A few weeks ago, after all the testing was over--when the doctors
were finally done poking him with needles and making him lie down
in an MRI coffin-chamber and asking him to fill tubes with
various bodily fluids--touring pro Jeff Julian decided to get on
with his life. He went to Jacksonville with his golf buddies to
try to prepare for the new season. Coming off the 15th green one
day, somebody cracked a joke. The whole foursome laughed. By the
time they reached the 16th tee, only Julian was still laughing.
He couldn't stop. That's what happens with this damn disease,
ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the disease that killed Lou
Gehrig and everyone else who has ever had it. The victim's brain
can't tell his muscles what to do, and the next thing he knows,
he can't stop laughing.
Don't think, The poor bastard. No, that's not it at all. Julian
is not a poor bastard. He was playing Pebble Beach last week. He
was plying his trade, with winner Matt Gogel and 175 other pros
in the AT&T National Pro-Am, which Julian got into on a sponsor's
exemption. He was making new friends by day, taking golf swings
on the beach at dusk, drinking Joullian wine and eating heartily
at night. He was all over the Monterey Peninsula, having the time
of his life. You're thinking, Yes, but he's playing with a death
sentence hanging over his head. His response: We all have death
sentences hanging over our heads. The important question is, What
are we going to do in the meantime?
The movie of Julian's career highlights is a short, not that
that matters much. He's 40, has played in 52 PGA Tour events and
has made the cut in 15 of them. His best finish--so far--is a
16th, in the 1996 Buick Classic at Westchester. He won the
Dominion Open on the Nike tour in '97 and a handful of smaller
events throughout New England, where his ancestors have lived
for generations. There's the family farm in Norwich, Vt., to
which Jeff regularly returns. His father's father was Alvin
(Doggie) Julian, the basketball Hall of Famer who coached the
Celtics, Dartmouth and Holy Cross, leading Bob Cousy and the
Crusaders to the NCAA title in 1947.
Jeff made it to the Tour on athletic skill alone. His swing is
homemade, rooted in rhythm and touch, not in mechanics. Don't
ask him where the practice tee is. After dropping out of Clemson
in 1982, following his junior year, he spent most of a decade
playing golf by day and tending bar by night. He was, he says
with pride, "a golf bum." He still is. Last year he played in 22
Tour events, most of them with his wife, Kimberly, on the bag,
and made six cuts and $55,132, finishing in 211th place on the
money list. He earned more than he spent, which by the standards
of the golf bum constitutes a good year. Learning he had ALS,
well, that's another matter.
You've never seen a more loving couple than Kimberly and Jeff. He
wears a ring, a gift from her, that's engraved, in Hebrew, with
the words, I AM TO MY BELOVED AS MY BELOVED IS TO ME. They kiss
after birdies, after bogeys, after sips of wine, after she makes
a wrong turn. It's as if they're still on their honeymoon, and in
a way they are.
They met on Aug. 12, 2000, a Saturday. An opera could be written
about that day. Julian woke up at a friend's house that morning,
having missed the cut in the Ozarks Open, a Buy.com tour event in
Springfield, Mo. Later that day he received a call from his
father, Toby: Jeff's mother, Nancy, had died of a heart attack in
her sleep. She was 66. There were no flights out until Sunday
morning, so that night Jeff, not a brooder, went to a tournament
party at the course. Kimberly Youngblood went too, dragged there
by a friend. He admired her French-manicured toes. She admired
his hands-as-wings dancing style, which made him look as if he
had dropped in from a Grateful Dead concert. They both had young
sons, she from a previous marriage, he from a previous
relationship. The attraction was mutual, immediate, intense,
Jeff called Kimberly the following Thursday night, hours after
he'd buried his mother. That weekend Jeff made his way to
Branson, Mo., where Kimberly, 31, has lived for most of her life,
since long before the town became home to Andy Williams, the
Lawrence Welk Theater and comedian Yacob Smirnoff, the Russian
emigre who parlayed a single line--"vhat a contree"--into a career.
Julian came to one of Smirnoff's matinees not to see the comedian
as much as his Statue of Liberty, played by Kimberly, a role she
performed twice a day, 150 days a year, for three years.
Six months later, on Feb. 13, 2001, they made a trip to the
Norwich town hall to get a sticker for the dump and wound up with
a marriage license instead. Two days later they were married by a
justice of the peace at Jeff's mother's grave.
Over the course of last summer and early fall Jeff noticed that
his speech was slightly slurred and that he was having trouble
swallowing. He also had a persistent pain in his neck. Kim and
Jeff went to various places for various tests. On Oct. 8, at
Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, they received the
diagnosis. The doctor said, "Do you need a moment?" Jeff and
Kimberly barely heard her, their sobs so filled her sterile
little office. Then they cleaned up, threw water on their faces
and decided to get on with the rest of their lives. They have
not become experts in the disease, which afflicts roughly one in
100,000 people, a disease for which nobody knows the cause or
the cure. Kim and Jeff figure whatever will happen will happen.
They have insurance, through the Tour, until April 2003. Jeff's
plan is to play as much tournament golf as he can for as long as
he can, to bring attention to a mysterious disease, to continue
to fulfill his boyhood dream. He has the complete support of his
family. "Jeff should do whatever the hell he wants," one of his
five sisters, Kathy, said last week at Pebble Beach.
Nothing can prepare you for what it's like to be in Julian's
company. If you heard him being interviewed on TV last week, you
know his speech is labored and slurred (although he expresses
himself with great precision). If you read newspaper stories
about him, you know his strength has been diminished by his
disease and that Callaway has put lightweight graphite shafts in
his clubs to lighten his workload. Then you find yourself beside
him, watching him eat or hit a golf ball or walk arm in arm with
Kimberly, and you're bowled over. He won't let you treat him as
if he's sick and dying. Maybe that's denial, but if it is, so
what? He exudes a spirit that's overwhelming. Every time he made
a birdie last week--he had 11 of them in his 54 holes while
shooting rounds of 77, 78 and 74--you felt his joy. It was as if
golf suddenly had a higher purpose.
The members of Julian's gallery at Pebble Beach all felt this.
He had a steadfast following of about a dozen people--relatives,
lifelong friends, new friends, an old girlfriend--and you could
see his influence in their faces and hear it in their
conversations. A man named Brian Anderson followed Julian for
each of his three bone-chilling, six-hour rounds. He had heard
about Julian and had to see him play. "When you first see him,
you can't believe it," says Anderson, an Internet entrepreneur.
"He's so filled with life. He's like a movie star. Watching him,
you think about where you can be courageous in your own life. I
feel the three days with Jeff changed mine. I feel ready to do
something for a greater good."
Julian wasn't long off the tee, not by Tour standards, hitting
drives that went maybe 270 yards. He was never a long hitter,
but now he doesn't have a fifth gear. He can no longer muscle a
two-iron out of the rough, as he once could, but he played
wonderful finesse shots out of bunkers and from the fringe and,
at one point, foot-high rough. He played with a calm that was
lost on nobody. Late in one round, during a long wait to putt,
Julian had his hands shoved deep into his pockets and stared at
the green as if it were a newly discovered planet. Somebody in
the gallery asked Kimberly, "What do you think he's thinking
about?" She replied, "What he's going to have for dinner." Deep
Thoughts by Jeff Julian. Somehow, the man's at peace.
Julian's pro partner last week was Steve Scott, best known for
losing to Tiger Woods in 38 holes in the final of the 1996 U.S.
Amateur despite being 2 up with three to play. Scott's
girlfriend, Kristi Hommel, was his caddie back then. Now they're
married, and Kristi is still on the bag. Steve is 25 and feeling
his way around the pro game. He has neither a Tour card nor
Buy.com privileges and plays whenever he can get in. He's wound
tight and prone to frustration. He treats every shot as if his
fate rests on it. Says Kristi, "I told Steve, 'Of all the golfers
in the field, there must be a reason that we drew Jeff as our
partner. With all he's going through, look how smooth his rhythm
is, how calm he is. We should try to learn something from that.'"
Steve has played in nine Tour events as a pro. Last week, for the
first time, he made the cut, finishing 70th.
Julian's amateur partner at Pebble Beach was a kindly
white-haired man named Pard Erdman, who has played in the
tournament a couple of dozen times. Erdman lives on a ranch in
Hawaii, and if there's anything in the world that troubles him,
you cannot see it in his backswing, demeanor or gait. He and
Julian were ideally suited for one another and often walked the
fairways together, shoulder to shoulder with identical strides,
saying little. The subject of Julian's illness never came up. At
one point last Friday, after making team bogeys on two
consecutive holes, the amateur said to the pro, "Well, we can
always play Cypress on Sunday."
Erdman is a member of the Cypress Point Club, a few miles up the
coast from Pebble Beach. Cypress Point, windswept and aromatic,
is a jewel. In other words, if their team didn't survive the
54-hole cut and qualify for the final round of the AT&T, they had
"I want to play Pebble on Sunday," Julian said, pausing for a
breath between each word, as he now must. Both men smiled, but
they knew what was coming. They needed a miracle to make the cut
and didn't get one. Come Sunday, they played Cypress Point.
Kimberly and Pard's wife, Betsy, walked alongside them, as did
two of Jeff's sisters. As the group played in, they walked along
the cliffs, with the Pacific crashing beneath them and the sea
air in their lungs. Heaven on earth.
The Julians lived large last week. In Saturday's gloaming Jeff
and Kim sneaked onto the duny back nine of Pacific Grove, the
enchanting municipal course right next to the inn at which they
were staying. Kim played a few holes, and as the sun was setting,
Jeff talked about Lou Gehrig and his famous, final public
Jeff has known the Gehrig story for years. Gehrig's disease was
eroding his great talent, and he took himself out of the lineup a
month into the 1939 season, after having played in 2,130 straight
games. Later that year there was a day to honor him at Yankee
Stadium. The place was packed with his admirers. Gehrig stood at
the microphone and said, "Today I consider myself the luckiest
man on the face of the earth." Two years later he was dead.
"I understand that," said Julian, who was holding a nice cabernet
in a paper cup. "He was surrounded by his teammates and Babe Ruth
and tens of thousands of fans who loved baseball the way he did.
I feel that, being able to play golf. So many people have jobs
they don't like. I have a job that I love. It doesn't seem fair."
He took Kimberly's hand and watched the horizon fade from orange
to black. He said, "I feel lucky right now because all I can see
is the good in people."
Pebble Beach field, there must be a reason that we drew Jeff as
office. Then they decided to get on with the rest of their lives.