Southern Miss' Judson plays on in parents' memory
Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the March 18, 2011 issue of Golfweek.
Lauren Judson firmly believes there’s a plan for everyone. That’s how she stood before mourners last fall and delivered a strong, eloquent eulogy only days after her parents died in a plane crash. Though the plan is incomprehensible, the 20-year-old remains determined to have faith in it.
“I see how much I’m blessed every single day,” Judson said. Truly, death’s sting did nothing to diminish her strong Roman Catholic beliefs. Lauren, 19, joined her 20-year-old brother Dean in honoring their parents’ legacy at a service filled with hope. “It was strictly a celebration of their lives,” teammate Brandi Rodriguez said of the funeral Mass. The entire Southern Miss team traveled to Roswell, Ga., to support Judson. Rodriguez served as a pallbearer along with Judson’s roommate, Vicky Correa.
Jim and Beth Judson walked in faith with arms open wide. Beth, 51, who earned a doctorate in ceramic engineering, served Holy Eucharist to seniors in nursing homes and flew to Italy to sing for the pope. Jim, 52, was heavily involved in the Knights of Columbus and served on the Board of Trustees at his alma mater, Wake Forest.
Jim and Beth Judson died Oct. 26 on their way home from Memphis, Tenn., where Lauren had competed with her team. Earlier this spring, she played for the first time without her strongest supporters, at the USA Lady Jaguar Invitational in Mobile, Ala. On April 1, the school will break ground on a new practice facility in memory of Lauren’s parents.
Jim set a goal of retiring by age 45 and beat it by two years. After selling his successful software business, Witness Systems, Jim turned his attention to philanthropic efforts and hobbies such as antique cars, photography and flying.
“It was like a lifelong goal for him to (fly),” Lauren said. “Just like everything else in his life, he achieved it.”
The Judsons flew to the Memphis Women’s Invitational that fall to watch their daughter compete for the first time in the starting five. The final round was canceled because of inclement weather, and Correa won a playoff to secure the school’s first individual title since 2004. Lauren and the team headed back to Hattiesburg; the Judsons boarded their Hawker Beechcraft Bonanza, a single-engine, propeller-driven aircraft. Shortly after takeoff in northern Mississippi, the plane fell from the sky amid high winds. Lauren’s brother called with the news.
“I found out right after I got out of the shower,” Lauren said. “I decided that I needed to go home right then.”
Lauren loaded up the car with her two best friends – Brandi and Vicky – and USM head coach Julie Gallup to begin the seven-hour drive to Georgia.
It was Beth Judson who introduced the family to golf. Lauren’s original goal was to play soccer in college, but a broken leg changed that plan.
In high school, she lowered her handicap five strokes in one year and decided to redshirt her first season at Southern Miss. Gallup describes Judson as a sponge when it comes to the golf swing, and helped her quickly shed more strokes once she got to Hattiesburg. Her father, known by the team as Jimbo, never missed a tournament.
“I could just tell that he and my mom were so in love with the fact that I played golf,” Lauren said.
After the crash, Lauren took time away from her clubs. Not surprisingly, the entire Golden Eagles team began to look at their games – and lives – from a different perspective.
“It made us question, ‘Are we doing everything we should?’ ” asked Rodriguez, who now thinks twice before delivering a sarcastic line to her own mom and dad.
Gallup no longer makes players run when they’re late to practice. “If their heart is in the right place,” she said, “the little things fall away.”
Suddenly, Gallup’s insistence on staying in the present took on new meaning.
“It’s interesting because I thought that golf would be really hard for me, since it’s something we bonded over,” Lauren said, “but it’s actually helped me re-evaluate how I think on the golf course.”
The school break ground on a new practice facility at Hattiesburg Country Club last year. Jim Judson was instrumental in the effort, donating money and time toward the project. Phase I consists of a 10,000-square-foot green to accommodate shots up to 150 yards, plus a 7,000-square- foot chipping and putting green. Phase II includes hitting bays. Phase III, with more donations, will provide a team clubhouse.
Gallup is grateful for the three pages of notes Jim e-mailed her with step-by-step directions on how to make this facility a reality.
“I think he knew this was the last piece we needed to be competitive on the national level,” said Gallup.
In September 2012, Gallup held the Jim and Beth Judson Memorial at Hawks Ridge Golf Club in Ball Ground, Ga., where the family often played.
Anyone in golf who knew the Judsons, however, simply can look at Lauren to remember their goodness. Even criticisms of Lauren are enviable traits: Too strong, too much of a perfectionist, too addicted to sushi.
“Lauren is tremendously strong, and it astounds me all the time,” Gallup said. “I think a lot of people say they believe in God, and then when something really tough happens, it really shows you.
“Her faith is unwavering.”