The last time I walked a golf course with my brother, Tim, was in April 2019, at Augusta National Golf Club. I’ve been to sports halls of fame. I’ve seen the Grand Canyon. I visited the 38th Parallel with my Korean mother and listened to North Korean propaganda across a loudspeaker. But none of those memories will be the ones I see in my own final minutes on earth. It’ll be of my brother and me walking along the hills of what had once been a pecan farm, marveling at the scale of the landscape, the degree to which television cameras hide the contours of its greens and how we walked each hole in our own time and our own pace, oblivious to the golf being played, wrestling with whether I would ever find myself with him there again.

I came to golf late and came to it as I have nearly everything in my life: by following Tim. He took it up in graduate school after an ankle injury derailed his pickup-hoops career. The first time we played together was at the Mississippi State University Golf Course. My only real memory of our round is that on a par-3 that asked you to carry water, my ball went straight into the pond and I let out a stream of words and expletives that defied all coherent syntax. I had not hit a single golf shot all day, and this was my breaking point. After my tirade, Tim turned to our playing partners — his graduate school colleague and his graduate advisor — and said, “Golf is so hard it makes Mike make up cuss words.”

I wouldn’t say I was hooked on the game after that round. But what I was hooked on, had always been hooked on, was spending time with my brother. He is older than me, and the family story is that he asked for a little brother for his birthday. Five days before he turned six, I was born. He showed up to the hospital well after visiting hours were over dressed in his church clothes and his hair combed. My mother told the nurses, “He’s so excited to see his little brother, can you please let him in?” They relented, and when he walked in, Mom said, “You asked for him; now you have to help raise him.”

The Croley brothers, Tim, left, and Michael.

Tim never once made me feel like he was embarrassed to have me tag along. His coaches called me his shadow because I attended all his games and his practices, walking one step behind him into the locker room, and sitting behind the bench or in the dugout when I was allowed. I might have declared that Larry Bird was my favorite basketball player when I was a kid (he was Tim’s, after all) but really it was my brother.

He taught me how to shoot and use my body in the low post. He came to my Little League practices and pitched BP, waiting until it was my turn to throw his hardest to toughen me up. After being assigned the position of catcher, my coaches gave me the gear to take home. Once there, Tim made me put it all on — shin guards, face mask, chest protector, my cup — and took me out to our front yard with a bucket of baseballs. “Close your eyes,” he said. Then he started chucking them (and a few lacrosse balls a college roommate gave him) at me until I wasn’t afraid to take one off the chest.

When he was in high school, I sat in the back of the car while he and his friends drove circles around the Trademart Shopping Center, “cruising” past the best retail our small town had to offer. Being friends with my brother, I think now, meant that his little brother was part of the deal. I hated when he was gone or when I couldn’t tag along to sleepovers. I was 11 when he left for college. I cried that first night — after having giddily moved into his larger room, of course.

So, if Tim was going to play golf, then I guessed I was going to have to figure out this game, too. That got a little easier when shortly after I graduated college and I quit my first job, Tim offered to let me live with him in Richmond, Va. In a way, we were starting over together. Tim had left academia behind for the public sector, and I was trying my best to become a writer. We joined a gym that had a basketball court, so we had hoops, but there were plenty of golf courses in the area, and Tim, with his athletic self-taught swing, had worked his way down to a single digit handicap.

Sometimes Tim hit a ball so high and true that the strangers we were paired with shook their heads in disbelief.

His drives in those days averaged just short of 300 yards and his irons sent the ball off with such velocity they whistled through the air. Sometimes he hit a ball so high and true that the strangers we were paired with shook their heads in disbelief. As when we were boys, I felt more than a tinge of pride at my brother’s ability.

As for me, I was beyond terrible. But we had always competed against each other, and I got a great thrill out of beating my brother at anything, which was rare. My parents bought me a set of clubs as a birthday present and Tim and I started playing every week. As when we were kids, Tim showed the way. Unlike when we were kids and I picked up everything he said and executed it immediately, I struggled with golf. A friend once said that it was a testament to my athletic ability that I was even able to hit a golf ball with my compact, jackrabbit-tempo swing. I have always wanted to be able to hit the ball like my brother, but I just can’t. Yet whatever errors of execution I made back in Richmond have all but faded from my memory.

What I remember these days are the times my brother and I were the last ones coming up 18, the parking lot empty, the sun fighting to stay in the sky, the clouds filled with pink and peach. I see my brother putting in the twilight, and I feel the dew filling the air, making our bags heavier.

Our rounds aside, the two years we lived together were some of my most miserable as I floundered as a writer and struggled to find steady work. Tim came home one day and told me if I wanted to be a writer then all I needed to do was write. He’d cover our bills. So that’s what I did. I wrote. And I wrote. None of it was much good then, but I didn’t stop. When the weekends came, he and I drove to a course and I watched him murder golf balls. I have often wished I appreciated those times more than I did, and I appreciated them a lot.

In the spring of 2003, I left for my own graduate program, though I should have stayed in Richmond and gotten in another summer of golf with Tim. He was dating a woman who would become his wife, and it seemed like a good time to clear out, to let him and Callie not have to deal with a little brother hanging around. Graduate school was in Tallahassee, which meant golf year-round, a $5 student rate and an empty course on Saturday afternoons in the fall. I played almost as much as I wrote. I took lessons and called Tim after everyone. I updated him on my progress, which always involved this phrase. “I figured some stuff out today.” One day, after a range session, before I could say anything about it, Tim said, “Let me guess, you figured some shit out today?” We both laughed.

The author, right, with his brother, Tim.

Like Tim, I threw myself into golf. I guess, because it was hard, and I wanted to be better. But I understand now I did it just as much, if not more, out of my love for him. All those times I played by myself or hit balls or took a lesson was because I wanted to be ready to play with Tim the next time I saw him.

Before my wife and I had kids, I played golf nearly every day in the summer. She used to ask, “Who’re you playing with?” My answer was always the same. “No one, if I can help it.” Golf, for me, like writing, is a solitary pursuit but with an asterisk. I’ll always choose playing with my brother over playing by myself.

The last few years my summer rounds have been in preparation for our annual fall trip to Pinehurst, N.C. In 2017, leading up to my 40th birthday, I took lessons weekly for two months. I wanted this to be my best year ever because we were finally going to play No. 2, and it would be our last round of the weekend, on Sunday afternoon.

I threw myself into golf. I guess, because it was hard, and I wanted to be better. But I see now I did it just as much, if not more, out of my love for Tim.

I played miserably for three days leading up to Sunday, including a near-whiff on the first tee shot of the trip. My morning round at Pine Needles had not gone well and though I was excited about seeing No. 2 for the first time, I was wary of how I would play.

After we settled up in the pro shop, I took my spot on the range beside Tim and our two friends, Rob and Skip. I started striping irons like I never had before. I was hitting the ball a full club farther, compressing it almost like Tim always did. My confidence grew but stepping onto the 1st tee, I was still nervous. No. 2 was a reach for us financially, something I had not believed might ever be possible. I wanted desperately to play well.

Everyone else hit their drives wayward. Mine found the middle of the fairway, and my next shot found the green. On paper, I was the worst player of the group, but on that day, I killed it, shooting the round of my life with my brother beside me nearly every step of the way. I tried to slow my walk. I tried to remember every tee shot and putt. I tried to hold that cloudless blue sky in my mind forever.

The sandy goodness of Pinehurst No. 2.

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You can’t bring your phone with you into Augusta, so there are no pictures of Tim and me at its entrance. No selfies of us enjoying a peach ice-cream sandwich or the mobs of people in the merchandise pavilion. We weren’t there for the Masters, but instead for the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur. Securing tickets to this event was no small feat, but when Tim was diagnosed with lung cancer, nearly a year to the day after my magical round at Pinehurst No. 2, time started to become time and not an abstract concept.

In the pavilion, Tim bought a green cashmere sweater. He put on his usual size of XL and it hung off him. To anyone else he wouldn’t have looked sick, but I saw it in his thin cheeks, this new pensiveness in his movements. Out on the course, I watched him walk up and down those steep inclines and his calves were still sharp and toned. I thought about how they once propelled him high enough to dunk a basketball and how they now labored to get him up and down this sculpted and perfect terrain.

When I asked if he needed to stop, he said no. We walked every hole of the course we had watched for years on television. We paused at the greens, pointing out features, both of us part of that sect of golfers that studies the architecture of great courses almost as much as we study our swings.

The Croley brothers were indoctrinated to Augusta National at the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur.

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By the 18th green we stopped and looked back down the fairway, toward the tee box. We looked all around us. The crowds were dispersing and heading to wherever they needed to be. We were going to drive north to Pinehurst that night to play a round in the morning before driving farther north to my brother’s home outside Annapolis.

My brother is not ceremonial. Like our father, he’s unemotional. But I felt some satisfaction when he told me, “This is pretty f—ing cool.” Months later, after an extended stay in the hospital due to pancreatitis, which required surgery, I visited him at his home and the trip to Augusta came up. He said, “We walked every hole of that course. God, I’m f—ing tough.”

If toughness was all it took, my brother would be cancer-free.

I have not played much golf since that round in 2017 and even less since that walk around Augusta with Tim. The times I have played, I’ve not felt like myself. Though the rounds were head clearing in one way, they were head clouding in others. Golf has always reminded me of Tim, and when I’m out there now, I think about all the rounds we played that weren’t magical, that were simply ordinary, and I played poorly and sulked and cussed.

Lately, I’ve told my wife that if the worst comes to pass, I’m not sure I’ll play golf anymore. She tries to tell me that our family will play together. Our daughter and son and her. I can see us out there. I can see my children holding the clubs, striking the ball. I can even envision the laughter and joy, the fading of the sun behind a mountain, the striated clouds ablaze with its rich light. I can see that future, but I can’t let myself consider one where I’m not able to call my brother to tell him about my range session or the rare darts I’ve fired at a par-3. If Tim is not there, who will show me the way? Whom will I follow?

When you approach the 1st tee at Augusta National the tall pines and the gleaming grass cause a swelling inside you because the scene is more than you even imagined once you see it in person. From the apex of the hill, where the clubhouse sits, I stood with my brother and looked at that marvelous land, wondering what had taken us so long to make ourselves come here and what we had been waiting on. I knew it wasn’t just that we thought we had time, but it was our sense of frugality and how we, or least I, had anticipated there would be a day when we could afford the expense with ease.

Even if my brother were perfectly healthy there wouldn’t be enough time to tell him how thankful I am.

My father told me once when Tim and I were fighting, “You two need each other. You’re more than brothers.” Tim and I have not wasted our years together and, in fact, sometimes when I consider how much he gave me as a boy and a young man, I feel that even if he were perfectly healthy there wouldn’t be enough time to tell him how thankful I am. Our parents raised us and provided for us. But my brother, my brother took my mother’s charge in the hospital to heart. Whatever I am as a man has as much to do with him as them.

This past summer, Tim had another extended hospital visit after having had a good winter and spring. He had even returned to playing golf before his health took another nosedive. But he came home, and he started improving. Everything feels stable, for now. But long before this pandemic took hold of the world I was learning to live with the fragility of life, the way in which what, and who, we love can move so quickly underfoot.

My brother’s medicine is keeping his cancer at bay. He is working again (from home) and the other night we laughed on the phone for so long I forgot for a few moments he was sick. We talked about our kids. We talked about the playoffs. We talked about the things we have always talked about, including golf. The calls or texts now include health updates, which are positive and trending upward. He’s not at the point where I’m ready to book our next golf trip, but I can begin to dream of one again and it includes a hill in Georgia with a cathedral of pines that sway in the breeze.

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