Faith Tanner grabbed a tissue on the way to the patio at Firestone Country Club and in hindsight one might not have been enough.
The memories of her husband, Larry, who died two years ago Monday, are still too fresh, his passing still too sudden, that she can’t recount it without tears.
They were supposed to be celebrating their ninth wedding anniversary on Tuesday. Instead she is traveling the country alone, living their dream of volunteering at 37 PGA Tour tournaments over 37 weeks without him.
It had been love at first sight. Faith and Larry Tanner were smitten with each other from the moment she walked up the front steps to appraise his summer home in Suttons Bay, Mich. The next day she’d called her son Robert Underhill III and told him she thought she’d met the man of her dreams, even though Larry was 14 years older. They married 18 months later.
It was the second marriage for both. Larry’s first wife had died. She’d been single for nine years when they met. Faith, now 56, reveled in the fact that she’d found a man who was so supportive and not intimidated by her.
“She’d had one serious boyfriend, but you could tell this was different,” Faith’s daughter Courtney Jolley of Camp Lejeune, N.C., said by telephone Friday. “You could tell when she talked about him how special it was. He made her a better person and she made him a better person. He softened her. She found a person who appreciated her. Their marriage was one I could look up to.”
They first volunteered at the Buick Open in Grand Blanc, Mich., and loved the experience, especially since Faith has always believed in giving back. She said being inside the ropes was addicting. Larry was an avid golfer and they sat together in front of the television watching tournaments Thursday through Sunday, Faith providing statistics gleaned from her smart phone. Their 37-tournament idea was scheduled for 2010 and Larry bought a 38-foot fifth-wheel trailer to take them on their journey.
But the Tanners’ fairy tale turned tragic after they volunteered at the 2008 Ryder Cup. When they returned from Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Ky., Faith noticed Larry didn’t seem himself.
She tried to explain away what she saw. Larry’s presidential candidate hadn’t won. The stock market crashed. He’d been forced to close his powder-coating business tied to the automotive industry and became her apprentice. His face changed, but that seemed natural as he aged. His behavior did, too. She documented four pages of details and faxed them to his doctor, who was not alarmed.
“The behavior change, any of those things would be enough to make you not yourself,” Tanner said.
It wasn’t until spring that friends noticed. It wasn’t until June that Larry’s best friend convinced him to give into Faith’s urgings and go to the emergency room.
An hour later they had the diagnosis — a frontal lobe brain tumor nearly the size of a softball. They had five days to say goodbye before surgery. The operation left him in a coma.
“I tell people my name is Faith, but I lost faith because I never prayed so hard in my life for my husband to come out of that coma,” she said.
Larry never did. He died six weeks later at age 68, during the Buick Open.
Keeping dream alive
As devastated as she was, Tanner couldn’t give up on their dream. So she created a website, http:/www.pgatourvolunteer.com, and crafted a mission statement about raising awareness of the importance of golf tournament volunteers, who enable events to donate money to local charities. Glenda Buchanan, administrator of Northern Ohio Golf Charities, estimated $1,000 per volunteer goes into their coffers from this week’s World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational.
“Sometimes I don’t know if I forced this, making it a mission,” Tanner said Thursday, taking a break from her duties in the media center. “I guess it was divine intervention. I wanted a tribute to my husband. … If I had waited, the significance to him wouldn’t mesh. It was time. I needed it.”
The Bridgestone is tournament No. 31 and Tanner has been home only once, detouring to Michigan on her way from the Byron Nelson in Irving, Texas, to Columbus for the Memorial Tournament. She’s put 26,000 miles on the new Honda Civic hybrid she’s nicknamed “Snowball,” driving to all but two events — the Hyundai Tournament of Champions at Kapalua, Maui, Hawaii and the Canadian Open in Vancouver. For those she flew standby because her stepdaughter, Marie Dorangrichia, is a flight attendant.
Tanner did not go to the British Open at Royal St. George’s in Sandwich, Kent, instead working the Viking Classic in Madison, Miss. She was disappointed that the Masters had no volunteer openings, so she stayed to help break down after the Shell Houston Open and arrived early to help set up at the Valero Texas Open in San Antonio.
She’s tried her hand at virtually everything except walking scorer, a position that filled up in a day and a half for this year’s Bridgestone. Other duties she’s performed include television liaison, marshal, shuttle driver and warehouse worker.
“I really like ShotLink, that’s an awesome job,” Tanner said. “I haven’t done standard-bearer yet. I’ll do that at the Barclays. Player transportation, I did that in Dallas. The fourth-largest airport in the country and I’m driving a player. I was on security [detail] at the 16th hole at Phoenix. Oh my God, that was crazy.”
Expenses add up
But the mission has been costly. In real estate since 1977, she took a sabbatical from her business. She cashed out some of her retirement, paying the penalty. She’s forked out over $2,000 for volunteer clothing. Underhill said his mother is selling personal items and getting by on $15 a day. He worries about the life she left behind.
“This is something she really wanted to do to honor Larry and kind of create herself as a woman,” Underhill said by telephone Friday. A liquor salesman, he and his wife, Chelsea, are living in the Tanners’ house to help out. “But three-quarters of the way through this thing I’m saying, ‘Mom, you’re selling your stuff. We want to make sure you eat and have a roof over your head.’ ”
To save money, Tanner stays with families in some cities, like this week’s hosts, John and Jane Gwinn of Kent. She looks for special rates at hotels and ones that offer free breakfasts and happy hour appetizers. Her main meal is lunch at the course. She doesn’t go out at night, largely for security reasons, retreating to her room to blog to keep her followers up to date.
“If I was a multimillionaire I might do it again,” she said. “My heart is healing, but it’s still lonely.”
Message from husband
There have been special moments to make the journey worthwhile. One of the best came at the Northern Trust Open in Pacific Palisades, Calif., where former Los Angeles Lakers general manager and current Golden State Warriors adviser Jerry West is the tournament director.
A bronze statue of West was being unveiled at Riviera Country Club and Magic Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal were among the stars in attendance. But West learned of Tanner and stopped to have his picture taken with her.
“After the photograph he turned and put his hand on my shoulder,” Tanner said. “This was my seventh tournament, so I’m questioning myself. He said, ‘I know your husband is really proud of what you’re trying to accomplish.’ He was so kind. I took that as a message from my husband. It was an awesome thing.”
Tanner’s story will also be included today in a PGA Tour charity special Playing with a Purpose airing at 1 p.m. on CBS.
No regrets about journey
Tanner has six more events before she can sleep in her own bed. Even with the financial strain, she has no regrets. But she still longs for Larry’s companionship.
“Having somebody with me would be nice,” she said. “I was mad at Larry on the day he died for not being there. I stopped at a national park and God showed me things in nature. I was fighting the current. I’ve got to flow with the current.”