Whitney honors late brother Bob's legacy at Pinnacle Bank Championship
July 29, 2020
By Kevin Prise, PGATOUR.COM
- Tom Whitney describes his older brother Bob, with whom he grew up learning the game, as having been "truly my No. 1 fan." (Courtesy of Tom Whitney)
OMAHA, Neb. – When Tom Whitney took up the game of golf as a 7-year-old, helping his dad and a friend finish a bucket of balls at a driving range in Lake Tahoe, California, his older brother Bob was alongside.
Bob excelled on the La Quinta (Calif.) High School golf team, with Tom following suit. Same at the Air Force Academy – Bob graduating in 2008, Tom two years later.
After fulfilling his four-year term of active duty in May 2014, Tom turned his career focus to professional golf. Bob continued full-time in the military, based at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha as an Intelligence Officer, progressing to the rank of Major.
When they teed it up, though, no strokes were exchanged.
“You can’t be an older brother asking for strokes,” Tom Whitney laughed. “You’ve got to play straight-up.”
Bob was Tom’s biggest fan. He would caddie on occasion, and kept co-workers posted on Tom’s ups and downs in professional events. Every round. Every score.
On January 8 of this year, Bob committed suicide after a battle with depression. He was 33, leaving behind his wife Shawna and four children.
“We had a really close bond, close relationship, and he truly was my No. 1 fan,” said Whitney in advance of this week’s Pinnacle Bank Championship presented by Aetna outside Omaha. “All of his co-workers, after he passed away, he made it apparent that if I was playing in a tournament, he would update them on what I’m doing, where I’m at. His co-workers that don’t even follow golf probably know more about the sport, just because of how much he was a fan of mine.
“I know that he’s watching me. He’s still with me on the course, and I try to focus on the good memories that we had together, and I’m extremely grateful that I had a brother that would be willing to hear updates from me on the golf course. So instead of lamenting the fact that I can’t call him anymore, I just cherish the idea that I had a brother that loved me so much, and was so involved in my progress and my success.”Major Robert Whitney was a decorated intelligence officer in the United States Air Force. (Courtesy of Tom Whitney)
Throughout this week’s Pinnacle Bank Championship, Korn Ferry Tour players, caddies and staff are wearing purple-and-turquoise ribbons, the colors symbolic for suicide awareness and prevention.
Wednesday afternoon, the Korn Ferry Tour operations truck made a $5,000 donation to 22Kill, an organization aimed at raising awareness for suicide prevention -- empowering veterans, first responders and their families through traditional and non-traditional therapies.
Twenty-two is the average number of veteran suicides that occur on a daily basis.
“That’s a number that I wasn’t aware of until this year,” said Whitney. “I’m the first to admit that I was ignorant about mental illness, and depression and suicide as a whole … before this all started and affected my life, I didn’t respect depression the way it needed to be respected.
“It’s very destructive, it’s very deceiving, and when I heard of someone that was depressed, I would just say, ‘Hey, snap out of it; you’re OK, you’ve got to see the truth and how good your life actually is.’ But it’s not that simple.”
Whitney said that although Bob suffered through lows for over a year, he was deeply depressed for just “only a few months” before taking his life in January. He admits being on the side of “Bob, let me remind you how good you have it,” with a loving wife, four adoring children, and respect as one of the highest-ranked performers in his Air Force intelligence role.
Bob had even recently been granted an United States Strategic Command award as one of the top officers in his field.
“But depression doesn’t care,” Whitney said. “It will seep lies into the brain saying, ‘You’re not good enough. You’re not competent,’ and it’s just not as simple as I thought it was.
“When Bob died and we had to go through all this, and re-learn what life was like from here on out, I just made a commitment to myself to just bring awareness to mental illness, depression, suicide … how nobody’s above it. It can happen to anyone.”Tom Whitney now uses his brother Bob's military identification dog tag as his ball marker. (Courtesy of Tom Whitney)
The Whitney brothers caught the golf bug as a matter of happenstance.
A friend of their dad’s would often do side jobs on the house – the catch, though, was that sometimes he wouldn’t show up. He would be at the golf course, hitting a bucket of balls.
“My dad would call his house, and his wife would say, ‘He might be at the golf course. Go meet him there,’” Whitney recalled with a laugh. “My dad started to enjoy it, so he started to bring my brother and I out there.”
After catching the golf bug on a Lake Tahoe driving range as elementary schoolers, the Whitney brothers quickly progressed to junior clinics, then tournaments. Eventually moving to Southern California, the brothers would compete against the likes of Rickie Fowler.
Although the brothers grew up playing and practicing together, taught by the same dad, their golf swings were not cut from the same cloth.
Bob, who played to scratch handicap, had “one of the prettiest, most fluid swings,” Whitney said. “His tempo was absolutely perfect. He had a nice reverse-C finish, which is funny when you juxtapose it with my swing, because I’m short, compact; I’ve got a lot of speed through impact.”
Whitney described Bob’s swing as “a lot prettier than mine.”
Tom Whitney interview before the Pinnacle Bank Championship
Whitney, now 31, didn’t give much thought to a career in professional golf until late in his college tenure, when he cracked the Division I top-25 ranking as an individual. After spending four years on Air Force active duty, the majority of time spent as a nuclear missile operator, he turned pro.
He has spent time on both the Korn Ferry Tour and PGA TOUR Latinoamerica; this week’s Pinnacle Bank Championship will mark his 74th start between the two Tours. He has won twice on PGA TOUR Latinoamerica, finishing No. 2 on last year’s Order of Merit to earn strong Korn Ferry Tour status, which he bettered with a T3 at Final Stage of Q-School last December.
“I guess it always just made sense,” said Whitney, on opting to become self-employed while his brother stayed in the military full-time. “He was a rule-follower, never even tried to test the limits, always fell in line … and I was kind of the rule-pusher. I’m always on the edge, trying to figure out how much I could get away with. So it made sense that he planned on making a career in the Air Force, and that I would fulfill my commitment and then try to do something where I am my own boss.
“With that said, if I didn’t have golf tugging at me, I’d still be in the Air Force today. I miss it; I miss the camaraderie; I miss the people. Golf is a lonely sport, and you’ve got to figure a lot of the stuff out on your own, but Bob was always in my corner.
“When I told him I wanted to go pro, he knew it was the right decision, and he was very supportive and behind me every aspect of the way.”
For this week’s Pinnacle Bank Championship, Whitney drove to Omaha with his wife Jess and their four kids, to spend the week with Bob’s widow Shawna and four kids. It makes for a busy but fun household – pizza comprised the majority of Tuesday evening’s menu.The Whitney kids pose for a photo on Tuesday evening in the Omaha metroplex. (Courtesy of Tom Whitney)
Two Thanksgivings ago, the families got together, with the dads sneaking off to play 18 holes at the Offutt Air Force Base’s course.
Shortly before Bob passed away, the families visited again. Bob was “in a fog,” Whitney recalled, on antidepressants and going through counseling. He wasn’t himself.
When Whitney brought up that round of golf, though, Bob’s mood immediately brightened.
“He went into this 15-minute hole-by-hole of his score,” Whitney remembered. “How he chipped in for eagle on the ninth and was able to finish 2-over par on the front nine, and he told me his score on the back, and it was cool just to see normal, regular Bob talking about golf, talking about a memory with me and him, and him kind of lighten up.”
When asked what he’ll take from Bob as he progresses through life, as a father and as a professional golfer in chase of the PGA TOUR, Whitney noted Bob’s infectious demeanor.
Bob had a constant ear-to-ear grin, Whitney said, that was contagious to anyone in the room.
“I try to live with the joy that he lived with,” Whitney said. “Just always laugh and smile.”
During the pandemic hiatus, Tom and Jessica Whitney welcomed their fourth child, a daughter named Charlotte Bobbie. The initial thought was that maybe just close family would call her Bobbie – it was Bob’s nickname as a kid.
Turns out, that might not be the case.
“Fast forward to today, we haven’t introduced her to anyone as Charlotte,” Whitney said, a tear coming to his eye.
“She’s Bobbie. And she probably will be for the rest of her life.”