The first time Doug Brecht met his future wife, Stephanie, he penalized her for slow play. His first words: “Add two.”
Brecht, 62, chuckled as he told that story last spring at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, sitting in a cart somewhere on the Dinah Shore course, baking in the desert sun. Stephanie Lowe eventually got over that rocky start, falling in love with a gruff LPGA rules official who always played by the book.
“He was like a toasted marshmallow,” said Gail Graham, a former LPGA player and Brecht’s friend of 30 years. “Soft on the inside.”
On Oct. 12, the LPGA lost a respected and beloved man to something so incomprehensibly random as a mosquito bite. Brecht was hospitalized last August while working at the tour stop in Toledo, Ohio. He had contracted West Nile meningitis and was later transported to the intensive-care unit at Baptist Hospital in Oklahoma City, about a 45-minute drive from the Brechts’ home in Norman.
Over the next several months, the tour chaplain updated Brecht’s family and friends with notes on caringbridge.org, detailing the small steps being made in both directions. Brecht was a fighter, and Steph, as she is known, celebrated little moments such as the wiggling of a toe or the lifting of an eyebrow with deep gratitude. Golf was Brecht’s life, but as former LPGA player and exec Jane Geddes said, Steph was his light.
Brecht played college golf at Oklahoma and majored in mathematics. He became a club pro at the Jimmie Austin University of Oklahoma Golf Course and worked under head pro Robert O. Smith. Graham first met Brecht in 1982 as a freshman in college, not long after Brecht was named the Sooners’ women’s golf coach. Little did Brecht know that his career in women’s golf would span 30 years.
Smith, known on the LPGA as “Robert O.”, joined the tour as a rules official and talked Brecht into following his lead in July 1993. Smith and Brecht lived across town from each other in Norman, and they traveled the world together.
“When he made a ruling, players always knew they were going to get the best ruling,” Smith said. “He wasn’t going to show favoritism to anyone.”
Being a rules official is a thankless job. They’re often the first ones to arrive on site and the last to leave. Smith, who retired in 2008, told people he saw many beautiful sunrises and sunsets while on the job, and they usually were in the same day.
Rules officials patrol the course quietly, finding the spotlight only when controversy arrives and rarely delivering any kind of good news. It can be, as Geddes said, a brutal job.
“When they’re driving up to you,” Geddes said, “you’re already angry because you’re in trouble.”
For years, Smith tried to beat Brecht to the tournament trailer each morning. It was almost impossible to outwork Brecht, who took his job of improving the tour seriously. He despised slow play, and spent hours studying other tours and brainstorming ways to make LPGA players pick up the pace.
Brecht, a member of the USGA Rules of Golf Committee from 2006 to ’11, found himself in the midst of controversy earlier this year at the Sybase Match Play when he penalized Morgan Pressel for slow play in her semifinal match against Azahara Munoz. He also caused a stir back in 2008 when Angela Park, playing in the final group and in contention at the SBS Open, was dinged two strokes for slow play during the final round.
“The rules do not consider what the player’s score is,” Brecht said at the time.
When Brittany Lincicome was a rookie on the LPGA, she wasn’t a fan of Brecht’s hard-lined approach. But after a while, she grew to view Brecht as a fair man with a sweet heart. Knowing his love of sunflower seeds, Lincicome often brought a bag of seeds to Asia for him in case he ran out.
“Even right now, if I see a bag of them, my heart breaks,” Lincicome wrote from South Korea, where the tour is playing this week.
Few things in life brought Brecht more joy than his beloved Chicago Cubs. In the 1990s, he often spent his evenings on tour fishing, searching for a sliver of peace before the sun went down.
“Wouldn’t you if you had to deal with 144 women every day?” asked Graham.
No one will ever doubt Brecht’s love of the game and his devotion to the tour. The LPGA family will be well-represented Thursday afternoon for Brecht’s funeral service at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Norman. LPGA headquarters in Daytona Beach, Fla., will observe a moment of silence at 3 p.m. Thursday, and players, caddies and staff will attend their own memorial service at the tour stop in Korea.
For the remainder of the season, those affiliated with the tour will wear a “Doug” sticker that features “Oklahoma red” in honor of his Sooners.
Smith said Brecht planned to retire after the 2013 season. There was talk of even more time on the golf course, only they’d be the ones swinging a club.
Sadly, Brecht never had the chance to slow down. But if there’s golf in heaven, rest assured that even the angels are keeping pace.