They stood around the first tee and thought about the man who wasn’t there.
Under a tree, Kyle McMahon juggled his cell phone, two half-full bottles of Gatorade and a pack of Marlboro Lights. He fought back tears, then raised the cell phone to snap a picture of his best friend’s first swing at the U.S. Open on Thursday.
Joan Tobiason, a slight woman swallowed by her blue windbreaker, stood nearby. She cried, too, as her son, Michael Tobiason Jr., ambled to the tee with a driver in hand and the collar of his polo shirt turned up.
Eleven months ago, he died of bile duct cancer. He couldn’t witness his son’s whirlwind journey from anonymous teaching professional at Applecross Country Club in Downingtown, Pa., through U.S. Open qualifying to the 9:12 a.m. tee time Thursday. This wasn’t a normal round.
Tobiason sent the ball whizzing through air so thick it hung on you like a wet sweater.
“I want to cry every time he hits it,” one friend whispered.
“Me, too,” McMahon said.
None of the gang who gathered Thursday quite believed any of this was real. To Joan Tobiason, who signed her son up for golf lessons at 7, it felt like a movie. She bounced up and down on her white Reeboks and pumped her fist in the air and softly said, “Yes, yes, yes” on the second hole. Her nerves already were shot. Then she pulled out a video game for Tobiason’s 5-year-old son, Aidan, who raced around in Spider-Man socks collecting green leaves and pulling bark from trees.
“Daddy’s playing golf,” she said. “You can’t make noise when daddy’s playing.”
McMahon looked on. Tears formed again.
“They needed this,” he said. “They needed it.”
Tobiason’s best friend for 11 years, McMahon jokes he’s been his manager since Tuesday. That’s not much of an exaggeration, as media requests, sponsorship opportunities and logistics exploded after qualifying for the U.S. Open. He used to do promotion work for Warner Brothers. But this has him lighting more cigarettes than usual. There’s little time to sleep.
The group is holed up in a $29 per night hotel in Fairfaix that Tobiason’s cigar-chomping caddy, Gerry Thornton, wrangled. They haven’t spent a dime on food, loading up instead at Congressional’s hospitality areas. Tobiason thanks anyone who asks for his autograph. And he rolled to the course in his familiar Honda, never mind the brand-new Lexus courtesy car the tournament loaned him. When Tobiason woke up Thursday, before his bowl of Frosted Flakes, one phrase hung in his mind: “It’s go time.”
On Tobiason’s second shot of the day, he heard his father say, “Stick it” as the ball rolled a few feet from the pin.
Four men with beers in each hand happened upon Tobiason on the back nine. They had never met him before but turned up their collars in support. When Tobiason yelled, “Get down! Get down!” after a shot, they picked up his cry with alcohol-fueled vigor.
“It sounds like his father’s here,” Joan Tobiason said. Then she laughed.
Tobiason’s thoughts kept returning to his father. Focus, at times, slipped away as he bogeyed two of the last three holes.
The spectacle of the U.S. Open crept up on Tobiason, too. On No. 16, he looked around in awe as the reality started swirled around him. He was here. He was doing it. Then he three-putted the hole for a bogey. That was one of four putts for birdies that lipped out.
That added up to a 4-over 75. Keep him at par Friday, McMahon thinks, and they’ll survive the cut.
As Tobiason stood on the practice green after the round and readied for an afternoon of work, the man who wasn’t there seemed very much present.
What would his father have said? Tobiason didn’t hesitate.
“Good job, little guy,” Tobiason said. “I’m proud of you.”
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