JUPITER, FLORIDA | There have been two moments when Whit Turnbow thought his life was over. They came 10 days apart.
The first was a freak accident on Feb. 27, 2016. Turnbow and a few friends were flying back from the Daytona 500 when the main door to their private jet slowly came ajar. With the aircraft at 30,000 feet, everyone on board quickly reached for their oxygen masks. For the next six minutes, the pilots guided the plane down to 10,000 feet where they could turn the AC vents on to help reduce cabin pressure. Somewhat miraculously, they landed safely.
Ten days later, his luck turned even worse.
Four months earlier during a trip to the Bahamas, Turnbow had noticed a numb feeling in his face, a sign that led doctors to discover what they believed was a benign cyst. However, after a six-hour operation to remove it, Turnbow awoke to find out he had skin cancer in the form of a malignant tumor attached to the maxillary nerve just below his left eye.
“For the next few days, I was almost angry, yelling out to God that this can’t be the existence we’re meant to live,” Turnbow, now 40, recalled. “But I realized that He sends you trials like that not to punish you, but to make you more like Him.”
In those moments, he stared down death like he has always stared down a putt to win a golf tournament. He couldn’t help but reflect on how he had been living his life and the changes he desperately wanted to make if he could continue living.
He wanted his life to be re-prioritized. God first, family second, his influence on the world third. Turnbow had enjoyed all sorts of success at Middle Tennessee State University, first as a player, then as a golf coach for 13 years, then as an athletic administrator. But a lot of times he felt like he put those career accomplishments ahead of the most significant parts of his life.
“The disease gave me a different perspective on everything. Win, lose or draw, I’m just fortunate to be here.” – Whit Turnbow
In the middle of three months encompassing 41 radiation treatments and eight rounds of chemotherapy, Turnbow, briefly a professional golfer following his collegiate playing days, decided to apply for amateur reinstatement.
It offered him hope — the hope he would survive and use golf as a way to show himself he could change. Almost as if by design, Turnbow received his amateur status back the first week of July 2016, right around the same time he was declared cancer-free.
“I didn’t know if I was ever going to play again,” Turnbow said. “And if I could play, I wanted to do whatever I could to go out and enjoy it. I knew I wasn’t going to do that running around playing for checks.”
That journey of playing for the sake of competition with close buddies hit a crescendo Wednesday at the National Senior-Junior, a tournament that pairs mid-amateurs with a senior partner. Turnbow teamed with good friend and fellow Tennessean Dan Crockett to shoot 21-under 195, making a late eagle to earn a one-stroke victory over the teams of Patrick Christovich/Tommy Brennan and Tony Hejna/Jamie Miller.
Turnbow and Crockett weren’t in the field until senior amateur Tim Jackson called tournament director John Birmingham and lobbied for the two to play.
They arrived for the first round at the Dye Preserve without ever having seen the course. That probably would have spelled doom for Turnbow in his past life as a professional, but his purpose at the Senior-Junior wasn’t just to win; he set out to absorb his time with a dear friend.
“The last couple of years, I have enjoyed playing the game more than any point in my life,” an emotional Turnbow said moments after sharing a long embrace with Crockett. “It’s because you can share it with folks like this guy. The disease gave me a different perspective on everything. Win, lose or draw, I’m just fortunate to be here. It hasn’t been the easiest of times, but to enjoy something like this, it’s very special.”
The friends first met each other back in the late ’90s as Turnbow played for Middle Tennessee State and Crockett, the former CEO of Franklin American Mortgage Company, battled him in state competitions. Among their accomplishments in the state, Turnbow earned low-professional honors in two Tennessee Opens and Crockett won the 2007 Tennessee Mid-Amateur. Crockett has also had past success in four-ball competitions with two victories at the Anderson Memorial (2011 and 2012) at Winged Foot.
Their relationship formed a deeper bond beyond competition in the past handful of years, in part by connecting through their jobs in addition to the game. Nine months ago, Turnbow stepped down as the senior associate athletic director at Middle Tennessee State so he could become president of the Tennessee Golf Foundation, a position that focuses on fundraising to support junior golf.
He had been directly connected with MTSU since the mid-’90s, but the offer he received couldn’t have been more aligned with his personality.
“He left for a job he is really well-suited for,” said the school’s current athletic director, Chris Massaro. “Selfishly we wish he would stay and we were sorry to see him go, but it was like out of a Hollywood script the kind of job he landed. It really matched his skill set and his passions.”
Crockett fully supports Turnbow in his latest endeavor and the respect is mutual. This past year, Crockett sold Franklin American to Citizens Financial Group for $511 million, which is remarkable given that he started with only five employees back in 1994.
“So now I’m kind of in no-man’s land,” the 50-year-old Crockett joked. “It’s a good time to play golf. My wife told me last night, ‘I don’t know if I’ve seen you have this much fun playing golf.’ We’ll both have this win for the rest of our lives.
“This tournament, if you look at the field, it has so many legends and great players, it’s an honor. He and I will share this forever.”
“I’ve said it many times and I’ll say it again … I know how to ride a horse. I just keep it steady in the fairway and watch Whit go.” – Dan Crockett on Whit Turnbow
With a few holes to play on Wednesday, Turnbow took a recess from the intense competition to compliment his partner. The two had just botched the treacherous par-3 13th and made bogey in the scramble format, a mistake that easily could have cost them the tournament. Instead, Crockett hit a close shot into the par-4 14th and converted the birdie putt.
“I just had to tell him that he’s the toughest guy I know,” Turnbow said. “That’s the honest-to-God truth. I’ve never met a guy that is more competitive or tougher than this guy right here. I’m a big believer that you are the sum total of the people you hang around and if that is the case, I’m in good shape.”
To that, Crockett replied with his favorite saying of the week.
“I’ve said it many times and I’ll say it again … I know how to ride a horse,” he joked. “I just keep it steady in the fairway and watch Whit go. And he played some unbelievable golf.”
There’s something in that sentiment, the freedom golfers have when their scramble partner has put one in play and an aggressive, freewheeling swing can be made. It unlocks confidence and paralyzes fear.
Turnbow knows his life could have been over. So here he is, aiming at that flag tucked against the water without any hesitation.
Top photo – Dan Crockett and Whit Turnbow. Photo: Sean Fairholm, Global Golf Post
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