OTL: Staying the Course


AUFUSKIE ISLAND, S.C. -- Patrick Ford stops by the marina bar. Sometimes the only answer is a vodka tonic or a cold beer. He's lanky, with an easy smile and slightly crooked teeth, dressed in shorts and a polo shirt. A golf pro's uniform. Some people are born to join fancy clubs. His destiny is to work at them. That's how he ended up here, in his summer of uncertainty. One moment, he was tinkering with swings and charging credit cards at a pricy resort; an instant later, he found himself engaged in a struggle that would be comical were it not happening to him: living on a bridgeless island, taking on nature itself, trying to save a bankrupt golf course.

Marsha Griffin
Patrick Ford is in survival mode.

The bar jumps around him. Friends come and go, with a nod, with a few words of thanks. The tourists sip Coronas and eat fried bologna sandwiches. It's the last week of August 2010. Jam band music plays for the college kids stealing one more day of sunshine. Patrick lingers before three shades of dusty pink. It's easy to understand why so many people are drawn here. Daufuskie Island is hypnotic at the pastel end of day. The first time Patrick sailed from the coast of Hilton Head toward its shores, the beauty and potential overwhelmed him. That seems a lifetime ago.

A big week lies ahead. Finally, one not like all the others, which is both good and terrifying. There's a group trying to raise money to buy the resort, which would put an end to his fight. A sale brings a whole new set of problems -- Will he be rewarded for his sacrifice? -- but those are worries for another day. He's trying to get through this one.

"That's the mode we're in right now," he says. "Survival mode. I don't know how much longer we can make it."

People like Patrick don't cause corporate bankruptcy or greedy land speculation any more than they control the tides pushing and pulling on this tiny hand-shaped island. But what if he could? That's the point of this ridiculous fight. Nature is more than weeds. It's the whole order of things, the invisible forces that move oceans and direct lives. Can a man stop the inevitable power of the tides? Can he choose his future, or is it chosen for him?

Can Patrick Ford choose?

Scavenging tractors

Patrick isn't alone in this fight. His brother-in-arms is golf course superintendent Nick Bright, and right now, they are standing outside a maintenance shed with no power, surrounded by tractors that don't run, which they scavenge for parts for the few that do. There's just one battery, which gets passed around.

Phil Ellsworth/ESPN
Nothing seems to work here.

"I found some old fertilizer laying around," Nick says. "I'm gonna see if it works."

"The shelf life on it expired?" Patrick asks.

"I don't know," Nick says. "I don't think it can hurt it."

Once, they were normal guys leading normal lives. Patrick was the PGA golf professional and Nick the superintendent at the Daufuskie Island Resort, home to the Bloody Point Golf Course and the spectacular Jack Nicklaus-designed Melrose Course. Melrose in particular is a work of art, a naturalist paradise, with three finishing holes that run up the shore of the Atlantic, big waves crashing onto the fairways, birds of prey circling overhead. They loved the place. Nick learned what the grass liked to eat, and Patrick studied all the birds and plants so he could tell golfers the wonders they should see. He wanted them to appreciate the majesty of the island as much as he did.

Then the resort went bankrupt. They were faced with a decision: Leave and let the place die, or stay and maybe see their careers die?

That was 18 months ago, and things have changed. Now they have only a skeleton crew to run the mowers, and less than $1,000 a month to keep the place alive after gas and payroll. Life is basically hand-to-mouth, and ever morning is harder than the one before.

"Now it's just like, 'Shoot me,'" Nick says. "You sit here and wonder, 'Why the hell are we doing this?'"

Phil Ellsworth/ESPN
Nick Bright in the pro shop.

Shadowed by ghosts

Every hero needs a villain, and Daufuskie Island is familiar with the role.

From the Spanish to the 1980s investment conquistadors, men have tried to tame it. Decades before Patrick ended up here, resort developers built their office on the old slave cemetery. Locals got it moved, finally, but a Voodoo priest, Dr. Buzzard, supposedly cursed this place. "The Buzzard got 'em," the locals tell each other whenever another thing fails. The Buzzard's gotten a lot of things.

The air is thick in the cemetery woods, musty, smelling of decay. Spanish moss and resurrection ferns hang from the oaks. You can see the marina bar from here, though no one at the bar can see you. Patrick Ford is standing outside, unaware he's being shadowed by ghosts. Hunted, even.

The water is only a few yards away. The tide slips in and out, unstoppable. Gentle for an hour, devastating for a century. The island looks so beautiful from afar, green shores and sparkling tides, which is how the troubles began in the first place. The latest troubles, that is, though they're really the same as all the ones that came before. There are no new stories on Daufuskie Island, just new players. For 500 years, Daufuskie has defeated them all.

Phil Ellsworth/ESPN
Shadows stretch as evening descends on the island.

Nature pitches a shutout

The sun goes down, and the fleeting tease of a first glimpse fades into something sinister. The last tourist boat pulls out of harbor. The pastels surrender. The Spanish moss, which gently draped during daylight, now reaches, muscular. Alive. Shapes move in the lagoons. The trees' last shadows lie across the voodoo signs nailed to their trunks. There's a big blue hand with a red eye in the palm, a warning to ghosts. People throw handfuls of rice on their porches to keep away the slip-skin hag. Strange noises come from the black forest. The people disappear into their homes.

Night belongs to the ghosts.

Phil Ellsworth/ESPN
The hand is a warning to ghosts.

They're buried beneath the moss and the ferns. The ground holds the bones of the Spaniards who came from Seville in the 1500s and lasted only a few years. It holds British settlers, the king's investors, the Colonial gentry, the Confederate planters, the Yankee invaders. Not long ago, a young girl found two champagne bottles buried near the beach. They were from the mid-1860s, probably left from a Union gun crew's celebration when the long war finally ended.

The ground tells a story. A few years ago, the county dug a drainage ditch through the center of the island and left a big pile of black swamp dirt. The damnedest thing happened.

Flowers bloomed.

Exotic flowers. Heirloom flowers. Strange colors not seen for generations. Gladioli, yellow with red veins. Lilies of the valley, daffodils, strains of medicinal flowers brought from England. A few lucky scavengers realized these were the long-dormant bulbs from lush antebellum gardens. The families were gone. Their farms were gone. The homes had fallen down. But the flowers remained.

Every endeavor of man failed. The war took the wealth, the depression took the jobs, the boll weevil took what was left of the cotton. In the '50s, Savannah River pollution killed the oysters, and that was it. People abandoned Daufuskie. Only a few white families and the Gullahs -- the descendants of slaves who speak their own low-country patois -- remained.

Even the grand old Melrose Mansion crumbled and fell. The Yankees took the piano and the silver and the mules. A 1912 fire took the walls. The slow but inevitable tides took out a little bit of land at a time until everything was gone. The foundation is hidden just offshore by the cold waters of the Atlantic, a once mighty castle washed into the sea.

A pro shop in a computer bag

Patrick starts his week by driving his golf cart over to the edge of the 18th green, where a decaying seawall wrestles the Atlantic, only yards from the Melrose Mansion's submerged foundation. He tries to begin every day with something beautiful. There is hope in a postcard morning.

Phil Ellsworth/ESPN
Remains of the old Melrose Mansion.

The Monday sun rises orange. The ocean shines silver, and the shrimp boats rock along the coast. He looks up in the big tree off the green and sees the bald eagle that's moved in; he never passes the Melrose Inn without looking for the eagle. Sometimes the bird drinks out of the sprinkler heads.

He's got nine rounds today -- a few islanders and guys who charter boats from Hilton Head. Used to be, he had 15 times that. When golfers arrive, they call him. The only working phone for the golf course is forwarded to his pocket. Before long, he gets the first call of the day.

"Melrose Golf and Tennis, this is Patrick."

"I cannot commit to that time right now."

"When was the last time you were out here?"

"OK. We are still in that receivership. The Chapter 11 bankruptcy. So I can really only truly commit to two weeks at a time. I hate to say that, but I don't want to block up a day of your vacation with the potential of not being able to come over here. If you don't mind, in about two weeks, if you can give me a call back, I would happily book it for you."

"Here's the reality right now: I haven't had power for four months."

Patrick laughs. "That is the question, isn't it? Hopefully, relatively soon. Something is going to happen within the next two months."

"It's still beautiful. We don't want it to die."

He hangs up and loops the property, offering to pick up lunch from the marina for a foursome making the turn. He checks on the ball washer he's hidden, pirating electricity. The golf carts are plugged in illicitly, too. The entire operation has a "Mad Max" feel to it. Once, when the horses got out of their pasture, he helped corral them with a cart. He's a city boy! He's robbing tires and parts from broken carts to fix running ones. He orders tees on his own credit card. The entire pro shop, all the scorecards and charge slips, fits in a worn brown computer bag he carries with him everywhere.

"It feels like Indiana Jones' whip," he says.

In the dark

With no golfers, there's a lot of time for Patrick to think. How did he end up here? He grew up the baby of 13 brothers and sisters in a working-class family. They lived on the dividing line between tony Fairfield, Conn., and blue-collar Bridgeport, by the exclusive Brooklawn Country Club. He spent his youth in the face of an invisible wall.

Phil Ellsworth/ESPN
The golf carts are ready.

From the age of 12, he worked as a caddie. In the summers, he and his brothers would take a few clubs and sneak into Brooklawn, until the security guys would rumble out in their green pickup truck, blasting off rounds of rock salt. Golf became his career. South Carolina. Florida. New York. Everywhere he went only reinforced the idea he first saw as a boy: America had a class system, and he was on the wrong side of it. Smile and keep quiet. Speak when spoken to. You're good enough to fix a follow-through but not good enough to hang out with at the bar. Conversations grew littered with references to his own subservience -- "I'm a mushroom: They keep me in the dark and feed me s---" -- and the behavior of those who grew up with everything. On the journey from caddie to head pro, Patrick would tell himself the same thing he told his staff: You might be washing their clubs, but you can beat all of them at golf. Look for an opportunity, he'd tell them. Seize it.

The day drags.

He goes through his routine, making sure he's got all the carts lined up outside the clubhouse, like he did in the old days, the little holes in the dashboard filled with tees. "This is my denial," he says. "Set it all up, make it look like I've got play coming out."

With a bucket of range balls, he drives over to the practice tee and sets up six pyramids. There's no stacker so he does it by hand, carefully, building up layers until he gently places the final ball on top. He steps back to look and is pleased. The prose might be broken here, but the poems are intact.

Thick with failed dreams

So, how did a bankrupt golf course end up on a bridgeless island?

The sad story begins in the '80s, when developers imagined the Martha's Vineyard of the South. The locals watched the barges come in loaded with bulldozers. Nothing would ever be the same. "Everybody was your neighbor," says Yvonne Wilson, one of few remaining Gullah on the island. "Until development started."

The businessmen built Haig Point, a private club with a Rees Jones golf course. They built what's now the Daufuskie Island Resort, barging over every blade of grass. There was an inn. A beach club. An equestrian center. A convention center. Cottages. Fractional ownership houses. Homeowners. Two golf courses, including Melrose.

Phil Ellsworth/ESPN
One of the old Gullah homes on the island.

Nicklaus sent John Copeland to manage the construction, and he found a dense, old-growth forest, full of snakes and animals and towering 300-year-old pines. His crew cleared the last remains of Melrose Mansion, replacing the old with the new. For a year, Copeland walked the wilderness with a machete and a backpack of flags, marking every tree that needed to come down. It was Middle-earth. "You crossed Calibogue Sound," he says, "and you went back in time."

Developers cleared land for decades. Seafront lots. Planned neighborhoods with names like Governor's Point, Beach Field and The Marshes at Cooper River. Bridges on the island were made of replica Savannah gray bricks and thick black iron. Roads ate up the forest. Contractors put in sewers, and electricians put in wires.

The ground was ready for people.

Nobody came.

"It's one island too far," says local novelist Roger Pinckney, whose books channel the dark powers of Daufuskie.

Daufuskie is thick with failed dreams. Heirloom flowers and Union champagne bottles aren't the only things buried here. There's a giant spool of orange wire on the side of a dusty road: the never installed T-1 Internet line. There are forests that were once landscaped lots that were once forests that were once the rice fields of newly freed slaves. Deer bounce through trees whose roots grip elaborate plumbing and electrical systems. There are the security gates to a neighborhood that was never built; the first thing people did was make sure other people couldn't get in. All these relics are now part of the Daufuskie ghost tour.

Pinckney, when he's not writing about old island black magic, takes people around and shows them all the ways man can bury treasure. "They've lost $400 million on Daufuskie in 40 years," Pinckney says. "I challenge anybody to refute that figure."

Pinckney tells how the real estate people try to keep him from talking about the voodoo curse on the island. It hits a little too close to home. There are whispers of strange illnesses. "One of the Haig Point developers," he says, "we ended up putting a voodoo curse on him. About killed the poor bastard. They were gonna frame me for smoking dope. I called my witch doctor in Savannah. Angel says, 'Roger, you know I never do no harm to nobody. I got all I can do just taking the bad off folks.' I told her the story. She said, 'Give me his name, and make sure you spell it right.' I got his middle initial wrong, or I'm sure she would have killed him. As it was, he was in the hospital for six months. She asked, 'Roger, that man still bothering you?' 'No, he's laid up in the hospital.' She said, 'How about that?'"

Everything is trying to kill Nick's golf course

Nick is on the prowl for mole crickets and army worms, joking that he's fueled by the holy trinity of Mountain Dew, Parliament Lights and Xanax. He's doubled his cigarette intake in the past 18 months and now obsesses about little bugs that live beneath the ground.

Phil Ellsworth/ESPN
Nick fights to keep the course in shape.

"I lay awake at night thinking about killing 'em," he says. "I actually have dreams about the things."

Nick lives on Hilton Head and commutes by boat every day. His job is harder than Patrick's, but his calculus is simpler. Hand over a healthy golf course at the end of bankruptcy and write his own ticket. But if this sale doesn't go through, he might run out of equipment and luck. Failure could be a career killer. He's a jangle of nerves, often as angry with the natural power of the island as Patrick is in love with it.

He's got a three-day growth and the mouth of a sailor. He's got a big heart and a dry sense of humor. He drives up and down the fairways, looking at the brown spots. Everything is trying to kill his golf course. Worms. Mole crickets. Actual moles. Fungus. Nick's been trying to control nature since he grew up on a farm in Nebraska. Order is the most important thing. His bedroom was always spotless, the rows he cut driving a tractor always straight. With a cigarette clenched between his teeth, he steers his cart around Melrose and sees only flaws. Weeds collaring a tree. A green lagoon. Patches of dead grass where he didn't have the money to kill the mole crickets. He picks up a dead one, which looks like an alien with little claws.

"F---ers," he says. "I hate that damn thing. God, I hate them."

This is not how he imagined his career. Nick was a star when he arrived on the island. He worked as an intern at Harbor Town and turned that into a full-time job. Soon, he was in charge of nine holes of a course that hosted a televised PGA event. Lots of pressure fell directly on his shoulders, and he loved it. He took the job at Daufuskie because the courses were managed by Troon Golf, which promised him a chance to work overseas. Everything was lining up.

Then, bankruptcy. He was offered jobs. He had options. Mentors told him he'd ruin his career if he didn't leave. If the course died, even if it wasn't his fault, he might never work in the big time again.

Now he's chasing mole crickets. He doesn't have the $16,000 it would cost to put out specially designed poison pellets the crickets like to eat. He has no money. A few months back, he searched the resort until he found jugs of molasses. "I just figured they'd like molasses," he says.

He waited for a full moon, then flooded his own golf course to bring the crickets to the surface. He laid out a mist of molasses and poison. The crickets loved it. Couldn't get enough of it. Now he buys jugs of molasses from a food supplier.

"I've MacGyver'd so much s--- around here," he says.

At night, he searches the Internet for other cheap solutions to his problems. He found an insect called a tiger beetle that eats mole crickets. They were selling by the pair for 20 bucks.

"I guess we'd have to raise them," he says. "But they're from Asia. Am I gonna get in trouble? Next thing you know, this whole frigging country is populated with tiger beetles. And I don't know what else they do. They may kill mole crickets, but they'll probably kill neighborhood cats."

He passed on the tiger beetles, as well as something he called a Laura wasp. He and Patrick thought that was hilarious; Laura Duggan is a vice president of the company running the fractional ownership homes. She's the boss, and Patrick stops wearing flip-flops when he hears she's coming to the island.

Duggan is a Jersey girl, and the highest compliment she can pay is to give you a Springsteen song for a ringtone. She puts a lot of thought into it, finding something that sums up a person's character.

Nick's is "No Surrender."

Phil Ellsworth/ESPN
The challenges are immense.

'We'll know by the end of today …'

It's Tuesday morning. Patrick is standing on the dock waiting for a boat to arrive, and at this moment, there is a meeting in Dallas about the sale. A group has been to visit three or four times and is gathering the money. It's talking to investors right now.


View photos of Daufuskie Island by Phil Ellsworth and paintings by Bill Greenwood. Gallery Photo Gallery

Meanwhile, there's a huge boat, a million-dollar yacht, gunning through the sound at full speed. It's a no-wake zone. There are big signs. The dude doesn't care; he lays on the throttle. Tall waves roll off the stern. A small skiff of islanders rushes to the dock to get on land before they capsize. Patrick is stewing. He looks at the frantic islanders, and the oblivious millionaire, and then down at his own small boat, tied up to the pier.

"My boat's about to get slammed," he says.

The islanders are tense. Patrick and the rest understand that this isn't something that will happen with them. It will happen to them, like the high-dollar boats roaring through the sound.

Laura Duggan has come over from Hilton Head and is in her company's makeshift office. The end is nearing. A sale would be good for Duggan, and most likely for Nick, but it could mean many things for Patrick, not all of them good. Nick can point to memorable, creative solutions. Patrick has to find a place on a résumé to put in "Love." If the new owners pick only one, well …

He comes inside the office to see Duggan. "We'll know by the end of today," she says. "Maybe tomorrow."

Patrick tries not to get too excited. They had another would-be buyer who strung them along for months, trying to come up with the money. The course motto was "two weeks, 10 days, next week." Patrick even got a call inviting him to be part of the team, and he and his wife bought champagne to celebrate. He told his entire family that he'd done it: He'd stayed and won. He didn't tell his mom for two months that the deal was off. His parents already are asking why he doesn't leave.

Are your parents proud?

After a couple of false starts, Patrick finally says: "Yeah, for working. And sticking by it. I'm sure they're worried. Does it get to that point where you're just being stupid?"

Powering down

Everyone thought the bankruptcy would end quickly, but the loan to continue operations ran out, and deals kept falling through and salaries were cut and hope was lost and, four months ago, Patrick was in his pro shop when the bankruptcy trustee's son ran in, red-faced.

"Get everything you need," he yelled. "They're gonna cut the power."

Patrick didn't panic. He'd been expecting this. The bankruptcy hadn't been all bad. He'd become someone with information, not just someone to clean a club or diagnose a swing. So he stood in the pro shop -- his pro shop -- and waited. The resort's last breath was a click, then the whole place powered down. The emergency lights kicked in: All that was left were two white spots and a red exit sign.

Phil Ellsworth/ESPN
The exterior of the Melrose Clubhouse.

Frozen in time

Today, Patrick is back in the pro shop, if only for a few minutes.

It's just how he left it four months ago.

Well, sort of. The place smells dank. Ivy is already growing into the building. Glasses waiting for drinks cover the clubhouse bar, and fake flowers remain on dining tables. In the hall are framed plaques with Golf Digest awards. The club Nicklaus used for the first tee shot at Melrose is displayed in a shadow box, as is Ike's 4-iron. There's a plaque to the club's first golf pro: Gene Stout. Before coming here, he taught Eisenhower and was head pro at Augusta National. The thing is sturdy, meant to last forever, the sort of remembrance that blunts the sorrow of children and grandchildren, comforted by the knowledge that people will never forget.

Phil Ellsworth/ESPN
The first hole and the 18th fairway at Bloody Point.

Patrick walks to the wall and pulls down a picture. It's black and white, taken in about 1900, and there are men and women dressed in their best, partying, having a grand time. "This is Daufuskie," he says.

It's all a circle. He looks at the picture and sees people who fought the same battles he is fighting. They all lost. That's a heavy idea to carry around. Nobody remembers their names, or their tiny victories and defeats, just as, one day, people won't remember that Patrick Ford and Nick Bright gave so much of themselves to save a golf course. The reason to stay and fight has to do with today.

Outside, a tour group pulls through the circle drive, folks coming across from Hilton Head. The guide points and narrates.

"Going to see the old bankrupt resort," Patrick says.

It's a ghost town. The all-important gate, striped red and white, is raised. Thick chains bind the doors of the inn. Mold grows on the columns. In the underground parking area, a size 4 Ralph Lauren women's blazer and a men's Canali sport coat hang on a chain-link fence, abandoned. The inn's tables are still set with silverware rolls and ketchup and mustard. It's as if all the people just vanished. There are dirty dishes in the employee cafeteria. On one side of the washer is a tray of clean stuff, and on the other side, dirty. There is food on the forks.

Patrick cranks a resort truck and heads to the saddest relic of all.

He drives into a thick mass of trees and tall hog fennel. The truck wobbles and squeaks on its shocks. There's a family of deer over to the side watching, led by a big-racked buck. The plants look like trees. What man took years to conceive and build, nature took back in months.

This is Bloody Point Golf Course.

It's gone.

"It's like you almost expect to come up on a lion," Patrick says.

Later, back at Melrose, he drives down the 18th fairway to check out the road that's washed out in the past few months. At the beginning of the summer, he could drive across it. Now it's fallen into the sea. Environmental groups won't let the islanders rebuild. Even the sea wall protecting the course splinters a little more with every wave. The island is actively rejecting them.

Finally over?

The beginning of the end: After 18 months, Patrick's future has boiled down to one woman staring at one phone. Laura Duggan is back, waiting anxiously in a red chair, checking the clock every few minutes. It's Wednesday, and there's news in Dallas.

Finally, the phone rings. "This is him," she says.

She takes notes. She covers her mouth when she laughs. She breaks the lead on her pencil.

Phil Ellsworth/ESPN
The sea wall at No. 17.

Nick walks in. Duggan beams and starts singing. "It's looking like we got a deal," she croons. "It's looking like we sold the resort. It's looking like we should have proof of funds by 2:30 this afternoon."

"You got that champagne ready?" Nick asks.

"It's been in the fridge for a year," she says. "Does it go bad?"

"It gets better with age," Nick says.

Now they wait. Nobody knows what a sale actually means. Duggan is making sure all potential buyers hear the story of two men who've been fighting an island. "Real estate people aren't supposed to do this," she says, "but half of my presentation is about Nick and Patrick and what they've done."

But even with Duggan's kind words, Patrick knows when The Call finally comes, all his struggle might be for nothing. "Ultimately, you could just be asked to leave," he says. "We've got to prepare ourselves for that."

His neighbors share Patrick's fears. They figure the next owners will make the same mistakes. No new stories, just new players.

"You mark my words," Pinckney says. "When it comes time for a severe f---ing, Patrick's gonna get it. They'll sell him down the river in a damn minute. He's put in so much love and so much effort. If you work for the resort, the more you love it and the more you put into it, the worse you're gonna get screwed."

Finally, an equal

Everyone on the island is nervous. They like what was born out of financial ruin. When the resort failed, everything changed. The gates opened. Some of the wealthy never came back. Others moved to Haig Point.

Phil Ellsworth/ESPN
The resort went bankrupt.

"I don't know if they wanted to be seen with the common folk," Patrick says. "Some people got scared. They had to be in an environment for a little while they never thought they would be. With the commoners."

But not everyone ran or hid behind a gate. Some got involved. The citizens got together and held a private election and named a Daufuskie town council so they could speak with one voice to Beaufort County. There's a weekly softball game on Sundays. Some of the people who used to ride the Daufuskie Island Resort boats now ride with the islanders, and they share beers on the way back from the grocery store. Everyone has to unload his own bags now; the bell staff disappeared with the resort.

The whole atmosphere of the pro shop changed, and people noticed. There was still great service, but a stiffness was gone. The collapse of the resort loosened the walls between classes. Patrick wasn't just staff. He ate meals with members, cracked beers with them. They were united, equals. The little things that separated them fell down.

Since so many people had worked for the resort, businesses rose from the ashes. Locals decided to make a stand. There's a farmer's market. A new restaurant called the Dirt Road Diner. A community garden. People interact much more. There's a feeling among the 340 permanent residents that hasn't existed since men with bulldozers sailed over and cut it into pieces.

For Patrick, the past two years have been full of stress and hard work, but they've given him this little utopia out in the ocean. "He is being seen as a person for the first time," Duggan says. "And he likes it. Now Patrick can talk with each person, and they invite him to their homes for dinner, and he can go. It's a wonderful thing to watch. We know the boundaries will come back, but for a special moment in time, he is an equal."

At a bankrupt golf course on a bridgeless island, Patrick Ford found the place he's been searching for since he was a little boy.

Time stands still

"Is it 2:30 yet?" Duggan asks.

"No," Nick says.

Water pipes that like to explode

Nick is talking to the golf cart, whispering, cajoling, begging. The battery is in the red, and he's Flintstoning, almost back to the cottage where the charged carts are stored. "Come on, baby," he says. "You can make it."

Phil Ellsworth/ESPN
The equipment has been stretched.

The cart inches home, barely, and he switches it out for another. Everything, and everyone, is on empty. For starters, his equipment won't last much longer. The mowers are designed to be used for three years. They're going on six. "Toro wants to kill me right now," he says. "Well, they were pissed as hell at me, then when they came out and looked at the course, they were like: 'How the hell are you doing this?'"

The mowers are essentially stolen. They haven't been fully paid for, and they could be repossessed any day. Some of Daufuskie's stuff already has been. The system that controls the sprinklers is leased. Anything would be fatal to lose. He's hoping that Toro simply doesn't want its stuff back because it's wrecked. Two years ago, Nick had four rough mowers, three fairway mowers and three triplexes. Now he's down to one triplex, two rough and two fairway. One breaks down every day.

Almost on cue, as he describes the problems, his phone rings. A mower threw a rod. Surely, this has to end soon. "We've been saying that for a year and a half," he says. "They keep saying it can't get any worse. I'm like, don't say that. Last time they said that, the power got turned off. Quit saying that s---. Because it can get worse. Toro is gonna come repo their s---, and if we don't have any equipment, we can't work."

He's got only enough pesticide to spray for critters one more time. He's got enough fertilizer left for one more application, which isn't so bad, since he probably doesn't have enough diesel left to put out a second coat. The pump house is 30 years old, and the pressure tank isn't used at more modern courses because it likes to explode. He's worried that a pipe might burst and wash out the 18th green. He's worried about everything, really, from his incredible staff to his own future to the fragile golf course that is barely hanging on.

"Nature's trying to get it back," he says. "Trying its damnedest."

For once, the Law of Giving comes through

Patrick sits at the marina bar, sipping a vodka drink. His wife, Tai, is at the bar, too. Life is good here in the late afternoon, waiting for the sun to go down. The drink dulls the pain in his shoulder and neck. A week ago, he slid headfirst in the softball game. Twice. He's never done half speed, no matter the cost.

He asks the bartender if there's any aspirin.

"Does your neck still hurt?" Tai asks.

"I hit a driver," he says.

She looks at him. It's the look husbands and wives have for each other, the one that says: You did something stupid, but it's such a part of your character that I love you for it.

His phone rings. He goes outside to answer.

It's not The Call.

They talk about what the news will mean. Only a job offer is worth buying a round for the bar, he decides. His phone rings again. He walks into the kitchen, puts a finger in his ear.

It's not The Call.

He sits at the bar and talks about the test to be a PGA professional. It's a tournament, and when he arrived, the fancy golfers with their tour bags and shiny gear intimidated him. He failed three times. All failures came from the same place. He didn't belong.

Then, the fourth try. On the 15th hole, he saw a baby turtle headed toward a road. He thought of Deepak Chopra's Law of Giving and saved the turtle. On the last hole, a long par-5, lightning flashed and he mishit a 7-iron, headed straight for the water. But it skipped across the hazard into a bunker. He chipped it to 20 feet and putted to three. He needed to make this putt to qualify. The horn blew. Lightning strobed the sky. Officials gave him the option to hit the final shot or come back tomorrow. He chose now. He drew back the putter, then stopped, reloaded, the thunder banging in the air, and, finally, pulled the trigger. The putt rolled in.

"That was my major championship," he says.

He tells this story earnestly, several drinks in, as a window into himself. The Law of Giving. That's what he's hoping for with his work at Melrose. He's giving so he can get, so karma will help him keep the life he's found in the past 18 months, on this strange island, with his neighbors and friends, a place where the walls that surrounded his previous life have fallen down.

Now, finally, he is living in a place where a man's actions define him, not his birth.

Phil Ellsworth/ESPN
Sunset on the island.

Waiting …

Wednesday's almost over. The appointed hour comes and goes. "OK," Laura announces, "I'm calling."

Into the phone, she says, "Everybody's on pins and needles. OK, I'll look forward to hearing from you in about 30 minutes."

A half-hour, then the phone will ring with news. Only The Call doesn't come. There's something Laura doesn't know.

It's never coming.

The truth

Patrick leaves the bar, and that night he ends up on the beach, drunk, listening to the water. He takes off his flip-flops and walks barefoot in the sand. Waves roll in. He stands on the shore of his island. Disaster lurks over the black horizon. There's the inevitable power of the ocean. There are barges waiting to be loaded with equipment. There's a golf pro who might be coming to take his job. His life is behind him, on the island he's come to call home, for as long as he can make it work. The future is out in the water. The future is this rising tide, coming in past midnight.

It will bring what it brings, and it will take what it takes.

A job offer gets rejected … at first

A grinding sameness returns to Patrick's days. But something is different. That last week in August is when hope begins to die. There's only one other day that matters now. Patrick Ford wakes up every morning with Oct. 21 circled on his calendar. The Auction. Something has to happen then.

A few days before, Patrick gets a phone call from a course in Sandestin, Fla. -- assistant pro at a private club. Would he like to interview? Well, he tells the man, that's flattering, but he's made it this far on Daufuskie. The new job seems like a return to a life he's left behind. No. He needs to see this through.

The sale day arrives. A ballroom in the Hilton Head Marriott is standing room only. Coffee and tea are served, with some light snacks. Patrick wears a tie and flip-flops. Nick remembers Patrick looking awful, the blood gone from his face, his tie crooked. Nick remembers one other thing, too: Patrick bolting from the room to puke. The stress is making him sick.

The auctioneer comes to the microphone. He bangs a gavel, and silence comes to the room.

Patrick Ford waits to hear the verdict.

"We have no bidders," the auctioneer says.

The air leaves the room. Patrick never considered this possibility. Nobody is coming to save him. The finish line was a mirage. Once, he saw Daufuskie Island as utopia. Now, when the shores grow large before him, he sees a prison. The pastel first glance vanishes, and the ghosts make their move.

The day after the auction, he calls the golf course in Sandestin back. The man there laughs when he hears Patrick's voice. "We've been waiting on your call," he says. Patrick interviews. Tai does, too, for a sales job at the same club.

They wait.

Time erodes his world a little more every day. October fades to November, then to December. Months of his seriously diminished salary create financial pressures. The leather bag he's carried around like Indiana Jones' whip breaks. The phone company turns off the pro shop line, cutting his last connection with the outside world. No more calls from golfers come through. That pushes Patrick closer to the edge.

Now in the morning, instead of looking for eagles, he finds himself crying on the way to the course. His shoulder injury grows worse, until he can't work at all. For two years now, he's been asked one question: Why? A stock answer developed, and he believed it: because the golf course was worth saving, because it was important that a man fight even if the future seems bleak, because to give up the fight is to die. But now, alone with his thoughts, he finds himself asking the question:


He doesn't have an answer. Well, that's not exactly true. He knows the answer.

He just doesn't believe it anymore.

Time to get out

The offers from Florida finally arrive. Would Patrick and Tai like new jobs? He goes home with the news. "We're gonna have to leave," he tells her.

Tai doesn't want to move. Her job for the resort is still going well. All change is scary, and she too feels part of their strange island home. After all they've been through, how can they give up?

She begins to cry. That's when he tells her. Everything. How bleak his mind has gotten. How he cries, too, many mornings. How he hates the island. She still believes, but he's seen behind the curtain.

"We're fighting a losing battle," he says. "We can't sacrifice ourselves."

They take the jobs.

Starting over

Three months later, as spring arrives in Florida, Patrick changes his phone number. "Such a relief," he says.

Members from Daufuskie kept calling, keeping the line open between his old life and the new one, nurturing a thought lurking in the corners of his mind. He wants to cut ties, break clean, start over.

"I wouldn't go back for $100,000, and that sucks," he says. "… It just wasn't meant to be."

It's March 2011. Spring break has arrived on the Gulf Coast. It's the first perfect day since he moved. With a day off, he heads to a beach bar. Auburn University coeds are walking down the road in bikinis; guys are carrying coolers of beer. The new course is corporate, with all the headaches of private club members, but he is grateful for a job. The Law of Giving, he says. The pieces of himself he left on the island bought him this chance. He sees his new home as a place of beauty and potential. He is happy. His shoulder is healing. He's healing, too.

Who knows what will happen to the golf course he tried to save? It's a beautiful place, he thinks, but so was the mansion that stood there before. His journey has taught him something. The island always wins.

A new life is being built here. Tai is good at her job. She has business cards. Patrick, who's 40, is learning how to be around people again. He looks toward the future most days, but sometimes, he is drawn into the past. His struggle against the island changed him. The hope of August and the despair of November are part of him. He carries Daufuskie everywhere he goes, in his DNA and in the brick he keeps on a table in their new home. It's a relic from the old Melrose Mansion, a reminder of both the futility of man fighting nature and of the two years when he tried. Next to the brick are pieces of driftwood that washed up on a beach at Daufuskie -- the world reduced to a still life.

There are things the tide brings, and there are things the tide takes.

Marsha Griffin
Patrick and Tai have moved on.

New players on Daufuskie

Meanwhile, back at Daufuskie, Nick seems reborn. After the failed auction and months of stress, he threatened folks with a financial stake in seeing the golf course survive. Give me chemicals now or I'm walking. Melrose was about to die. His career was dying with it.

Wanting to protect their investment, they listened. Nick got to hire two more workers. A few weeks ago, he got a line of credit at the chemical store. The blades on the mowers were sharpened. A conversation was started with Toro about new equipment. Any moment now, they're turning the power on at the cart barn. Nick is acting head pro. He lines up carts and collects money. Recently, he was a finalist for the Superintendent of the year. There will be a few more scares in the coming months, but Nick is going to make it to the finish line with a living golf course. Maybe he had the right idea all along. He never got close to the island, never moved here. There was no attempt at building a new life, just a fight to keep grass alive. He left before sunset. The ghosts never stalked him through the trees.

Today, blue skies canopy the island. The water sparkles. New people are making new plans. The bankruptcy will be over soon over, a group of investors taking over the property. The old resort is coming back to life. More money is coming to Daufuskie. Boats steam across the sound with supplies. Workers fix a roof. Duggan just got the go-ahead to restart construction on a cottage. Bids are entered to clean the Melrose Inn, inside and out. Put on a fresh coat of shiny white paint. The current owners are looking to spring, to get some golfers on the course, make back some money. They need a real head pro, someone who will put his heart and soul into a beautifully flawed place. They've solicited names, done due diligence and almost settled on a candidate.

They never called Patrick Ford.

One final show of love

Three months earlier, as Tai and Patrick were packing up their old life, one final act remained. The owner of their favorite island bar told them to stop by. There was going to be this little going-away party. A drink sounded nice. They imagined a small get-together, a few friends. When they arrived, they were speechless.

Friends packed the place. They'd brought food. Casseroles, vegetables and meats. Desserts. A feast. Members of the private club came, and islanders, too. A community had gathered, as a family, to give thanks. Nobody had ever done anything like this for Patrick. The love touched him, brought back the good he'd forgotten in the bleakness.

The islanders came to him one by one, let him know he'd always have a home here. The folks of Daufuskie are insular, but they had accepted Patrick as one of their own. One longtimer cried when she tried to tell him what he's meant. Another came face-to-face with Patrick and could not speak. There were no words.

Two days later, Patrick Ford climbed onto a boat, the bow pointed into a stable if predictable future. The prop churned out a long carpet of green bubbles, waving slightly, a thin line connecting him to a dock on the island he once called home. As he rode toward land, the bubbles sank. The wake slowly disappeared, as if it had never been there at all.

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com. You can find his story archive here.

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