MAN, I TOLD my brother, you really stepped in it this time.
Dan shot me a sideways look as we headed for the 17th hole at Augusta National on Sunday, April 14, 2019.
“You’ve never been to a major golf championship before,” I said. “And here you are witnessing the greatest Masters of all time.”
We had just watched Tiger Woods nearly hole out his previous tee shot. We had just scrambled away from the 16th green, where a security guard actually allowed us to crouch low — in an area off limits to late-arriving fans — to get a point-blank look at the birdie putt Woods would sink to seize control of the tournament.
That never happens at Augusta. But this moment was too big for even the most draconian Masters security guard. The world had stopped to watch the 43-year-old Woods, once a broken athlete and man, try to win his first major title in 11 years.
As a sports journalist, you are not allowed to root for a team or an athlete. You are allowed to root for the best available story. So I was rooting for Tiger Woods for selfish reasons, at least until I saw the look on Dan’s face with two holes to go.
Then I stopped rooting for Tiger to win for me. I started rooting for Tiger to win for him.
WE WERE TWO barely-middle-class, sports-crazed boys from Englewood, New Jersey, raised near Knickerbocker Country Club, an ultra-private course so close and yet so far away. The way we saw it, golf was played by kids with parents a lot richer than ours. So we did some summertime caddying at Knickerbocker to make money for school.
I was on young Phil Simms’ bag the first time he broke 80, and my brother deemed me unworthy of the honor. “Why did they give Simms’ bag to a freakin’ Cowboys fan?” he complained.
I grew up wanting to be Roger Staubach; Dan suffered with his Giants year after dreadful year while I merrily rode the bandwagon of the one team that seemed to be on national TV every week. The Staubach heave to Drew Pearson against Minnesota that ultimately made “Hail Mary” a universal expression for last-ditch options? My brother hated that pass.
We lived to play sports, to talk sports, to debate sports. Even when we agreed on something, we disagreed. We loved the Yankees of the 1970s, but Dan was a Thurman Munson guy and I was a Reggie Jackson guy. We would never forget where we were in 1979 — in the Finnigans’ family pool — the moment we heard Munson’s plane had gone down.
A year earlier, I had called in sick to freshman football practice at St. Cecilia High to go home and catch the epic division tiebreaker between the Yankees and Red Sox. It was more fun watching Bucky Dent’s homer sail over the Green Monster than it was getting pounded by upperclassmen in the Oklahoma drill, and I thought maybe it was time to retire from full-contact sports. Big Dan, tall as an oak, shut that down. He was proud to suit up for a high school team once coached by Vince Lombardi, and he did not want to be related to a quitter. I was back in full pads the next day.
I played a year of small-college football, if only to prove I could reach a higher level than my brother did. “Division III doesn’t count,” Dan once told me. Who was I to argue with him? This was our running dialogue into adulthood. Dan got married and raised three kids, and I got married and raised one. We saw each other a few times a year, and no matter who was (or wasn’t) getting along in our big, Irish Catholic family, sports talk immediately bonded us at weddings, picnics and funerals. Brought us right back to our youth.
We talked Jeter and Eli, Brady and Peyton, Kobe and LeBron. And Tiger. We’d both become improbable golf fans, and wouldn’t you know it, last April marked my 20th Masters on the job. Augusta National provides a ticket to those who cover 20 tournaments. I wondered if I should accept, especially given my past criticism of the club. But then I thought of Dan.
A tradition unlike any other, right?
The cap Dan O’Connor wore to the 2019 Masters. Ian O’Connor
DAN SHOWED UP at the first tee wearing a Giants cap. Who the hell wears a Giants cap to the Masters?
Sure enough, my brother crossed paths with Justin Tuck, two-time Super Bowl champ, and Dan swore Tuck acknowledged him because of that damn hat. Big brother won again.
By Sunday, Dan was wearing a 2019 Masters cap. I saw him high-five a fan when Francesco Molinari landed his ball in the creek at No. 12. “He’s in the drink again,” Dan shouted when Molinari found water on the 15th.
This wasn’t Dan’s first big sporting event, and we had no idea it would be his last. He had attended Super Bowl XLII, when the Giants beat the 18-0 Patriots. Dan had watched the Yanks at Dodger Stadium with his friend Rob, and he’d watched the Yanks at Wrigley Field with his son, Shane. (Dan wore Munson’s No. 15 to the game; Shane wore Jeter’s No. 2.)
Now he was watching Tiger move the earth with his kid brother. Woods did what he did on the back nine Sunday, and then we were in the middle of the madness as the five-time Masters champ walked by us with his hand on the back of his son, Charlie. I had to quickly pivot into reporting mode and duck into a roped-off area reserved for players, officials and the media. Before I started interviewing awestruck witnesses to history, I turned to find a glowing Dan being swallowed by the crowd. We made eye contact as he faded away. Only sports could have put that look on his face.
I WORE A mask, surgical gown and latex gloves while holding Dan’s hand Saturday afternoon as he died, at 57, on an operating room table inside Morristown Medical Center in New Jersey. Official time of death was 15:51. His wife, Ellen, wanted it noted that Thurman’s number marked the time, forward and backward.
Dan had dropped a lot of weight recently. The evening of Feb. 27, he returned from the gym he frequented complaining of back pain. Forever a man of few words, he kept everyone on a need-to-know basis when it came to his health. Ellen knew something was wrong when her husband allowed her to drive him to the hospital. Dan suffered a massive heart attack on the ride there.
Somehow, a kind-spirited cardiologist named Joseph Marmora restarted his heart and gave my brother a chance for a neurological miracle that was not to be. Dan survived the blockage in the artery known as the widow-maker and fought for nine days to overcome the global damage to his brain. We all took turns crying and praying and laughing and telling stories in his room. We all agreed Dan would’ve been pissed that he’d already paid for his 2020 Giants season tickets a week before this happened.
When alone with Dan, I whispered so many things in his ear, just in case he caught some of it, any of it. My brother had hoped Bill Belichick would finish his career with the Giants; I joked with him that Tom Brady wasn’t signing with Big Blue, either. I told him that Tiger was skipping the Players Championship after skipping Bay Hill and that the Masters was suddenly in doubt.
Shane, along with Dan’s loving daughters, Keelin and Colleen, stayed at his bedside. Shane said his father had passed down his love of sports to him, as Dan had done for me. Shane said his father never stopped talking about his trip to the Masters.
Thursday, I met with family members and hospital officials to determine a course of endgame action. The neurologists were saying there was no hope. I realized only later that, in a plea for some last-chance procedure to reboot my brother’s brain, I must have used the term “Hail Mary” five times in the meeting. I think even Dan would have approved.
But he had requested that he not be sustained by machines. The hospital would raise a flag in his honor, as an organ donor, Saturday morning in a ceremony defined by the grace of his brother-in-law’s bagpipes. Back in Dan’s room afterward, we played “Jungleland” and “Thunder Road” and his other old-school Springsteen favorites. Hospital reps asked if anyone wanted to be present when they disconnected Dan from his ventilator downstairs. I thought I should be there, since Dan was there when our younger sister Rita took her final breath in 2017.
Along with my sister Eileen, a nurse, I watched Dan die on the day I was scheduled to cover North Carolina-Duke. I had joked with him earlier that he was costing me that trip, not to mention the expensive game ticket I’d bought for my wife, Tracey. I’m not sure Dan truly understood my unconventional job, or how I could possibly call the 2004 ALCS one of the greatest events I’ve covered after we grew up despising the Red Sox.
But he did enjoy meeting the media heavyweights he met at the Masters. Christine Brennan. Gene Wojciechowski. Tara Sullivan. Sam Farmer. One of the best, Steve Politi, emailed his condolences Sunday and recalled that my brother “looked like he was having the time of his life” at Augusta.
Six hours later, just as I was starting this column, another email appeared in my inbox. My 2020 Masters credential. No ticket was offered this time, and no ticket was required.
Dan O’Connor had already seen the only golf tournament he ever needed to see, and frankly, so had I.