Masters and the Universe

Even in its absence, the tournament plays a powerful force—punishing and rewarding, both at once—in the lives of one golf-focused family. On Tiger and Augusta, mortality and tragedy
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Daniel Hall Jr. started dying right before the resurrection. It was a Wednesday, the day before the 2019 Masters, and what seemed at first like vertigo turned out to be a massive stroke. He was whisked to an Augusta, Ga., hospital, and that is where the passionate golf fan would stay all week—unresponsive, unaware and unable to sit with his two sons and watch the breathtaking comeback of Tiger Woods.

The boys watched without him, even when they were with him. Only one family member was allowed in the intensive-care unit at a time, so Chris, then 29, and Nick, 25, took turns in the room, along with their mother, Angela. They spoke to Daniel—“kind of like a ‘hope he can hear you’ thing,” says Nick. “You can talk, obviously. But you’re not looking for a response.”

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Golf was on TV all day. The Masters, a preview show, highlights, whatever. It seems incongruous, a sporting event on the screen and their 60-year-old dad dying next to them. You could understand why they would turn off the golf. But they did not turn it off. Even when one of them was back at their home, the golf was on.

You hear stories about fathers and sons who can connect only through sports. This is not one of those stories. At the time, Nick Hall was happily living with his parents while he attended grad school; Chris called his dad every night. Sport was not the language the Halls needed; sport was the language they loved. Their conversations were peppered with talk about South Carolina football, basketball and, especially, golf. Their story from last April is America’s story today: a smoke cloud of death, so overwhelming that you feel like sports shouldn’t matter at all. And then you realize they do.

* * *

The Hall men were all supposed to go to Augusta National last year on April 8, a Monday, for the first practice round. They had tickets for Berckmans Place, the exclusive hospitality venue on the club grounds. But Daniel wasn’t feeling well, so Chris and Nick each took a friend. One of their last conversations beforehand was about who might win, and while they each had their favorite, they understood, like any golf fan: The biggest and most thrilling story would be Tiger Woods’s winning his fifth Masters. Woods’s new attitude—kinder, more thoughtful, more grateful—appealed to them, too. “I loved to see there was reconciliation and existential understanding in his life,” Chris says. “My dad appreciated it [along] those same lines.”

As Woods moved into contention, Chris recognized the excitement but did not entirely feel it.

“I could appreciate what was happening,” he says. “But there was so much pain knowing the person I would talk about that with was sitting right next to me, and I couldn’t say a word to him.”

Chris is a spiritual person. Golf unfolds slowly. He had time to think. He asked himself hard, straightforward questions: Am I horrible for even caring what is happening in the Masters?

Am I not being a good steward for my family?

As he asked these questions, Chris felt an odd serenity. He knew why.

“The only reason I had that peace,” he says, “is we had [been] through this before.”

Daniel Hall Jr. in his element.

Daniel Hall Jr. in his element.

* * *

Daniel Hall worked at the Masters once. This was 2003, and he sold souvenirs at a shop behind the trees adjacent to the fifth green. His oldest son, Daniel III, worked as a stock boy with him. For Augusta natives, the Masters is an economic engine, a weeklong civic holiday, an all-ages prom, and young Daniel III, a junior at nearby Greenbrier High, loved being in the middle of it all. That Sunday, he went home and told Angela, “Mom, I’ve had the best week of my life.”

It was his first job, but he never got to cash the paycheck. Two days later he was sitting in the backseat of a Ford Explorer on his way to play in a golf tournament when the car flipped. He was 16 the day he died.

Nick, the Halls’ youngest son, had just turned nine. He was not capable of processing the tragedy. The big picture was so big; he was too small to see all of it. One day, his older brother was there to build Lego and play NCAA Football on Playstation with him, and the next day he was gone. True sadness came later.

Chris, the middle child, was 13. He’s the one who answered the doorbell when a cop came and asked to speak to his father. Chris retreated to the top of the stairs and watched his dad get the news. True sadness came immediately.

Chris was the best golfer in the family; he had started beating his brother Daniel on the course the year before the accident. That had been a boost, not a blow, to Daniel’s pride. But what would he do now, without an older brother to cheer him on, to push him?

Daniel III (left) and Chris walk Magnolia Lane at Augusta.

Daniel III (left) and Chris walk Magnolia Lane at Augusta.

The circumstances of Daniel’s death—a car accident on the way to a golf tournament—became a fixation for Chris. He found himself blaming the sport. He didn’t stop playing the game, but he did stop loving it. He barely practiced. On the course, in the moment, club in hand, his natural competitive instincts carried him. But the rest of the time, when he thought about golf, he was brought back to his big brother. He was not inspired to go to the driving range, where he knew he would grieve. Chris had always dreamed of playing college golf at a powerhouse, but after Daniel died, “I ended up playing with half the heart and half the effort.”

Still, golf was always there, like a friend Chris didn’t particularly want to see, but who could sense he needed companionship. He ended up playing for Division II Georgia Southwestern, and when he was a senior he finally pivoted from looking backward to looking forward. He started enjoying the game again. The Hurricanes reached No. 1 in the country before being upset in the postseason. In the end, Chris’s golf career turned out to be both less impressive and more meaningful than he’d ever dreamt it could be.

After school, he moved to Atlanta and became an assistant pro at Peachtree Golf Club. Today, Chris calls golf “the key instrument God used to stabilize my life. . . . It kept me grounded and kept me purposeful.”

* * *

As Tiger moved up the leaderboard last April, the Halls’ hopes for their father faded. “My prayers shifted,” Chris says, “from trying for a miracle, to bringing peace to him.” By Sunday morning, he could see where the situation was headed. He drove home to Atlanta to pick up a suit for his dad’s funeral.

There 30 friends gathered at Chris’s house to comfort him and watch the end of the tournament. That day, he says, was filled with “a lot of pain and shared empathy, but we were also watching something ridiculous happen.” There was Tiger Woods, surging into the lead in his trademark red, a familiar stranger.

Though Woods can be guarded, we still know more about him than we do about most coworkers, and many friends: how his dad taught him the game; the circumstances of his divorce; the names of his kids; his surgical history; the look on his face when his mug shot was taken; his own doubts about whether he could resume his career. And as Woods attacked the final round, Chris’s friends, not all of them golf fans, wanted some context. How huge is this, Chris? What does it mean?

Woods charges back, at the third tee, on the final day of the Masters last April.

Woods charges back, at the third tee, on the final day of the Masters last April.

He explained they were watching one of the great moments in golf history, “the most amazing thing I have ever witnessed in sports”—so incredible that he was struggling to wrap his mind around it.

When Woods finished his round and embraced his kids, a few friends started praying for Chris. Then he gathered them together, thought about his father and made a request. “Live your life fully.”

Chris Hall had lost his brother with no warning, and now his father was going to die. His dad had always taught him to be present, to be strong, to lean into joy, to believe in your dreams, even when it feels like you shouldn’t.

Tiger Woods put on his green jacket. Chris grabbed his suit off a kitchen chair.

* * *

Daniel Hall III died April 15, 2003. His father, Daniel Jr., died April 15, 2019.

“In a way, it helps a little,” says Nick, who’s training now to be a nuclear medicine technologist. “We’re not grieving multiple times. We’re grieving once, for two.”

He and his brother thought about this a little bit—and then, later, a whole lot. How Tiger Woods had lost his dad, his career and his moorings, then came back and triumphed. Nick says it “definitely gave us something to look forward to and have joy about in such a dark time. . . . Especially the redemption behind it all for Tiger.”

Woods sinks his Masters-winning putt on April 14, one day before Daniel Hall would die.

Woods sinks his Masters-winning putt on April 14, one day before Daniel Hall would die.

Both Daniels are buried in Westover Memorial Park, which abuts Augusta National. And every year after this one, the anniversaries of their deaths will fall on or around the Masters. Chris and Nick, though, are prepared for this. They have decided the seriousness of the moment will not ruin the tournament for them, and the tournament will not make them forget the deaths. They are not looking for an escape. It will all be intertwined. Tragedy and golf and grief and laughter. Azaleas at Amen Corner and flowers on caskets. Warm feelings about Daniel Hall Jr. and Tiger Woods and Daniel Hall III and Earl Woods, four golfers who loved the game and their families, and who looked at a fabled patch of land in Augusta and saw home.

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