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A Tuesday With Mr. Hearn

May 14, 2007
May 14, 2007

Table of Contents
May 14, 2007

SI Players: LIFE ON AND OFF THE FIELD
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  • In a loopy run-up to the French Open and Wimbledon, No. 1 Roger Federer and No. 2 Rafael Nadal played an exhibition on a half-grass (Federer's favorite) and half-clay (Nadal's specialty) surface. Advantage ... Nadal?

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A Tuesday With Mr. Hearn

Facing the end with few regrets, an avid golfer recounts sweet shots and lessons learned during a lifetime on the links

We don't know whatEddie Lowery or Rodney Dangerfield or Byron Nelson thought about the game inthe gathering darkness, but we do know what Tom Hearn thought. He was aninsurance man and a duffer, and John Updike would have put him in his novelshad he ever known him. Tom Hearn spent a day when his days were numberedassessing how golf fit into the last 66 years of his life, the freckled earlyones and the speckled ones at the close.

This is an article from the May 14, 2007 issue Original Layout

He was in a cozylittle room in his Hobe Sound, Fla., house. On the shelves were books aboutgolf and war, and on the walls there were prints of the great holes ofScotland. He was white-haired and gaunt, but alert. His blue eyes, magnified byglasses, were gigantic. His home course, the Jupiter Island Club, was down theroad. Very fancy, but he hadn't grown up that way.

It was a Tuesday,a Tuesday with Mr. Hearn. He was remembering his final hole from his final fullround, the 18th at Jupiter, a par-5: "Driver, three-wood, three-iron thatran up to the green. One hundred and sixty-five yards out, from the lightrough. I made a good turn and said to myself, That's the way you're supposed toturn your shoulders."

A visitor asked,"How many putts?"

Up went threefingers and a smirk--a jock's smirk. Some things you carry forever; Mr. Hearnwas a football player in high school, in the late '30s and early '40s.

A follow-up."Did the pleasure of the three-iron outweigh the disappointment of thethree putts?"

"Oh,definitely," Mr. Hearn said. "I've three-putted thousands of greens,but how often do you hit a three-iron to 30 feet?"

He was noting,near his end, things that had not occurred to him before. You're driving, andyou see a sloping swath of green in the distance; you think it's going to be agolf course, but it turns out to be a cemetery. Or, in Scotland and Hawaii inparticular, how often courses and cemeteries abut.

Mr. Hearn knewabout the Augusta National member who was buried in his club coat and thetennis star who was laid to rest with his Ping five-iron. Ends are personal, hesaid, well qualified to say so, but he had no desire to go out with a golfingartifact.

"I've heardgolfers speak of heaven as a place where you birdie every hole," he said."If there's a golf in the hereafter, I hope it would have the quality ofgolf on earth, with its joys and disappointments." He felt a strongerkinship to Hogan's recurring nightmare: 17 straight holes in one followed by alip-out. "That's golf," said Mr. Hearn, who made four aces. His bestscore was a 78. That's it.

He knew the jokesinvolving golf and the pearly gates, but he preferred the ones that capturedthe earthly game. He liked this old chestnut: A foursome of regulars is on the18th green, hard by a road. A funeral procession goes by, and one of thegolfers, Herb, doffs his cap and lowers his chin.

"Herbie, gee,when'd you get so ceremonial?" one of the golfers asks.

Responded Herb:"She gave me the best 60 years of her life."

Tom and HelenHearn were married in 1950. Mrs. Hearn never played the game, and if she eversees another twice-baked potato--the standard starch of the country clubdinner--it will be too soon. Yet golf widow was never a meaningful term to her.She made great friends through her husband's golf, and she has pictures showinga foursome of Hearns (there are five Hearn children) standing on various 1sttees. That still left three at home.

During theDepression years Tommy Hearn was a middle-class kid who went to a public highschool on Long Island. On weekends he caddied at a club for business titanscalled the Links. He had a dream about going to Yale--pictures of Yale footballplayers captured his boyhood notions of manliness. The man he often caddiedfor, Cornelius Bliss, wrote a letter for him to the dean of admissions at Yale,and Tom Hearn remained grateful to old Mr. Bliss for the rest of his life.

Mr. Hearn went toYale for a year, played the Yale course when he should have been in thelibrary, then left the university for 40 months to serve in the Navy on adestroyer in the Pacific. There was no golf for him in those years, save for abrief moment, the snapshot of which he filed in his head: September 1945 on theisland of Luzon, in the Philippines, watching golfers putt on greens made ofsand, smoothing their footprints with long bamboo sticks. On the Long Islandcourses and at Yale, there were no sand greens. He finally graduated from Yalein 1948, with another fast duffer, the first George Bush.

Mr. Hearn facedhis final days with courage and regrets. For years he drank too much, and thenone day he stopped. Smoking, the same. There were relationships in his lifethat needed more attention. But he had no regrets about the hundreds of timeshe rose in the predawn darkness to play Bethpage Black, or the money he spentto join clubs when he was beyond midlife: Piping Rock, on Long Island; MidOcean, in Bermuda; the Golf House Club at Elie, on the east coast of Scotland;and Jupiter Island. For 20 years Greg Norman was his neighbor in the SunshineState. Mr. Hearn would often see Norman's helicopter, but the Shark himselfonly once.

With the endcoming, Bill Campbell, a former USGA president, would drop by from time to timeto say hello and also goodbye. On one visit they spoke about Tom Morris Sr. asa vestryman at Trinity Church in St. Andrews and about some contemporarysubjects, if you consider Tom Watson's chip-in on the 71st hole of the 1982U.S. Open at Pebble Beach contemporary. Mr. Hearn was remembering that Campbellwas a witness to that shot, as a rules official, and Campbell was supplying thedetails. They were golf buddies. More precisely, they were friends throughgolf.

Facing his end,Mr. Hearn said he was "undaunted," and he seemed it, colon cancernotwithstanding. "Golf enriched every aspect of my life, but it wascollateral to my life," he said. Golf Channel bored him; it was an enabler,he felt, to the one-dimensional. Golf didn't narrow Mr. Hearn; it did theopposite. His favorite player was Julius Boros, for his tempo and his face,"a face you could put on Mount Rushmore."

His favorite golfquote was exceptionally brief. He was playing a casual game with his son David,a good golfer. David drove his ball into a greenside bunker on a short par-4,nearly holed his shot from the sand and tapped in. "That's 4," Davidsaid. He had grounded his club, by mistake, in the sand and took the penaltywithout complaint.

Mr. Hearn was adevout Catholic, but in his own way. Not all of the rules worked for him, andhe had no use for rote, formal prayer. But he prayed to God daily to have mercyon his soul. If there's golf at his next stop, he hoped it was like the game heplayed here: miss 'em quick, count 'em right.

Preparing for hisdeath, he had planned to have a friend in Scotland, a golfer and a carpenter,make a simple pine box for him and have it shipped to Florida. But in the endhe decided he didn't want to take up so much real estate, so he leftinstructions to be cremated.

In early April,Tom Hearn was talking about making a summer trip to Scotland, but he never madeit that far. On a Saturday morning in late April, at quarter to five, hegrabbed a son's finger like he was gripping a club and took his final breath,at age 82. His family knows what to do next: take his ashes and have themthrown to the sky, as if testing the wind, at the three courses he lovedbest--Jupiter, Mid Ocean and Elie. And so he will return to his courses, not asa man in cleats and a green V-neck sweater, but as fairway dust. His time onthe links, Tom Hearn said near his end, was time well spent. He should rest inpeace.

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"I've three-putted thousands of greens," hesaid, "BUT HOW OFTEN DO YOU HIT A THREE-IRON TO 30 FEET?"
"Golf enriched every aspect of my life," Mr.Hearn said, "BUT IT WAS COLLATERAL TO MY LIFE." Golf Channel bored him;it was an enabler, he felt, to the one-dimensional.
PHOTOPhotographs by Heinz KluetmeierFINALFORE
Thomas M. Hearn died on April 21 in Jupiter Sound, Fla. He was82.
PHOTOPhotographs by Heinz Kluetmeier FOR THERECORD
Hearn, who made four aces, had a low score of 78.
PHOTOPhotographs by Heinz Kluetmeier TWOSOME
Nongolfer Helen made many friends through Tom's game.