MEDINAH, Ill. (AP) -- The sun was shining, the morning sky was clear and Mark Calcavecchia and his caddie had the back nine at Medinah Country Club all to themselves the day before the PGA Championship.
Imprisoned for almost 11 years, dreams of days like this were what kept Eric Larson going. Now free, he's savoring every moment of his fresh start.
"It's been everything I imagined and then some," Larson said Wednesday. "There's a lot of other people in life that don't get second chances. ... Or have diseases or have a freak accident or what have you. I'm healthy. I have the support of all of my friends and family.
"And I'm very fortunate to be in this position."
Larson was living what seemed like an ideal life back in 1995. After caddying for Ken Green, he'd hooked up with Calcavecchia, winner of the 1989 British Open and one of the top players on the PGA Tour. When Calcavecchia shot a 66 to win the BellSouth Classic in 1995, Larson was on the bag.
But life is never quite what it seems, and Larson's was no different. A few years earlier, he had started sending cocaine to friends back in the Midwest. He was never a user and wasn't what you'd call a big-time dealer.
Not even a small-time dealer, really.
"I knew some people that wanted it. I knew someone that sold it. I was the middleman," Larson said. "I did it for monetary reasons only."
Still, it was wrong. When his supplier turned him in, Larson found himself facing federal drug charges. He eventually pleaded guilty, and began serving his sentence on Aug. 9, 1995.
Because of strict federal mandatory minimums, Larson spent 10 years in prison before being released to a halfway house on Dec. 21, 2005. He left there two months ago, on June 16.
"It was kind of a bad deal the way it unfolded," Calcavecchia said. "He made a mistake. Give him three or four years and let him get on with his life. They wanted to give him 20. They gave him 13 1/2 and he got out in 11. Twelve years of his life have been taken away."
Larson refuses to make excuses, though. He got himself into trouble, no one else.
"I made a mistake. I did wrong," he says, his voice leaving no room for question. "I've always had to accept what I got because there's nothing else you can do. It is what it is."
Just as he takes responsibility for everything that happened, Larson made certain things would be different when his second chance arrived. He earned a bachelor's degree in business management while he was in prison, and took vocational and horticulture courses. He even grew vegetables that fellow inmates ate.
"Tomatoes, onions, peppers -- you name it. Squash," he said. "They all came out pretty good."
And always, he focused on his dream of caddying again.
"Not many people could have made the best out of that situation," said Mike Hicks, who caddied for Payne Stewart when he won the 1999 U.S. Open. "He got a raw deal. He knows he got a raw deal. And he wasn't bitter about it.
"It's amazing that he spent that much time in jail, and he never lost sight of the fact that one day he'd get out, and he'd be back out here caddying again," added Hicks, who now caddies for Jonathan Byrd. "And here he is."
Larson is quick to give credit to his friends. Calcavecchia, Green and Hicks were among the golfers and caddies who visited him in prison. Others kept in touch through cards and letters.
Calcavecchia also made him a promise: When Larson got out, there'd be a job waiting for him.
"He needed something to look forward to and I always told him, when the time came I'd hire him up, hopefully play good and make him some money and get him back on his feet," Calcavecchia said.
True to his word, Calcavecchia had Larson as his caddie at the Honda Classic, the Western Open, the U.S. Bank Championship and now, the PGA Championship. Calcavecchia plans to play seven more events this year, and Larson will be at his side for all of them.
Larson also caddied for Green at the B.C. Open.
Though it had been 11 years, Larson and Calcavecchia quickly settled into their old rhythm. They looked like a couple of old friends out for a round Wednesday, and their laughter on the 18th green broke the early morning silence.
"It's been great," Calcavecchia said. "When he got out, he was so refreshed and ready to go and anxious. You look forward to something for 11 years, he's very excited."
Other parts of life have taken a bit more adjustment. The few people who had cell phones back in 1995 were carrying cumbersome models that looked more like a suitcase. The balls Larson fished out of his golf bag were Bridgestone Rextars -- which aren't even made anymore. The Internet was still a vague, space-age concept.
"He had no idea how to work a computer," Calcavecchia said. "I instant messaged him one day ... and he didn't know what happened. He called me up. `How'd you know I was on the computer?' He freaked out.
"In a lot of ways," Calcavecchia added, "he had to start over."
But starting over isn't always a bad thing. With every course he walks, Larson's dark days fade a little more.
"I'll never forget them, no. But it's time to look forward. Fortunately, I have a great life ahead of me," he said. "And it could always be worse. I'm just very fortunate to have done as much time as I've done and still have the support I have.
"There's no such thing as bad days," he added. "Every day is a good day."
Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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