Sunday 28 May 2017

Even the greatest victory pales beside life's cruelty

Darren Clarke's Open win meant a lot to one man and his family, writes Dermot Gilleece

Dermot Gilleece

Among the countless messages of congratulation received by Darren Clarke in the wake of his Open Championship triumph, one stood apart. And it wasn't for the sentiment which followed traditional lines, but rather the sender and the horrific family tragedy he has been made to endure.

Nor did the same American forget his Northern friend in Majorca last May, on the occasion of an improbable victory in the Iberdrola Open.

This week, as a reward for his Royal St George's exploits, Clarke will head for the US and a return to the Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone, before travelling on to the PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club. But in August 2001, as the newly-crowned Smurfit European Open champion, his build-up to the same championship at the same venue took a very different form.

In a fourball, with former Irish international Dougie Heather as his partner, the opposition comprised local members Davis Sezna senior and junior. With the father off two handicap and the son, affectionately known as Deeg, playing off five, the Americans showed themselves to be useful competitors which they needed to be around the celebrated terrain of Pine Valley.

Every detail brought instant recall from Clarke, as we talked between rounds of the Irish Open at Killarney. "I remember we thanked them afterwards for the game and hoped we would have many more friendly matches together, over the years ahead," he said.

Deeg, who was then 22, bubbled with the enthusiasm of youth about a job he had just landed in the World Trade Centre in New York. And about his plans to view an apartment there.

Later, by way of appreciation for the thrill of playing against the man who had conquered Tiger Woods only 18 months previously to capture the Accenture World Match Play title, he wrote a letter to Clarke. And a second letter went to Clarke's manager Chubby Chandler, who arranged the get-together as a guest of another group at Pine Valley that weekend.

"They were lovely notes," said Chandler. "I received mine after the customary four or five days but Darren headed off to Japan and from there back to St Louis for the American Express Championship. So it was some time later before he got his."

Deeg Sezna began the sixth day of his new job on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Three days later, after the St Louis event was cancelled, Clarke returned home where the letter from his new-found young friend awaited him.

"His office was on the 104th floor of the World Trade Centre, so he never had a chance," said Clarke. "He thanked me for the game and looked forward to playing again. Of course he was dead by then, which was terrible, terrible. The letter was too moving for words."

These events had a profound effect on Clarke who, by his own admission, "lost a few people in the Troubles" in the North. One recalls the admirably positive manner in which he reacted to the Omagh bombing of August 1998 when, within a month, he had raised £375,000 for the relief fund by organising a one-day pro-am at Portmarnock Links.

"These atrocities are beyond comprehension," he said. "They crossed a moral boundary. What happened at home was absolutely terrible but thousands were killed on 9/11. Crazy, just crazy." All of which goes some way towards explaining his reaction to criticisms of over-indulgence in celebrating his Open triumph. "Look what happened in Norway, and people are concerned about whether or not I had one pint too many," he said with no attempt to hide his bafflement.

As it happened, the events of 9/11 told only half the tragedy which befell the Sezna family. It was all there, in a photograph of his favourite foursome which Davis Senior showed a friend two days after the Twin Towers came crashing down. As Michael Bamberger wrote movingly at the time in Sports Illustrated: "Three boys and their father, all in shorts, polo shorts and smiles, standing on the 14th tee at Seminole in North Palm Beach, Florida, the Atlantic Ocean behind them and nothing but years in front of them."

The father was on the far right, looking suitably proud. Turning to his friend, he started to identify his boys. "That's Willie next to me," he said. "He's a senior in high school; plays to a three (handicap). That's Deeg on the left. Between them, that's . . ." Words failed the 48-year-old.

Teddy, the youngest of the three boys, was only 15 when he died in a boating accident on the first Saturday of July in Millennium Year. Father and son were cruising in a 30-foot motor-boat when they collided with a steel pole. It took two hours for rescuers to find Teddy's body. Now, Davis Sezna had lost another son.

On September 11, Sezna Senior was playing golf at Pine Hill, a public course in southern New Jersey, just down the road from Pine Valley. Deeg, meanwhile, had arrived for work a little after 7.0am in a financial services company named Sandler O'Neill and Partners, in the South Tower of the World Trade Centre. Bamberger takes up the story: "Somebody pulled him (Deeg's father) off the course when the first plane smashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Centre. He was watching the terror unfold on TV when the second plane struck his son's building. 'I knew Deeg was on the 104th floor,' said the father. 'The plane hit, an hour passed, the building crumpled. A friend drove me home'."

He went on: "My father used to say 'A golfer is a gentleman'. I raised my sons to understand that. The first time I brought Deeg to the course, he was five. As we left, he said 'Was I a gentleman today, Daddy?'." On Wednesday, September 12, he went to the ruins of the World Trade Centre to search for his son. Now he was at home, struggling desperately to come to terms with the awful truth about Deeg, who had once got his golf handicap down to four.

When phoned by Tom Fazio, a fellow member of Pine Valley and familiar in these parts for his splendid upgrading of Waterville GC, the father said, almost in a cry of anguish: "They can rip off your arms and legs, Tom. You just don't want them taking your children."

Clarke learned of this double-tragedy and of the inevitable pressures it subsequently placed on his friend's marriage. "Playing with the Seznas was certainly one of the most remarkable things that has happened to me in golf," he said. "Imagine losing two sons. Poor man. Poor man.

"Since our first meeting, I've come to know him as a really good, genuine man and a terrific friend. I've been back to Pine Valley as his guest and I still hear from him all the time. So it came as no surprise when he got in touch after Majorca and again after Royal St George's. In fact, he texts me every time I play well or it could be to bring me up to speed on what's happening in his world."

And the message after Sandwich, where his name was inscribed on the trophy of all trophies? "Many congratulations. Fantastic win." As Clarke described it, simple and sincere. He went on: "I remember almost everybody who sent me a message, some of which were from as far away as Japan. Then there were my many South African friends and, of course, those in the US. It's been great. For my own part, I keep in touch by sending texts and, where appropriate, Christmas cards."

It is clear that Ireland's latest Open champion has great affection for Pine Valley and fully endorses its widely-held status as the best golf course in the world. "It's a wonderful course which I would describe as a golfer's paradise, like no other place you'll see," he said. "I've a lot of friends there and though I'm not a member, I would dearly like to become one at some time in the future."

Meanwhile, he now has the luxury of taking a more detached, objective view of a career which had its crowning glory two weeks ago. "Sometimes it's a wonderful game; sometimes it's a horrible game. And I've seen it from both sides."

Yet as Davis Sezna discovered, there are also circumstances when golf can be a precious link to sanity. "Who knows? He may be in Atlanta," said Clarke. "Perhaps I'll see him there."

Were it to happen, it would be a reunion of true golfing men who, in their different ways, have been visited by profound sadness since that carefree get-together by the Atlantic coast of New Jersey 10 years ago.

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