Gregory Odom Jr. had held in his emotions long enough. The wave finally crested. He signed his scorecard, bent down next to the push cart that held his navy Howard University Bison bag, put his hand over his face, and finally let some of the hurt go.
His coach, Sam Puryear, rubbed Odom’s back to comfort him.
Odom, 20, was on the grounds playing his first practice round at the PGA WORKS Collegiate Championship at TPC Sawgrass on Saturday when Puryear had to tell him that his father, Greg Odom Sr., had passed away back home in Memphis, Tennessee. Odom Sr., 67, had been admitted to hospice a day earlier, his kidney failing him. The son, miles away in Florida, conferred by telephone with his mother and knew there was one thing his dad would want him to do: Play.
Odom not only played, but he played incredibly well on a tough test, the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. Though Howard fell shy of its first team stroke-play title on Wednesday – Prairie View A&M would win that – Odom landed the first trophy of any sort for Howard, which restarted its golf program only 13 months ago. His team struggled on Wednesday, posting 332 and finishing fourth, but Odom shined. He shot 74 on the Stadium to finish 54 holes at 4-over 220. He beat Alabama State’s Thacher Neal by five shots.
“I knew my dad wanted me to go out there and ball out,” Odom said. “Never can let down Pops.”
Greg Odom Sr. loved golf, and taught his son the game in Memphis. Greg Jr. said he was about 4 when he got started. He and his dad would spend afternoons out at Irene Golf & Country Club, which pitches itself as “affordable championship golf.” Says the son, “We played all the time until he got sick.”
When Puryear – who coached at Michigan State and Stanford – got the job at Howard, he wanted to build a culture. He wanted to be a program that came together as family. He heard of Odom through a fraternity brother of his from Tennessee State who happened to be the principal at a school that Odom attended in Tennessee. He told Puryear “He’s a kid that’s just like you. Trust me, he’s your guy.” Odom, who didn’t play much as a freshman at Memphis, was Puryear’s first recruit.
Puryear said after the first round at PGA WORKS that he and Odom have forged a special bond. They have “vibed” well together. Puryear will begin to say something to one of the Bison players, and Odom will step in, tell his coach, “I got this,” and say exactly the words that Puryear would say himself.
Howard led the Men’s Division I group at PGA WORKS through 36 holes, and somebody asked Puryear if he wanted a team victory, or to see Odom win individually. “I said that’s not even a question,” Puryear said. “I’d take an individual victory for him all day, every day.”
Through tears, Puryear tried to put the week’s experience into words. The team didn’t know the situation through the week, as Odom Jr. and Puryear kept it to themselves. At one point, they stopped eating.
“How do you lose your dad on the day of the practice round before you tee off and you say you want to play?” the coach said. “Not another player in this field carried a more heavy heart than this kid. To do what he did, and hold your emotions in until the end, like he just did?
“I just don’t know what’s better than that. I’ve been coaching for a long time, at a lot of places, and I’ve won everything you can win in this game. National Championship, Big 10 Championship, Coach of the Year … I’ve won all of that. I’ve never felt like I do right now for a win for a kid after what he just went through. That kid has something different. He’s tough. He’s got moxie that comes from deep down inside. He’s got a whole lot.”
When Puryear made his initial pitch to Odom to join the new Bison program, he told him if he came, he would get better as a player, and he would win. Puryear says Odom is special. “He has the heart of a lion,” he said.
After his round, Odom said he was headed back to school for a few days, and then will gather his things and get home to Memphis. There, he’ll say his final goodbye to the man who taught him the game.
“When I found out, I knew he wouldn’t want me to sit around,” Odom said of his father. “He always liked to see me on the golf course.”
He would have been awfully proud to see what his son accomplished at TPC Sawgrass.