Saturday, September 25, 1999

Bland's pain easing

Overcoming loss of wife, brother

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        MASON — The phone rings. It is John Bland's son, beckoning his father home to South Africa. “Mommy isn't very well,” he says.

        It is July 1998. Bland is at the U.S. Senior Open in Pacific Palisades, Calif. He leaves right away. “I got home on Friday,” he said. “By Monday she was gone.” His wife of three decades, Helen, died from kidney failure. All so sudden.

        This summer, the pain was subsiding some. Close to a year had passed.

        “I got a call again,” Bland said. “I was just getting over everything.”

        One of his brothers called. Roy, another brother who had caddied for John since he joined the Senior PGA Tour in 1995, was ill. “Something went wrong inside. They couldn't stop the bleeding,” Bland said.

        Two of the people closest to him had died within a year.

        “There's this great void,” he said. “You don't know what's going on.”

        Bland finished Friday — the first day of play at the Kroger Senior Classic — with a 3-under-par 67, tied with four players for second place, just one shot behind leaders Jimmy Powell and Jim Colbert. Bland almost had a share of the lead; his birdie putt from about 8 feet on No.18 stopped just on the lip of the cup and refused to budge.

        “I wanted to get that one,” he said. “Ninety percent of the field birdied 18 today.”

        Bland, who turned 54 on Wednesday, is bidding to become the third South African to win the Kroger, joining countrymen Simon Hobday ('93) and Hugh Baiocchi ('98).

        He has not won an event since '96, when he captured four titles, earned $1.35 million and was named Senior Tour Rookie of the Year. He has not had a top-three finish in two years. In 1998, he ended up playing in only 18 events.

        It's understandable.

        There were condolences everywhere he went. Tournament officials, marshals on the course, fellow players. He knows they all meant well.

        “It was very difficult at first,” Bland said. “I found it easier to get away from it because everybody was coming to you saying, "Sorry, sorry, sorry,' and that sort of thing. It sort of gets on top of you.”

        He returned to play two events in October, then was back full-time in February. Other players and their wives have been extremely supportive, watching out for him. This year, he has entered 24 events.

        His best showing was a fifth-place tie in March at the Emerald Coast Classic in Milton, Fla. Bland has finished from eighth to 23rd in his last six events.

        “You still have that competitive spirit inside,” he said. “You want to win all the time. What happens after you come off the course is a different thing.”

        He has some help on the road getting through this year, which he calls “difficult.” Bland is traveling with his daughter, Bonney, son-in-law Hugh O'Sheay, who now caddies for him, and 4-month-old grandson Timothy. (“It doesn't matter what you shot, he just smiles,” the first-time grandfather said.)

        The milestones are passing. Birthdays without his wife. Christmas without her. Tournament stops without Helen. Bland hopes it will get better.

        “I feel it's all sort of easing off,” he said. “Next year I think, if nothing else goes wrong ... it'll be fine.”


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