LA JOLLA, Calif. – His thoughts are probably too jumbled right now to realize it, but one day Eric Axley may look back on the even-par 72 he shot on Thursday as one of the finest rounds of his career.
A day earlier, his caddie, Steve Duplantis, was killed after a taxi hit him. The mere fact that Axley made it through 18 holes was a victory in itself.
Instead of trying to dismiss the tragedy from his mind, he got on with the job, safe in the knowledge that he was doing exactly what his friend would have wanted.
"In my mind all day, I was with Stevie," said Axley, 33, a lefthander from Knoxville, Tenn. "It got pretty windy and cold and it was a bit of a struggle but I held it together and did OK. He only worked for me for two weeks but I have known him for two or three years and he is a great caddie, fun to be with and has a lot of confidence in what he says."
Axley had understandably declined to comment Wednesday morning, just hours after Duplantis' death. However, by the time he had completed his round Thursday on the North Course at Torrey Pines, enough time had passed for him to collect his thoughts and offer a moving tribute to Duplantis.
The fact that he referred to his caddie in the present tense suggests that the reality of the accident has yet to fully sink in, and it probably won't for some time.
"I heard about it at 7:30 Wednesday morning," he said. "We were together all day, I dropped him off at his hotel, he stayed with me all last week and we are really good friends. I haven't heard when the funeral is yet but I will give it my best to be there.
"Everyone was very supportive. Everyone had nothing but nice things to say. It is a sad situation and everyone's heart goes out to him and his family."
Teeing off shortly after 10 a.m. on the back nine, Axley appeared to be in something of a daze early in his round, his thoughts clearly consumed with matters more important than hitting a little white ball.
As he stared wistfully across the picturesque course, playing partner Ben Crane offered some words of support, showing once more how the golfing fraternity rallies around its own.
The first eight holes were fairly uneventful for Axley, who recorded two birdies and a pair of bogeys leaving him in decent shape heading into No. 18.
At the 18th hole, a slightly pulled tee shot left him with a terrible lie, from where he topped the ball about 25 yards directly into a bunker. An ambitious attempt with a rescue club sliced wildly out of bounds, resulting in a double-bogey seven, and it looked as if the wheels might start to come off. The North Course is less formidable than the South, which will host the U.S. Open in June, but there were still a lot of challenges ahead.
Instead, Axley dug deeper. He produced virtually error-free golf on the front nine, picking up two shots on par, and getting back to even. With three rounds to go, there is still plenty of time for him to make a good showing.
Carrying Axley's bag Thursday was his former caddie, Bobby Brown, a local who stepped into the breach when he heard the news about Duplantis.
When Axley rolled in a 30-foot putt for birdie on the seventh, the pair shared a smile, but even then, Axley's face was tinged with sadness.
It will take some time for things to get back to normal. In his game, in his career and in his life.
However he finishes this week, Axley will continue to get on with his job. He will play with dignity and courage. And, most of all, he will honor the memory of his friend and caddie.
- Steve Duplantis