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State Of Grace
Michael Bamberger
February 11, 2002
Jeff Julian had the time of his life playing in the Pebble Beach Pro-Am, even though he has been handed a death sentence
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February 11, 2002

State Of Grace

Jeff Julian had the time of his life playing in the Pebble Beach Pro-Am, even though he has been handed a death sentence

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A few weeks ago, after all the testing was over—when the doctors were finally done poking him with needles and making him lie down in an MRI coffin-chamber and asking him to fill tubes with various bodily fluids—touring pro Jeff Julian decided to get on with his life. He went to Jacksonville with his golf buddies to try to prepare for the new season. Coming off the 15th green one day, somebody cracked a joke. The whole foursome laughed. By the time they reached the 16th tee, only Julian was still laughing. He couldn't stop. That's what happens with this damn disease, ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the disease that killed Lou Gehrig and everyone else who has ever had it. The victim's brain can't tell his muscles what to do, and the next thing he knows, he can't stop laughing.

Don't think, The poor bastard. No, that's not it at all. Julian is not a poor bastard. He was playing Pebble Beach last week. He was plying his trade, with winner Matt Gogel and 175 other pros in the AT&T National Pro-Am, which Julian got into on a sponsor's exemption. He was making new friends by day, taking golf swings on the beach at dusk, drinking Joullian wine and eating heartily at night. He was all over the Monterey Peninsula, having the time of his life. You're thinking, Yes, but he's playing with a death sentence hanging over his head. His response: We all have death sentences hanging over our heads. The important question is, What are we going to do in the meantime?

The movie of Julian's career highlights is a short, not that that matters much. He's 40, has played in 52 PGA Tour events and has made the cut in 15 of them. His best finish—so far—is a 16th, in the 1996 Buick Classic at Westchester. He won the Dominion Open on the Nike tour in '97 and a handful of smaller events throughout New England, where his ancestors have lived for generations. There's the family farm in Norwich, Vt., to which Jeff regularly returns. His father's father was Alvin (Doggie) Julian, the basketball Hall of Famer who coached the Celtics, Dartmouth and Holy Cross, leading Bob Cousy and the Crusaders to the NCAA title in 1947.

Jeff made it to the Tour on athletic skill alone. His swing is homemade, rooted in rhythm and touch, not in mechanics. Don't ask him where the practice tee is. After dropping out of Clemson in 1982, following his junior year, he spent most of a decade playing golf by day and tending bar by night. He was, he says with pride, "a golf bum." He still is. Last year he played in 22 Tour events, most of them with his wife, Kimberly, on the bag, and made six cuts and $55,132, finishing in 211th place on the money list. He earned more than he spent, which by the standards of the golf bum constitutes a good year. Learning he had ALS, well, that's another matter.

You've never seen a more loving couple than Kimberly and Jeff. He wears a ring, a gift from her, that's engraved, in Hebrew, with the words, I AM TO MY BELOVED AS MY BELOVED IS TO ME. They kiss after birdies, after bogeys, after sips of wine, after she makes a wrong turn. It's as if they're still on their honeymoon, and in a way they are.

They met on Aug. 12, 2000, a Saturday. An opera could be written about that day. Julian woke up at a friend's house that morning, having missed the cut in the Ozarks Open, a tour event in Springfield, Mo. Later that day he received a call from his father, Toby: Jeff's mother, Nancy, had died of a heart attack in her sleep. She was 66. There were no flights out until Sunday morning, so that night Jeff, not a brooder, went to a tournament party at the course. Kimberly Youngblood went too, dragged there by a friend. He admired her French-manicured toes. She admired his hands-as-wings dancing style, which made him look as if he had dropped in from a Grateful Dead concert. They both had young sons, she from a previous marriage, he from a previous relationship. The attraction was mutual, immediate, intense, inexplicable.

Jeff called Kimberly the following Thursday night, hours after he'd buried his mother. That weekend Jeff made his way to Branson, Mo., where Kimberly, 31, has lived for most of her life, since long before the town became home to Andy Williams, the Lawrence Welk Theater and comedian Yacob Smirnoff, the Russian �migr� who parlayed a single line—"vhat a contree"—into a career. Julian came to one of Smirnoff's matinees not to see the comedian as much as his Statue of Liberty, played by Kimberly, a role she performed twice a day, 150 days a year, for three years.

Six months later, on Feb. 13, 2001, they made a trip to the Norwich town hall to get a sticker for the dump and wound up with a marriage license instead. Two days later they were married by a justice of the peace at Jeff's mother's grave.

Over the course of last summer and early fall Jeff noticed that his speech was slightly slurred and that he was having trouble swallowing. He also had a persistent pain in his neck. Kim and Jeff went to various places for various tests. On Oct. 8, at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, they received the diagnosis. The doctor said, "Do you need a moment?" Jeff and Kimberly barely heard her, their sobs so filled her sterile little office. Then they cleaned up, threw water on their faces and decided to get on with the rest of their lives. They have not become experts in the disease, which afflicts roughly one in 100,000 people, a disease for which nobody knows the cause or the cure. Kim and Jeff figure whatever will happen will happen. They have insurance, through the Tour, until April 2003. Jeff's plan is to play as much tournament golf as he can for as long as he can, to bring attention to a mysterious disease, to continue to fulfill his boyhood dream. He has the complete support of his family. "Jeff should do whatever the hell he wants," one of his five sisters, Kathy, said last week at Pebble Beach.

Nothing can prepare you for what it's like to be in Julian's company. If you heard him being interviewed on TV last week, you know his speech is labored and slurred (although he expresses himself with great precision). If you read newspaper stories about him, you know his strength has been diminished by his disease and that Callaway has put lightweight graphite shafts in his clubs to lighten his workload. Then you find yourself beside him, watching him eat or hit a golf ball or walk arm in arm with Kimberly, and you're bowled over. He won't let you treat him as if he's sick and dying. Maybe that's denial, but if it is, so what? He exudes a spirit that's overwhelming. Every time he made a birdie last week—he had 11 of them in his 54 holes while shooting rounds of 77,78 and 74—you felt his joy. It was as if golf suddenly had a higher purpose.

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