With heavy heart, pro helps late friend's family

Mark Baker during sectional qualifying in Bradenton, Fla., for the 2013 U.S. Open.

When Mark Baker stepped up to the first tee at Ritz-Carlton Members Golf Club, he was only three days removed from stepping into the sanctuary at Living Streams Church.

Baker’s purpose at the Ritz-Carlton: to earn a berth to the 2013 U.S. Open. His purpose at Living Streams: to mourn the death of his friend, Brad Piccirillo.

Baker and Piccirillo met in college at Cal State Bakersfield, where Baker played four years for the men’s golf team and earned NCAA Div. II second-team All-America honors.

Their lives took different paths from there.

Piccirillo moved on to serve in the United States Marine Corps. Baker moved on to pursue a career in professional golf.

Serving his country, Piccirillo traveled to Iraq in the military. Playing the game he loved, Baker traveled to the likes of Torrey Pines this season for his first PGA Tour event.

But because of what happened on Memorial Day, Piccirillo and Baker found themselves together again at the first tee in Bradenton, Fla., as Baker fought to qualify for his first major tournament.

Unfortunately, their time on the course was only in spirit.

Piccirillo had spent a typical Sunday attending church and spending time with his family, then went out to check on his car’s squeaking brakes. The jack didn’t hold, and Piccirillo was caught under the vehicle. He was badly injured.

His family hoped for a miracle, waiting for swelling in his brain to go down, but Piccrillo never pulled through. He died on Memorial Day.

Baker wore a commemorative pin while playing 36 holes on golf’s longest day.

His goal was to finish in the top three of the 56-player field. His heart was broken.

“I knew it was going to be a tough day, because [Brad’s death] happened the week before,” Baker said. “I had four days to get ready and I couldn’t get through a round without crying and I was just practicing. I knew a flight and having a tournament on the mind wasn’t really going to change that.”

Baker struggled in Florida, starting his first round of play with two bogeys and adding a pair of double bogeys within the same 18 holes.

He would finish in a tie for 43rd, well off the top-three cutoff. But Baker was playing for more than just the chance to play in the U.S. Open that day.

Baker called on his friends and supporters through his blog to join him in donating $5 for every birdie he tallied at U.S. Open Sectional qualifying.

Baker named the effort Birdies for Brad. The donations went to a larger effort to support Piccirillo’s family, which was hit at a tough time.

“Birdies for Brad was just some title I threw on it, but I know he was someone who was always trying to do more for other people,” Baker said. “For me to just give money wasn’t enough, I had to at least ask my friends to help as well.”

Piccirillo’s father, Michael, is going through a multi-year battle with cancer. With Michael and Brad Piccirillo’s medical bills, the family is struggling financially and emotionally.

Baker’s fundraising efforts went toward an effort established through the website GoFundMe.com. One of Piccirillo’s closest friends, Kip Shearer, established the project to raise a goal of $50,000 to support the Piccirillo family.

The project has raised a total of $31,612 to date.

“We’re just trying to help out in any way we can. It’s just an incredibly difficult time for the entire family, so any way we can help financially to at least alleviate that stress [is the goal],” Shearer said.

Baker is not the only one who has contributed. More than 275 donors have given through the site.

“It’s been incredible. I didn’t know how much we could raise with the fundraiser,” Shearer said. “Brad touched so many people’s lives through his church, through acting, through serving two tours in the military; he just had so many relationships with so many people. The outpouring of the support from that has been awesome.”

Said Baker: “I thought [the fundraising] had stalled out after the services so I was just trying to help out and keep his memory alive in my own way. I wasn’t really thinking about how much money I could raise; it was, if you can do your thing and play good golf, everything will take care of itself.”

On a break from the PGA Tour Latinoamerica, where he has been playing this season, Baker is hoping to earn berths to as many events as possible. He’ll spend the summer traveling across the country to play in Monday qualifiers, hoping to make the next step.

As he looked back on his time with Piccirillo, Baker couldn’t help but be moved. The memorial service was attended by more than 1,200 people.

“It was probably the most inspirational two hours of my life,” Baker said.

Said Shearer: “Most people want to be remembered by being someone that totally gave themselves to others, loved on them and made them laugh – that’s how [Piccirillo] lived.”

Now, Baker hopes to refocus on his own dreams.

“The first half of my career, I was constantly worried about the money and constantly worried about how I’m going to pay for this. I still am; you kind of have to think of that all the time. You’re worried about not going into debt and just being able to support yourself if you don’t have sponsors,” Baker said. “But in 2009, I said I know how much credit I have and how much I can make, so I’m just going to stop worrying about the money and going to give it two years to just go.”

Piccirillo, an aspiring professional actor and comedian, held a similar mindset.

“I’m not going to stop,” Baker said. “I feel like the dream is right there in the palm of my hand, I just need to close my hand.”

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