John Hill was about to tee off in the most important golf tournament of his life while carrying a terrible burden. Within the last 10 days, he’d lost both his father and his grandfather, two men who had shaped him throughout his life.
They’d both watched over him in anticipation of this moment, but they wouldn’t be there to share it with him. He’d have to go the rest of the way alone.
Hill fell in love with the game of golf thanks to his father Bill. Back when John was in sixth grade, Bill took him first to the driving range, and later onto the golf course. John took to the game quickly, and by eighth grade he was entering tournaments in San Antonio. While John was in high school, Bill took him to Scotland, where they played courses in golf’s ancestral home, further cementing John’s love of the game.
Golf appealed to John’s independent streak. He’d think nothing of going out and practicing for hours, alone on the range. He knew he needed coaching — Bill introduced John to the same swing coach he has to this day — but John also understood the value of staying mentally strong and striving for improvement, every single time he stepped on the range.
By the time he reached high school, John decided to focus exclusively on golf, with the goal of getting into college on a golf scholarship. That drive paid off, and he played his way onto the team at San Antonio’s University of the Incarnate Word. And it was there that he realized he wasn’t anywhere near the mountaintop.
“When I was a freshman, I came in with the same mentality that I’m pretty sure every freshman does: ‘I’m really good, I deserve to be here,’ ” Hill said. “I didn’t realize that everyone else was also the best at their high school. Reality set in pretty quickly.”
During his freshman year, he didn’t exactly acquit himself well, averaging about a 77 and traveling to only about half the team’s away tournaments. But after that year, he entered into a prequalifying tournament for the Valero Texas Open — basically, a qualifier for the Monday qualifier — and what happened there would shape the next few years of his life.
“I got through the prequalifier by shooting 71,” he said. “They took the top 16 and ties, and I was tied for 16th.”
At a Monday qualifier, at age 18, he was playing for one of four spots in a PGA Tour event. He played some of the finest golf of his life up to that moment. He stood over a 15-footer for par on the 18th … and missed it. That shot would have put him into a playoff for the final spot in the Open. Instead, all he had ahead of him was an open week.
“Driving home, it hit me: ‘This is what I want to do, this is what I want to pursue,’ ” he said. “I really wanted everyone to know, ‘John’s the No. 1.’ If I can’t be the best on my college team, I’m not going to be a pro.”
He would spend the next two and a half years continually improving his game, to the point where he was that No. 1, at one point winning three of four tournaments outright.
Along the way, though, his family life was faltering. Bill Hill had been suffering from Parkinson’s, and by the time John reached college, the disease was so severe that Bill was only able to watch a few of his son’s matches in person. At the same time, John bonded with his maternal grandfather, Frank Denton, who lived with family nearby.
“I spent a lot of time with him in the last several years,” John said. “We would sit and we would talk about everything. There were times when he would fall, and I would physically help pick him back up.”
In February, Frank Denton was admitted to the hospital. His condition was deteriorating fast, and John tried to spend as much time as he could with his grandfather. He’d practice golf in the morning, take classes in the afternoon, and then spend time with Frank — by then unable to communicate verbally — in the evening.
“The night before he passed, I was the only one there,” John said. “I did all the talking. I told him I loved him. I prayed for the both of us. We both knew we were saying goodbye.” Frank motioned for John to leave, knowing the end was near.
“It was like he was saying, ‘I don’t want you to be here for what’s going to happen,’ ” John said. John went to his car in the hospital parking lot, sat behind the steering wheel, and wept. A few hours later, Frank Denton was gone.
The funeral was planned for the next weekend in Dallas, and after the funeral, John drove from Dallas back to San Antonio. Q School began the next week, and he wanted to be as ready as he could, given the circumstances.
Then, Sunday morning, John’s aunt called. Bill Hill had passed away in his care facility. Two of John Hill’s most beloved mentors, gone in days.
“It was tough,” he recalled. “I tried to rely on people, but no one could really say, ‘I understand what you’re going through,’ because nobody goes through this. It doesn’t happen this way for most people.”
Both Bill Hill and Frank Denton were men of faith, and that faith carried John through the next few days as well … that, and golf.
Q School for John’s area was scheduled for the week of February 17 on the Canyons Course of TPC San Antonio. John never gave a thought to backing out of the tournament. Instead, he leaned into it.
“When I got to the golf course on Monday, I was just so excited to be able to put my phone away and play,” he said. “I didn’t have a caddy. I was out there by myself. I joined up with a couple random guys. It was just nice to have basic conversations with guys I didn’t know.”
With John’s immediate professional future at stake, the tournament began. “I tried to take a different perspective,” he said. “I wasn’t out there thinking, ‘I need to play well so I can get a job.’ I was just thinking what a really cool opportunity this was. So many people wish they could play here, and I was getting to do it.”
Whether it was the new mindset, the faith, or something more, John played well enough to finish T17 and get conditional status on the Mackenzie Tour, the PGA Tour’s Canada arm. It’s the same route that Tony Finau took to the Tour, and it will give Hill the opportunity to play professional golf ... eventually. The pandemic has halted the Tour for now, but when courses reopen and tournaments restart, John will be there, playing tournaments around North America and hoping to work his way up the ladder toward the PGA Tour.
He won’t forget the examples of his father or his grandfather. “They were good men with strong faith,” he said. “I’m relying on my faith as well … To lose two people like that in just a week, to get through that, I just have to believe that God has a bigger plan for me.”
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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