When I think about you and your life, my mind is flooded with memories.
I think of you coming home from work in the evenings and compulsively repairing things around the house — a door knob, the gutters, a window frame. I think of our Wiffle ball games in the front yard with me and my three siblings, playing until it was too dark to see the ball.
Most of all, I think of your golf lessons.
From when I first started getting serious about the game, our backyard served as our family’s personal driving range. We didn’t have much space. It was pretty barren out there. We didn’t have grass. We didn’t even have any balls.
But we did have a floodlight and my set of clubs.
Each lesson went the same way. I’d finish my homework and step out onto the back deck. You’d follow me out after putting down your police uniform — your 10-hour shift having just ended (or sometimes, just about to begin). The floodlight on the house would cast your long shadow across the floorboards toward the yard, into the darkness.
I would take my stance, fiddle with my grip and wag the club head just inches above the deck. And then your voice would cut through the silence.
“Alright, Billy. Take a swing.”
“One more time, but hold it at the top.”
I’d take the club back and stop midway through my swing, holding as still as I could. And then I would turn my neck and look at you.
“The club is not pointed at the target, Billy.”
I’d take another swing.
“Nope, that’s not it. Hold on.”
You’d walk over to me, grab my arm and tweak the position of the club.
“Alright, take the club back again.”
With all the changes, everything would feel foreign — almost as if I had never picked up a golf club in my life. It was infuriating.
“Dad, are you kidding me? This doesn’t feel right at all.”
You’d look at me, head tilted a bit, arms crossed. I knew what you were going to say. I knew exactly what you were going to say.
“I don’t care what it feels like, Billy. Feeling is not reality.”
I’d loosen my grip, let the club head hit the ground and just stand there.
Feeling is not reality.
Feeling is not reality.
Feeling … is not … reality.
Anytime we went out onto the back deck to hit imaginary balls into the Virginia night, you’d say that over and over. Things were always black and white with you, Dad, in golf and in life.
But sometimes things are gray, and there are no clear answers. It’s been 18 months since you took your own life, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the best way to honor you. Initially, I thought that I would write about your last few weeks in an attempt to try and understand what compelled you to do what you did. But a lot of people have already tried that — the truth is that I don’t know, and I probably will never know.
When I think of you, those backyard practice sessions or our weekend rounds at the local course are always what come to mind. So much of our relationship was predicated on 14 clubs and a tiny white ball. So much of our love was shaped by what happened over 18 holes. That’s what I remember — and that’s how I’ll remember you.
I don’t want to think of you walking out of the house with just the keys to your truck and your 9-mm.
I don’t want to think of you — alone with your thoughts — driving south on I-81.
I don’t want to think of you lying facedown on the banks of the Potomac.
The last time I saw you, in July 2015, things were normal. You and Mom were happy. All four of your children were pursuing their dreams.
Then, suddenly, I got the news that you had disappeared.
When I heard what you had decided to do — and all the places you had decided to go — I was confused. We all were. Mom was a mess. We couldn’t wrap our heads around it. Somehow you turned into someone completely different from the man who had raised me and my three siblings, from the man who had given all his love to our mother.
After 18 months of reading stories about your death, our family has decided to focus on something else: your life.
In our minds, the world needs to know the real you.
When I was in the ninth grade, you told me that you couldn’t help me with my swing anymore, that you had done all you could for me. That was when you started paying for me to take lessons from a professional golf instructor.
Not long after, I went to a junior golf camp at our local golf club. By the end of the week-long clinic, I had played well enough to win one of two prizes: A dozen Titleist golf balls, or a 30-minute lesson with the club’s pro.
I turned and looked at you. Your eyes were talking to me. I knew which one you wanted me to choose. But I was just a freshman in high school.
I whispered, “I’m gonna take the golf balls.”
Before I could speak up to the group gathered at the awards ceremony, you spoke up for me.
“He will take the lesson.”
That was the end of that.
You might have said it with a smile on your face, but you weren’t kidding. You were making a point in the most you way possible: lighthearted but direct; stern but practical.
I got pretty used to that growing up. I think all four of us kids did. We learned to appreciate it.
That was the thing, Dad. We loved you so much for everything you did, even your quirky habits. You were the best father any of us could have asked for, and the most thoughtful and caring husband to our mother. I’m not sure if you ever knew this, but Mom was always so thankful that you never brought your work home with you. You made it a joy to be a kid in our home, and that’s something I’ll never forget.
You were passionate about a lot of things, sports especially. But for as much as you loved baseball and football, there was one sport that was your favorite.
Golf had first captivated you when you were a kid watching Jack Nicklaus, your hero, at the Masters. And your love for the game never wavered. Through golf, you taught me so many things, including that feelings were not reality. As I grew up and started to make decisions for myself, I was constantly reminded of those words. I’m not sure whether I believed them or not back when I was in high school, but they certainly influenced my mindset, especially in golf.
Which is partly why I think I was attracted to the Naval Academy. All your teachings pretty much fell in line with what they taught in the Navy. There’s no gray area in the armed forces. You either follow orders, or you don’t. And if you don’t, you’re out.
That sounds like your type of thing, doesn’t it?
You taught me that there’s something powerful about looking someone in the eye. There’s a trust, an unspoken bond.
Every time you greeted me at one of my college golf tournaments — and I’m still not sure how you and mom were able to make it to almost every one of them — you did so with an outstretched hand and the look.
You know: the look.
I can still see it — even at this very moment. You would look me right in the eye and give me a firm handshake. You wouldn’t say anything. Just the look, a slight nod, and the shake.
Sometimes it’s the simplest things that say the most.
Throughout my time in the Navy — from when I graduated from Annapolis in 2004, to my time as a lieutenant aboard the guided missile destroyer USS Chung-Hoon in the Persian Gulf — I always remembered to maintain eye contact and to give a firm handshake.
Just like you.
When my active duty commitment was completed in 2009, my game was a little rusty — the result of having let dust settle on my golf bag for a couple of years. Not long after I had started playing mini-tour events again, I was driving home from a tournament outside Jacksonville, Florida, and I was frustrated with how I played. I had missed my fourth or fifth cut in a row (by only one shot, again), and I felt like I was running out of time. I was 27. I mean, I wasn’t exactly young compared to the guys I was playing against. So I remember driving up I-95, talking to you on the phone and I was just venting.
Not surprisingly, you didn’t let me blab for long. You cut me off.
“Billy, listen to me: You need to stop this. Nobody you’re playing against took five years off to serve his country. Nobody did that.”
“Everybody else has been doing nothing but golf since they were at least 16 years old. You’re just getting back into it. Relax.”
I never told you, but those were some of the most important words I had ever heard. After your death, I thought about that moment a lot — and about how it changed me. And I want people to know that, even though we don’t know why you did what you did, you made an incredible impact on everyone who loved you.
That’s what I remember about you. That’s what everyone should know about you.
You knew better than anyone that good golf was coming because you kept telling me to keep working at it. Things were black and white to you — I could either make it as a pro or I couldn’t. And I always knew that if you didn’t think I had a good chance of playing on Tour you wouldn’t hesitate to tell me so.
In 2011, after a year and a half of playing mini-tour golf, I finally got the opportunity to play on the Nationwide Tour. I’ll never forget how much nervous pacing you did during those tournaments, when my PGA Tour membership card was on the line. At the end of the 2011 season, the hard work paid off just like you had always said it would. I had played well enough to see our dream come true: I became a member of the Tour.
I lost my Tour card after the 2012 season, but I had regained it one year later. Life was normal. All four of us kids were pursuing our dreams. Everyone was happy.
And then one day in late July 2015, everything changed. It started with a text message.
It was the Monday before the Quicken Loans National at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville, Virginia — a tournament dear to our hearts because of both its proximity to our home and its ties to the armed forces. Heather and I were moving into our new house in Annapolis, Maryland, when I received a text from Mom.
“Hey, are you playing a practice round today at RTJ?”
“No, Heather and I are moving in right now.”
“O.K., well Wallace Mitchell is going to call you because I just can’t talk right now.”
That’s weird, I thought. Wallace Mitchell? Why would our pastor and long-time friend want to talk?
I was grabbing a box from the back of our van when I felt a buzzing in my pocket. I put the box down, reached for my phone, read Wallace’s name on the screen and answered.
“Hey, Billy. I know you’re moving in right now, and I’m sorry to bother you. But I need to talk to you.”
I rubbed my face a bit, kind of confused. I had been expecting to hear his usual upbeat voice. But he sounded nothing like that this time.
“Sure, Wallace. What’s going on?”
“Well, Billy, your dad is missing.”
“What do you mean my dad’s missing?”
“I know it sounds strange. But your mom just came over and told me. He’s been gone for eight days….”
“… so she finally had to report it to the police.”
“Wallace, you have to tell me everything you know right now, because I need to know what the heck is going on. How did my dad just go missing?”
And then — with kids running around the house laughing while Heather moved boxes — I found out about everything.
I found out that you just got up and left. I found out that you had walked out the front door without saying anything to Mom, and then gotten in your truck and driven away. I found out you didn’t have your cell phone. You didn’t have your computer. You didn’t have anything.
You were just … gone.
It didn’t make any sense.
After I hung up with Wallace, my mind kept churning. Less than 30 seconds after our conversation ended I called Wallace back.
I didn’t say hello.
“I have to ask you another question, Wallace. Did my dad take his gun?”
He answered immediately.
“Yeah, Billy. He did.”
I hung up. You usually brought your gun with you, so I didn’t want to make any conclusions. But this whole thing was still so odd. I had seen you just three weeks earlier, and everything was fine. You knew I was playing in the Quicken Loans National, and you always tried to come to my tournaments. And this tournament was at the very course where you worked player security for Presidents Cups. Why would you miss this tournament?
None of us knew what had happened. And when all us kids convened at home that night to be with Mom, well … I gotta be honest with you, Dad. We were scared.
And so we came up with a plan.
The following day I had a scheduled press conference at the golf club as part of my media obligations. But instead of using it to answer questions about how the course had been set up and how it felt to play in this tournament as a former member of the armed services, I decided that I was going to use it for something else.
“At 2 p.m. tomorrow, I have a chance to be in front of the media,” I told everybody. “If we want, I can use that time to see if they’ll help us make a plea to find Dad.”
Well, Dad, how do you think that went over?
We’re a private family. That’s probably why Mom waited eight days to tell me you were missing. So, at first, everyone was against the idea. But as the evening wore on and it became apparent that nobody knew what else to do, we started to think of what I might want to say.
After a couple of hours, we agreed. On Tuesday, July 28, 2015, with our family’s blessing, I was going to make a plea.
Dad … that was hard. That was really, really hard. My younger brother Dan told me later that he had never seen me cry before that press conference. Suddenly, your story was public. Our family’s secret was out.
But we were sure that if we could get the PGA Tour to put our story up on their website that maybe … just maybe … you’d go online and see the headline saying that we were looking for you.
The thing is, we knew you weren’t the most tech-savvy person out there. But we also figured that, if you happened to be on a computer somewhere, you’d do the only two things you knew how to do … check your email and go to pgatour.com so that you could check my scores.
It was our best option, Dad. We were looking for you. We were doing everything in our power to find you.
What happened next was everything we hoped and then some. Not only did the PGA Tour pick up the story on its website, but suddenly, I was getting calls from Good Morning America, the Associated Press and CNN. The Golf Channel ran a big story that evening, too.
Our plan was working.
The story didn’t just catch the attention of golf fans. It was a legitimate national story. It felt like the entire country was out there looking for you. And I’m so grateful to every outlet that offered to help, and every individual who made an effort.
It meant the world to our family.
Only problem was that Wednesday came and went, and we still didn’t have any leads. Before I teed off on Thursday, I made sure to tell the PGA Tour security staff that if they heard anything about you while I was out on the course — good news or bad news — I didn’t want to know about it until I finished my round.
So when play started, I tried to focus on my game as much as possible. But that proved to be difficult. The craziest part about it wasn’t that I was trying to play with more attention on me than ever before. No, the weirdest thing was that I was playing in a golf tournament in the same exact district that you had once worked in as a cop. So I’d look around and see all these police officers inside the ropes wearing the same uniforms that you had once worn.
It was just … wild.
Every time I walked between holes, I couldn’t help but think, Wait a minute, that’s what I remember my dad wearing. And, Wait a minute, my dad walked this exact golf course for multiple Presidents Cup tournaments in the ’90s, just the same way these cops are doing now.
I walked off the course that day hopeful that there would be some good news about you. But even though our story had been running all over the news, we still hadn’t come up with any tips.
Then Friday happened.
I was out on the 10th hole, sitting right on the cut-line at one under par when I noticed the red light glowing on the green-side camera. I turned around and saw another camera guy following me.
Guys on the cut-line don’t usually get camera time. Something must’ve happened.
As I stood on the 18th green, about to finish my round, I saw a PGA Tour official standing nearby. I caught his eye. The look he gave me … that’s when I knew something had really happened. And when I walked off the green, he told me what I had been hoping to hear.
“Billy, they found your dad.”
It’s impossible to describe the emotions I felt at that moment. Relief. Confusion. Doubt. But most of all, level headedness because feelings aren’t reality after all.
Someone in Texas had gotten wind of the story, and this person spotted you in a town called Texarkana in the northeast part of the state.
Do you know what you were doing when they found you?
You were checking my scores on pgatour.com.
The plan really had worked. But the more I learned, I couldn’t help but begin to feel discouraged.
I know … I know you must’ve seen us looking for you, Dad. And when this good samaritan had gone up to you and asked if you were my dad you said that you were.
But then you told this person that you were just traveling. And when this person went and got a police officer, you told him that you were just traveling. Then you spoke to investigators, and you told them that you were just traveling.
Dad, why didn’t you come home at that point? Trust me, we thought about flying down and trying to find you, but what if you had driven somewhere else before we got there? It’s not like the police could keep you in custody because you hadn’t done anything wrong. They had let you go. So we had to hope and pray that you would one day show up back home.
Two weeks passed. News coverage had slowed down, but your family didn’t. We were still doing everything in our power to find you and your truck. We still thought our best option was to hope that you’d come home.
But that never happened.
Because at the end of those two weeks, I received a voice mail from a sheriff in Virginia.
“Hey, I’m with your mom right now at her house. She’s fine, but I need you to call me right back.”
Now, Dad … I learned this from you: If a cop called the house about someone, everything was fine. Somebody might be hurt, but everything’s O.K. On the other hand, if a cop showed up at your door, then something tragic must’ve happened.
So when I heard that this officer was with Mom I knew it wasn’t good.
A couple of minutes later, Dan called me. He said the two words that I had been praying I would never hear.
For a long time, I had questions. I had so many questions.
I wondered why you had decided to drive away. I wondered how you had ended up in Texas, and then why you didn’t come home after the police found you. I wondered why you had decided to drive north to Minnesota, and why you had then driven back East and stopped only fifteen minutes away from your house.
I wondered why you hadn’t come home when you were so close. I wondered why you had parked your truck near a boat ramp on the Potomac River, right on the border between Maryland and Virginia.
I wondered why you had shot yourself in the head. I wondered why you had decided to take your life when everything was seemingly O.K.
I experienced every emotion imaginable: fear, hopelessness, sadness (not just for me, but for Mom and my siblings). I felt anger. Lots of anger. It weighed on me for a long time. It weighed on everybody.
But for all the wondering, I’ve finally realized something. I’ve realized that I’ll never get any answers. I’ll never know why you did any of it. No one in our family will ever know. Mom was a wreck for a long time, and I know part of her still is. I contemplated retirement from professional golf at the beginning of 2016. But we’ve been more at peace lately.
And, let me tell you, some pretty incredible things have happened in my life, and they have helped me to finish this letter.
Last spring, I did everything you ever wanted me to do — everything you had talked about in the car on the way home from the tournament in Florida.
I kept fighting.
In May, I was starting to play some pretty good golf. The signs were there. I didn’t have any top finishes, but I was making cuts.
And in June, my life got flipped upside down all over again.
Because, Dad … I won.
I won for the very first time on the PGA Tour. I won the Quicken Loans National. The tournament that honors veterans. The tournament that Tiger Woods hosts.
The very tournament at which I had made the plea for information about your whereabouts nearly a year earlier.
Do you know what I call that? A gift from God. There’s no other way to describe it.
After it was over, your grandkids ran out onto the 18th green to hug their daddy. As that was happening, Heather and I just looked at each other. We couldn’t believe it. We were experiencing the moment every golfer dreams of, Dad. And I know you were watching. I know you were smiling just as big as we were. I couldn’t help but think the only thing missing from that day was the look, your slight nod, and a handshake.
The only thing missing was you.
Winning a tournament made it O.K. to celebrate life again. It made it O.K. to have joy again. Winning closed a chapter in my life. I would have made it through the grief process without winning, but the fact that I did flipped everything from, “My dad committed suicide,” to, “My dad was a great man.”
And that’s what you were, Dad. You were a great, great man.
I think you’d be proud of everything that happened that day and everything else that followed. This coming April, I’ll be playing in my first ever Masters. It’s true, Dad. The Masters. I’ll be thinking about you a lot that week. I wish you could be there like you always were after my rounds, standing behind the 18th green at Augusta, embracing me with an outstretched arm … and the look.
At your funeral, I said that your legacy isn’t that you took your life, but that you brought faith into our family. I know one day I will see you again. I know this is not the end. I truly believe that.
I miss you, Dad. I love you.
And one final thing I need you to know: I forgive you.
Your legacy will live forever.
Thank you for everything.