfection has long left the building. But if you’re living life and you’re out and doing things, and you have friends and family, you [can] still find the joy in life.”

So, on Saturday, he’ll acknowledge the horror of 9/11, not different from how it’s been each morning for the last two decades. And then he’ll grab his “Q” balls, and play a round of golf. Just the way he likes it.

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