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For one Stoneman Douglas student, the Honda Classic — and an exchange with Justin Thomas — provided a fleeting moment of relief

February 26, 2018

Evan Kuperman, a 16-year-old high school sophomore, didn’t plan on attending the Friday round of the Honda Classic. But he’s a golf nut, his school was closed and a friend was offering a lift, so there he was, hatless in the sunshine, watching two of his golfing heroes, Tiger Woods and Justin Thomas.

On the 12th tee, or maybe the 13th (Evan was not sure which), he thought he saw Thomas’s caddie, Jimmy Johnson, looking his way. He figured the caddie had noticed his shirt, as others had that day. Evan was wearing a silver-and-white striped Under Armour polyester golf shirt with an eagle with a burgundy beak sewn on its left chest, along with the words STONEMAN DOUGLAS GOLF. 

Evan plays golf for Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Fla., about 50 miles south of PGA National, site of the Honda Classic. Stoneman Douglas. The school’s mascot is the eagle and its colors are burgundy and silver. The school name, tragically, is now part of our national shorthand, along with Columbine and Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech. Who among us is not rooting for the Eagles now? It breaks your heart, just thinking about the senseless violence that made the school so famous. Seventeen lost lives. The multiplier effect of it all is incalculable. 

The caddie, as Evan saw it, said something to his boss and then Thomas, only 24 years old himself, looked at Evan, pointed a golf ball in his direction and made a 20-foot across-the-tee underhand toss to him. Evan, a third baseman in his Little League days, caught it effortlessly. He was now the proud owner a shiny Titleist Pro V1x with a black alignment line on it and four hand-marked red dots, Thomas’s personal golf-ball crest. What a thing for Evan to have, straight from the reigning PGA champion. A game ball. He could see the scratches on it.

The Valentine’s Day tragedy at Stoneman Douglas will mark Evan for the rest of his life. He’s already figured that out. His older sister, Lauren, 17, a senior at the school, was in the same building where Nikolas Cruz went on the shooting rampage that ended lives in mid-sentence but also turned suburban South Florida teenagers into national figures on the issue of gun control. Evan was in another building. Their little sister, Rachel, a 14-year-old freshman, was in a third building. There were 90 or so long minutes when Evan and scores of his classmates were in a confusing lockdown in a school auditorium during which he was unable to reach his sisters. “You’re worried for your life,” he told me, recreating the moment. “Your life, your sisters’ lives, the lives of your teammates, your friends, your teachers.” [image:14080458]

Stoneman Douglas is on a sprawling campus with multiple buildings, big parking lots, playing fields. It serves more than 3,000 students. It’s like a village. “It’s a situation you don’t prepare for,” Evan said. How could you? He was just another kid at a big public high school that day, a kid hoping to make grades high enough and golf scores low enough to someday, about two years from now, receive an email from the University of Florida admissions office with some good news in it.

The shooting started at 2:21 p.m. By 5 p.m., the Kuperman family — the three children and their parents, Craig and Sheri — were reunited at home. The message from the parents was as plain as a parental message could be: “We love you. We’re glad you’re safe.” Nobody wanted dinner. “We were all sick to our stomachs,” Evan said. 

When the dreaded list with 17 names on it became public, the Kuperman kids realized they knew all of them, some directly, others more distantly. (Village life.) None of Evan’s teammates from the golf squad was among the dead, but there was one painful golf connection. Evan didn’t know Cara Loughran, a 14-year-old freshman who was one of the victims. But in time he learned that her father, Damien Loughran, is the course superintendent at Eagle Trace and its sister course, Heron Bay. In Damien’s faint brogue, you can still hear his Irish roots. He’s a course super from the old tradition, tending to his courses not from an office but on foot, or from the seat of a tractor. He’s a greenkeeper.

The Stoneman Douglas golf teams — one for girls, one for boys — play at Eagle Trace, where the Honda Classic was held from 1984 to 1991 and again in 1996. The tournament was played at Heron Bay from 1997 to 2002. Cara’s older brother, Liam, 17, also attends Stoneman Douglas, but was not part of the shooting, not directly. Indirectly, of course, is another matter.

“Eagle Trace is a tough course,” Evan told me. “It’s got some history. Jack Nicklaus played in the Honda there. There are tournament photos on the wall.” Lexi Thompson’s parents live on the course and late one afternoon, from a safe distance, Evan watched as Lexi, working with her father, hit about 50 pitch shots on the empty 12th fairway.

Evan turned 16 on Jan. 21, the day Jack Nicklaus turned 78. Through age 12, Evan was consumed with baseball. At 13, he became a fisherman. (The theme for his bar mitzvah party was “Evan’s Salt Life.” Guests got little fishing rods as parting gifts.) Then, at 14, with another friend who had tired of travel baseball, Evan turned to golf. He can break 80 most days, pencil in hand. (He shot 75-76 in one South Florida 36-hole junior event.) His father is an owner of Orange Theory fitness franchises and Evan is the picture of fitness himself, a strong, slender kid with a subdued manner, more subdued since Valentine’s Day. 

He told me, in a matter-of-fact way, that he was one of the better students in his class and that math, particularly, came easily to him. He reeled off his long, deep schedule. He speaks in full, direct sentences. When he tried to describe an indescribable emotion related to the afternoon of Feb. 14, he said, “I know you’ve heard this before, but there really are no words.” 

Evan attended the public forum hosted by CNN on Feb. 21, the Wednesday of Honda week. He went to the event, at an arena in Broward County, and sat in front practically on the stage. He heard his fellow students and Stoneman Douglas parents take on Marco Rubio, the Florida senator, and Dana Loesch, the NRA spokesperson. 

He is not political by nature but he was lockstep with his fellow Eagles. “I’m not a gun person, not at all — nobody in my family is,” he said. He’s totally opposed to the idea of arming teachers. “Why would you want to add more guns into the equation?” he asked rhetorically. He would like to see radical changes in American gun laws, but he doesn’t see it as his fight. “I think I’ll stick to golf,” he said.

He tried to play in one one-day tournament since the shooting, but walked off after nine holes. His head wasn’t in it. The range is different. He finds solace there. He finds himself not really working on anything, but the feeling of hitting balls is a good one.

Evan and a friend — a former Eagle teammate, Chasen Thuraisingham, who graduated from Stoneman Douglas last June and now plays on the Keiser University team — left Parkland at 10 a.m. on the Friday of the Honda, parked in one of the remote lots, and were following Woods and Thomas by early afternoon.

Evan had never seen Woods in person before. He knows Tiger’s career by way of YouTube videos. “Watching them changed the way I play,” Evan said. “He pumps his fists and the crowds go crazy. Those fist pumps show you his passion.” He tries to find that passion in his own play. “He’s a lot bigger in person,” Evan said. “Not in height. In presence. The crowds around him, he’s like a magnet.”

As for Thomas’s professional career, Evan has caught that in real time. Evan got snarled in the game’s web just as Thomas was starting his ascent to golf’s highest ranks. Thomas’s first Tour wins, his first Presidents Cup team, his first major title — Evan has watched it all unfold. Then, on the Friday of the Honda tournament, on the 12th or 13th tee, Thomas tossed his Titleist to the kid.[image:14080457]

I asked Evan if he planned to use the ball.

“Definitely not,” he said.

After his third-round 65, Thomas came into a small banquet room off the main lobby of the large resort hotel at PGA National, a room that had been repurposed as an interview room for the tournament. On Sunday, Thomas would be in the day’s final twosome, looking for his eighth Tour win. He answered questions from reporters for 10 minutes or so. He’s a pro at it. When the session was over, I approached Thomas and asked him if he could possibly remember tossing a ball to a kid on the 12th or 13th tee of his Friday round.

“I do,” he said. “It was on 13. I was done with that ball and I like to give them away when I take them out of play. I saw him standing there and I tossed it to him.”

“Did Jimmy tell you anything about the kid?” I asked, referring to Jimmy Johnson, Thomas’s caddie.

“No, I just saw him standing there.”

“So you didn’t see his shirt?”

He hadn’t.

I took a moment to tell Thomas about Evan, how he was on the Stoneman Douglas golf team, how he and his sisters were at school during the shooting. I told him, as efficiently as I could, what the ball meant to Evan, and about his dreams of playing college golf. It was amazing, watching Thomas’s face through this. It was like he was a million miles away from the Honda Classic, even though he was at the very epicenter of the tournament.

“That’s incredible,” Thomas said. “It just makes you feel good to know you could do a little something that would mean something to another person. Thank you for sharing that.”

He was wearing a Titleist hat with a burgundy and silver tribute ribbon pinned to it, as many of the players were. Stoneman Douglas strong.

I told Evan, by text, about my exchange with Thomas, and he wrote back, “Wow.”

On Sunday, when Thomas won in a playoff, Evan was at the course. He was wearing a Stoneman Douglas Golf shirt but otherwise he was just another face in the crowd. He celebrated Thomas’s win with a fist bump to his old teammate Chasen and a round of applause, lost for a moment in the game and its magic.

Michael Bamberger may be reached at mbamberger0224@aol.com.