Sometime around 1:30 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, I stepped outside of PJ Clark's, a saloon on 3rd Avenue in Manhattan. Twenty-four hours earlier The PGA of America had announced that Tom Watson would be the Captain of the 2014 U.S. Ryder Cup Team. It had been a whirlwind couple of days in New York City. NBC's "Today" Show, the Empire State Building press conference, and a Knicks game at Madison Square Garden, plus numerous interviews and press conferences created a week that I will never forget.
But, on the street corner that Friday afternoon at one of Sinatra's hangouts, it all seemed like a blip in the past when I checked my Blackberry and saw reports that a mass shooting had taken place at the Sandy Hook Elementary School about an hour north in Newtown, Conn. Four events of tragic magnitude stand out in my 59 years - the Kennedy assassination, the Columbine shootings, 9/11 and the Sandy Hook Elementary carnage are permanently etched in my memory bank.
Last Sunday (May 5), I went to Newtown to be part of a day that honored the first responders at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. I joined PGA Professional Michael Breed, of Golf Channel's "The Golf Fix," and participated in a golf outing hosted by Paul Miller, PGA Professional at the 9-hole Newton Country Club. Sixty-eight players, most of them policemen, fire fighters and ambulance personnel, comprised the field.
"When you drive into Newtown, you will go about 8 mph and you will say to yourself, 'How could something that awful happen in this town?'" Breed told me last week.
Newtown, located in Fairfield County in rural Connecticut, is charming. It was founded in 1705 and its population today is 28,000. Newtown contains several small boroughs - one of which is Sandy Hook. Newtown is truly Anytown, USA. Breed was right. It is unthinkable that this tragedy, which resulted in 32 deaths, could happen here.
Shortly after 9:30 a.m. on that fateful day, Adam Lanza shot his way through the locked glass doors at Sandy Hook and went on a shooting rampage that killed 26 children, ages 6-12 and six adults. Lanza shot all of his victims multiple times, including 6-year-old Noah Ponzer, who he shot 11 times. Lanza later shot himself in the head when the first responders entered the school.
The courageous stories of the six murdered adults along with others inside the school, all primarily women, are well documented. Who knows how many lives were saved by their heroic efforts. My trip to Newtown only solidified my belief that this tragic story could have happened anywhere in our country. It's a typical American town with people like you and me living in it.
According to Breed, who lives about 30 minutes away in downstate Connecticut, the scene at Sandy Hook was so bad when the first seven responders arrived that they called into the Newtown Police Department and advised that no one else enter. To this day, those first seven responders have not returned to work.
Paul Miller has been the golf professional at Newtown Country Club for 19 years. The club was built in 1915, and like many small town private clubs it has fallen on hard times the last few years as its membership has declined from 270 to 187. PGA member Dan Baker, who works for The PGA of America, described Newtown Country Club.
"I grew up there and was a junior member at Newtown Country Club," Baker said. "Joe LaCava, Tiger's caddie, and I both played there. NCC's greens are as big as car hoods, which is why I generally hit it at the flag because if you were 20 feet right or left you were off the green. NCC, back in the day, was jokingly referred to as a bar with a golf course attached to it. The kind of place where golf was always fun. I wish I could be there today. Great memories!"
On Sunday, Paul Miller and his members put the fun back into NCC. They created a day that quietly said thanks to all those first responders and area agencies that had been so instrumental in the events of Dec. 14, 2012. The club has offered complimentary memberships to any of the families affected by the tragedy at Sandy Hook. Three of those have taken NCC up on its offer and Miller will be giving lessons to a mom and dad of a Sandy Hook victim on Friday.
Miller, along with the help of Breed, created a raffle where every participant in Sunday's outing received a prize. The donors were golf's greats - Woods, Palmer, Norman, Player, Nicklaus, Pavin, Stockton along with many of golf's top manufacturers. The best surprise of the day was when Allen Newman, with the JetBlue Challenge, announced that all 68 participants in the outing would receive a free 5-day/4-night vacation to Casa De Campo.
Golf Digest and Golf Channel covered the day on Sunday, but Miller and his NCC membership had refrained from any pre-outing publicity as they did not want to turn the day into a media circus out of respect for the first responders. Breed conducted a clinic and around noon on Sunday, nearly 3,000 motorcyclists roared into Newtown. They had paid $2 each to be a part of the ride for Sandy Hook's responders.
It was eerie. You could hear the sirens accompanying the roar of the motorcycles while Breed was finishing up his clinic. I thought to myself, sirens can never sound the same in Newtown. It has to be a constant reminder, a daily torture.
Main Street in Newtown houses the Police Department and the Newtown Ambulance service. These were recognizable images from the national news stories back in December. Dickinson Road, the site of Sandy Hook Elementary, is coned off prohibiting any kind of traffic near the school. It's probably better that the painful reminder of that day be sealed off, but looking down that road past the cones still congers up sadness. The Trinity Church where so many of the memorial services were conducted stood tall and proud against the Connecticut horizon.
Sunday was a day of celebration .It was calm with a clear blue sky. Newtown was peaceful and almost surreal. Miller and his members at NCC managed to do the impossible. They made people forget the horrors of this small town, if only for a day. People laughed, the libations flowed, a few tears were shed but all in all, it was golf helping heal people's lives. It was a great day in Newtown, truly Anytown, USA.