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To Honor The Father
June 19, 2006
Coal miner Terry Helms always wanted a better life for his son, Nick. But it took Terry's death in the Sago mine cave-in to allow Nick to act on his dream of becoming a pro golfer
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June 19, 2006

To Honor The Father

Coal miner Terry Helms always wanted a better life for his son, Nick. But it took Terry's death in the Sago mine cave-in to allow Nick to act on his dream of becoming a pro golfer

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Which Nick did, settling in Myrtle Beach with his girlfriend, Kristen Sauro. He pulled his own weight, as they say in the mines, working small jobs to pay down his substantial debts and finance the $20,000 he needed for golf school. "I can make the pro tour," he says, even though he is a seven handicapper. "I have the game. I only need a little bit of help, like everybody else. The big difference between Tiger Woods and me is opportunity. He got a chance to start playing at a younger age than I did."

Helms reckons that all he needs is a year or so of instruction and six to eight hours a day on the course. "Once I get down to scratch, it'll all be course management," he says with unshakable certainty. "By the time I'm 35 I'll be pretty much set. I'm not saying I'll go out there and win the Masters the first time out, but, hey, who knows?"

To those who suggest that 26 is a bit old to embark on a career in pro golf, Helms, whose birthday was on June 3, says, "Anybody who tells me it's too late, that's an ignorant opinion. They don't have my drive."

That drive, he says, comes from Terry. "Dad always said you get what you work for," Nick says. "If you don't have what you want, you didn't work hard enough for it."

Nick has had to work hard for just about everything in his life. "It's been tough for him since the very beginning," says his mother, Mary. "He was a tornado baby." Nick was born two months premature during a terrible tornado and was delivered in the dark. He was placed in a neonatal unit, where for days he was tubed and suctioned. "His lungs weren't developed," Mary recalls. "The doctors didn't think he'd make it. At two weeks Nick's heart stopped beating and he actually died in my arms."

He was revived, but not relieved. "Nick cried for a whole year," Mary says. "I thought he hated me and didn't want me as his mother." The problem turned out to be a staph infection that raged through his right side. The damage was discovered during exploratory hip surgery when Nick was a year old; he subsequently spent about six months in a full body cast. "His legs were at right angles to his torso and bent at the knees," Mary says. "He looked like a goalpost." The infection left Nick's right leg an inch shorter than his left and accounts for his lopsided gait.

Born in Morgantown, Nick lived for five years in a trailer in Tunnelton, a snip of a village named for its location at the eastern end of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad tunnel, once the longest in the world. Eventually his parents built a house in Newburg, a hardscrabble town in which people die at home with their families around them or in the mine with the mountain fallen on them. "We weren't poor and we weren't rich," Nick says. "We had what we needed."

The Appalachian coalfields run from the West Virginia panhandle down through Kentucky, and nowhere underground is the life of a miner easy. "It's good money," says Nick, "but awful work." Terry had wanted to be a forest ranger, but he had a family to support. He began harvesting coal at 18 and stayed at it for 32 years. "Dad never said anything about how dangerous his job was," says Nick. "He downplayed everything."

Perhaps that explains why Nick downplays his infirmities. Hobbled and unable to raise his right arm above his head, he still played baseball and basketball, and tried to play football. "My physical problems don't matter," he says. "They've never mattered. You do what you have to do."

He picked up golf at 14. One day his grandfather Francis Barlow drove him to the Paradise Lake course near Morgantown and handed him a club. "I started beatin' it and got hooked," Nick says. He practiced every day, often with his father, who was such an ardent hacker that he'd play nine holes after a long shift in the mine. "I'd practice regardless of the weather," Nick says. "Me and Dad once played in a downpour for three hours. Sleet, snow--it didn't matter if the sky was black. It just didn't matter."

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