Marc Leishman Wins 2020 Farmers Insurance Open, As Kobe Bryant Tragedy Unfolds Two Hours North

Marc Leishman (L) Won The Farmer's Insurance Open Just A Short Distance From Where NBA Legend Kobe Bryant And His Daughter Tragically Died In A Helicopter Crash - Images Courtesy Wikimedia

By Alfie Lau

Aussie Marc Leishman came from four strokes behind third-round leader Jon Rahm to win the 2020 Farmers Insurance Open on Sunday. Leishman carded a final round (-7) 65 to nip Rahm by one. Rahm had a dreadful start, but pulled himself back into contention and even had an eagle putt to force a playoff, but unlike three years ago when he dropped a bomb from the back of the 18th green to win his first PGA TOUR event, he couldn’t replicate history.

But in the grand scheme of life, this win, and golf, doesn’t really mean all that much. Two hours to the north of Torrey Pines, a helicopter crashed, killing all five people on board (since updated to nine fatalities -ed).

I first heard about this tragedy at 11:41 a.m. after I returned to the Farmers Insurance Open media centre after following Rahm, Rory McIlroy and Ryan Palmer for their first five holes. 

Since all three golfers were having a tough round, and the on-course scoreboards were showing that Leishman had started to take control of the tournament, I had to regroup and figure out where I would catch up to Leishman and his group which also included Tony Finau and Tyler McCumber.

As I opened up my computer to check out the PGA TOUR website and Twitter, I saw the first report, from TMZ, of NBA legend Kobe Bryant dying in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, two hours north of San Diego. I looked around at media colleagues and quietly asked what they knew and their collective looks of shock told me I was breaking some terrible news to them. I cautioned that only one source, TMZ, was reporting the death at that moment, so we could always hope they were wrong.

But past history has shown TMZ is most often first and right about celebrity deaths, including Michael Jackson and Natasha Richardson. As the minutes went by and more media organizations were working their sources, it became clear that a Southern California legend was indeed dead. The local ABC affiliate, ESPN and then the LA Times all confirmed the tragic news and in this wired world of ours, news started filtering all throughout the golf course.

The same emotions I had seen earlier, shock, disbelief, profound sadness, became the norm and there was really no right way to process the news. Should we continue covering golf as we normally would, or should we start working on stories about how fans of all sorts process grief and collectively mourn?

Word got out quickly to Tiger Woods’ caddy Joe LaCava via the PGA TOUR’s Dennis Paulson. But Woods would not learn about Bryant’s death until after he finished his round approximately three hours later. “I just heard of it from Joey when we were coming off the 18th green,” said a visibly shaken Woods. “I didn’t understand why they were yelling ‘Do it for Mamba’ on the front nine.

“I grew up a die-hard Laker fan, always have been my entire life . . . Ultimate toughness, ultimate competitor, and one of the most shocking, tragic days that I’ve ever been a part of.”

Woods said he and Bryant had a good relationship. “We were closer when he was probably playing and I had a home in Newport and we would work out together and hang a little bit, but when I sold that house and lived full time in Florida, I didn’t really see him that often. But every now and again, he would reach out, I would reach out to him. But this is unbelievable.”

What makes all of this relevant to golf is something Rory McIlroy mentioned in passing Saturday night when asked about a potential new World Golf Series of 10 to 18 events. We won’t weigh in on how that proposal may or may not unfold, but McIlroy insightfully noted that golf isn’t just about golf or about sport.

“The way golf at the highest level is nowadays and how it’s sort of transitioned from, you know, a competition tour to entertainment,” McIlroy said, is why Bryant’s sudden and tragic death is so intertwined with this tournament.

Here in Southern California, entertainment is king and you need look no further than the Staples Center, where Bryant plied his trade and helped the Los Angeles Lakers win 5 NBA titles. It is scheduled to host the 2020 Grammy Awards on Sunday night, but by Sunday afternoon, it was fast becoming a gathering place and shrine for Kobe fans to grieve and pay their respects.

Look how the sports and entertainment world grieved for Bryant: The NBA did not postpone their Sunday games, but the Toronto Raptors and San Antonio Spurs found a way to honour Bryant by each taking 24 second shot clock violations to start the game. (Bryant wore 24 for most of his career).

Brazilian soccer superstar Neymar scored for his French club team and paid tribute to the basketball superstar. At the NFL Pro Bowl in Orlando, FLA, the commentators could barely hold it together and the players all but tried to play straight time with runs up the middle to just get this darned exhibition game over with.

I can’t say I was, or am, the biggest Kobe or NBA fan, for that matter, but how can you not grieve for the loss of five (sic) lives, including Kobe and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna Maria? How can you not want to hug your loved ones just a little bit tighter and think of how we all have just one life to live, so if there’s something you’ve always meant to do, but just haven’t gotten around to, what is stopping you?

Death is sobering and it should also be thought provoking, and Bryant’s death is a reminder that life goes by fast, can end quickly and most of the time, you don’t get second chances, so go and live life to the fullest.