2004: Newsmakers - Christie tragedy a tale of despair

During a practice round prior to the 1996 Utah Classic, Michael Christie boldly turned to his playing partners and declared, “If you don’t shoot 20 (under par), you may as well go home.”

It was quintessential Christie – brazen, brash and completely unapologetic. The fact that he won the 54-hole Nike (now Nationwide) Tour event at 20 under only served to polarize those around this often enigmatic journeyman. Those close to the former University of South Carolina standout marveled at his ability and his passion for life; those outside his circle of friends were put off by his sometimes abrasive manner.

On April 22, the golf world discovered that the four-time Nationwide Tour winner had a dark, troubled side. That afternoon, Christie was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head at his parent’s house in Greenville, S.C. He was 34.

It was a shocking end to a life and a career that began with an enormous amount of promise but had been derailed by an almost constant barrage of injuries. Incessant pain and ever-increasing financial trouble drove Christie to despair. And some say Christie’s inability to land a sponsor exemption into the Nationwide Tour’s BMW Charity Pro-Am – staged in his hometown – might have been the final straw that led him to the unthinkable.

“That’s the sad thing about playing golf – we’re all on separate teams, we’re alone,” said P.H. Horgan III, who met Christie playing the Southern Africa Tour in the mid-1990s. “I feel terrible because I didn’t realize his depression.”

Despite a cool confidence that was often misinterpreted as cockiness, there was a softer, caring side to Christie. A side most people didn’t see. It was this kind side that prompted him to rescue a small, orange kitten from a busy highway during a storm at the 1997 FedEx St. Jude Classic.

Christie nursed the kitten back to health, named him Memphis and the two became fast friends. And when Memphis died a few years later, Christie was devastated.

“That cat thought Michael was his mother,” said Christie’s mother, Donna. “He felt like I feel now, what can I do? He said, ‘It’s not fair.’ ”

Christie’s friends were equally confused by his death.

“By killing himself,” said Horgan, “he kind of kills a little bit of the people he left behind.”

Christie didn’t leave behind a suicide note and his mother said the only sign of forethought was a Greek Orthodox cross – that ordinarily he never took off his neck – laid on a table in his room.

“A few years ago I was worried about him, but lately he seemed like he was turning a corner,” said Brad Ott, who talked to Christie shortly after his friend withdrew from the April 19 Monday qualifier for the Nationwide Tour’s Rheem Classic, citing a recurring sinus infection. “He was upbeat. He said, ‘If I can play my best there’s no one who can beat me.’ ”

That often seemed the case, at least on the Nike Tour in 1996. His victory at the ’96 Utah Classic was his third of the season on the developmental circuit and earned him a PGA Tour card. He retained his Tour card in ’97 – earning $204,883 to finish 112th on the money list – and appeared on the verge of a breakthrough season when the first of a series of injuries flared at the 1998 Sony Open.

In the span of five years there would be a sinus surgery (1997), two neck surgeries (1998-99), surgery to repair a ripped muscle in his right shoulder (2001) and a car accident (’02) that left him temporarily paralyzed. Rumors persisted that Christie had become dependent on painkillers.

“I totally understand it,” said Horgan, who has taken painkillers for a shoulder injury. “I can see how you could get addicted, and see how you could get depressed.”

On the rare occasions when Christie was healthy, his game seemed as sharp as ever, but each time his body would fail him. In 1998 he made only three of 20 cuts and lost his PGA Tour card, and as the bills began piling up he found it increasingly difficult to find places to play. He earned only $35,908 in his scattered starts on the Nationwide Tour and PGA Tour since 1998.

“I’m just trying to figure out which straw broke the camel’s back,” said Ott. “Seems every time Mike got back on his feet his body knocked him back down.”

Growing financial woes forced Christie to sell his house in Greenville three years ago and file for bankruptcy. More recently he had spent time living with a friend in Denver before returning to his parents’ house late last month.

“Michael was a different breed,” said Puggy Blackmon, Christie’s coach at South Carolina. “His whole life, his whole self-worth, revolved around the way he played golf. He was definitely a peaks-and-valleys type person.”

Blackmon talked with Christie after he withdrew from the Rheem qualifier and the two agreed to meet and work on Christie’s swing April 24.

Some believe Christie’s financial problems, combined with continued health problems – a second sinus surgery was being arranged – became too much for him to bear.

And some, including Donna Christie, also point to Christie’s inability to garner a sponsor invitation into the BMW Charity Pro-Am in Greenville, an event that he won in 1996. The tournament began April 29, one week after Christie’s death, at a golf course only a short drive from the Christie family house.

“I find the timing too coincidental,” said Sean Murphy, who befriended Christie on the Nationwide Tour in 1995. “Maybe he was in some pain, but why does a guy go to his parents’ house and kill himself? It’s like he thought, ‘Even people in my own town don’t want me.’”

Unlike most Nationwide Tour events that only have two sponsor exemptions, the BMW has 12, five of which are restricted to Nationwide Tour members, which Christie was. Repeated requests for an exemption by Christie, who was limited to conditional Nationwide status, were not granted.

In fairness to the tournament, part of the problem is simple supply and demand, with more players requesting spots than there are spots available. Tournament director Darin MacDonald said he received about 50 requests for sponsor exemptions and that he and other tournament officials award invites based on a player’s record, local appeal and his ability to bring a celebrity for the pro-am portion of the event.

But those close to Christie say a confrontation between Christie and MacDonald following his victory at the 1996 event caused a rift between the player and tournament. During his post-tournament celebration, Christie overheard MacDonald telling a local television reporter how much the event supported Christie over the years.

“After he heard him (MacDonald), Michael pulled (him) to the side and he told him, ‘Don’t pull that BS because you’ve never given me the time of day,’ ” Donna Christie said.

MacDonald didn’t recall the incident with Christie and said he talked with Christie two weeks before his death, explaining how difficult it is to decide who gets one of the coveted sponsor exemptions.

“It’s a time when people want answers, and they are going to look somewhere,” MacDonald said. “When I talked to Michael, he understood the process. It’s time to comfort the family and move on.”

Kevin Pendley – who lives in nearby Greenwood, S.C. – Pat McGowan, Tim Conley, Steve Ford and Lee Porter were awarded the BMW’s five restricted sponsor exemptions. Gary Nicklaus, Jack Nicklaus II, Michael Nicklaus, Brian Hull, Conrad Ray, Harry Taylor and Ben Duncan received the tournament’s seven unrestricted exemptions.

“He was an extremely accomplished player. To not get that invite . . . this guy had it in for him,” Ott said. “He just refused to give the guy an invite. Mike was real upset about that.”

Whether not getting into the BMW was enough to push Christie to suicide, only Christie will ever know. But those who knew the troubled player say it was another setback in a life filled with them.

“Sure, he was depressed. He was in total financial crisis . . . I begged him to give up this game,” Donna Christie said. “The day before he died he looked at me and said, ‘Mother, no man should be in this much pain.’ ”

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