The caddie's daughter
Sierra Duplantis’ father died in a tragic accident, but with the support of his friends, she’s able to chase her dreams
September 14, 2015
By Jim Moriarty, Special to PGATOUR.COM
It was Wednesday, Jan. 23, seven years ago. Eleven-year-old Sierra Duplantis was at a middle school basketball game in Ohio getting ready to perform with the rest of the members of her dance team at halftime. Instead, she was rushed out of the gymnasium and taken home where the woman she refers to as “Mom” told her the man she saw infrequently but dearly loved had died.
A few hours earlier, her father, Steve Duplantis, then 35 and a veteran PGA TOUR caddie, stumbled off the center median and into the path of a taxi on Camino Del Mar, the main street of the chichi seaside town in California down the coast from a track where they race thoroughbred horses and up the coast from Torrey Pines, where they race thoroughbred golfers.
Duplantis was scheduled to carry Eric Axley’s bag later that week. Instead, he didn’t even make it to the hospital.
“It was so surreal,” Sierra says. “It didn’t even register to me that he was really gone. He’d just texted me that morning, I miss you, and all this stuff. I loved him more than anything.”
Fast forward to Sept. 12, 2015. Sierra Duplantis has arrived at Memorial Stadium at Clemson University to watch her Tigers host Appalachian State. She carries her ticket to the football game inside one of her cowboy boots for safe keeping. It gets her a spot on the grass hill where the team enters the stadium like downhill racers. Her best friend is one of the cheerleaders.
She ís a sophomore at Clemson, living in the Zeta Tau Alpha sorority house and majoring in political science with ambitions of studying the law. How she got to this point, how she overcame the loss of her dad to become a college student with high grades and even higher goals, is a path paved with the kindness of strangers and the support from the TOUR family.
Charity is the wallpaper of the PGA TOUR, often emblazoned with words like “foundation” or “association” or “institute.” But sometimes it’s personal. Sometimes it has a face. And sometimes it begins at home.
Steve Duplantis was the same kind of father that he was a caddie. He was really, really good at it -- when he was there. The tales of his career as a caddie would be mythic, except for the fact they’re true. He could show up late for showing up late.
“It was well documented,” says Mike “Fluff” Cowan, who became Jim Furyk’s caddie after Jim fired Duplantis. “Historic, I guess, would be an all-right word to use.”
No one ever faulted Furyk for firing Duplantis, not even Duplantis’ father, also named Steve.
“God love Stevie, he was a character. He was quite a party guy, got lacksy-daisy. Jim was patient with him, warned him a few times and finally let him go,” says the father.
Most everyone wondered what took Furyk so long.
“It was legendary, his lack of preparation and his showing up late. All true. Not exaggerated,” says Furyk. “But, on the golf course, he was a heck of a caddie and a friend of mine. I did really care for him. It seemed like whoever he worked for, whoever he touched, always seemed to play pretty well, whether it be Rich Beem or Tommy Armour, Brian Gay, just go down the list.
“He just had a way about him. Some people, you get around and you can’t wait to get away from them and some people they just draw other people in. He was one of those guys. Even though he got himself in a little hot water and a little trouble -- was always teetering -- you really pulled for him and really wanted to be around him.”
Duplantis was one of the central characters in “Bud, Sweat and Tees”, a 2001 book that was overtaken by events twice, once when Beem, the other central figure, won the PGA Championship in 2002 to help popularize it and again when Duplantis was killed, rendering some of its boys-will-be-boys tales of the road less amusing than they were foreboding.
Friends offered to help Duplantis.
“Stevie’s like so many other people that we all know who grew up a little slower than the rest of us and couldn’t get out of their own way. He wasn’t the kind that was going to ask for help until he absolutely needed it,” says John Maginnes, ex-TOUR player, PGA TOUR Sirius XM Radio personality and the exception proving Furyk’s rule of Duplantis’ positive on-course effects.
“He caddied for me in my final Q-school. On the golf course, he was as competitive a caddie as I ever met. But when it was pretty obvious I wasn’t going to keep my card, he switched for the last nine holes and became my friend. I would have loved to have seen what he would have turned into in the last 10 years. He was a good one.”
The immediate worry following Duplantis’ death was, of course, the daughter he left behind, though that had been a topic of concern almost from the day Sierra was born. It would be fair to say that Duplantis’ most successful relationships with women were with the ones he arranged, begged or beseeched to care for Sierra.
“My biological mom hasn’t done anything in my life,” says Sierra.
By the time Sierra was a year old, her father had sole custody. But, a single parent/caddie on the PGA TOUR (especially one who liked to keep the kind of hours Duplantis did) responsible for an infant child is stuck between a Pamper and a hard place.
It was during this stretch when Steve met Jennifer Williams, a girl who worked in a MasterCard booth at TOUR events, who would become Jennifer Cooper, who would become the Alpha mom for Sierra in a string of them.
“That’s not like a real career. I was dating a golfer,” she says. “I decided that I was going to go take some time off and go back to college. I’d already turned in my two-week notice when I met Steve. He told me the story about his wife walking out on him and his little girl and he just broke down into tears. He said he didn’t have anybody to watch her and he didn’t know what he was going to do. I felt awful for him. I said I just turned in my two-week notice. If you need any help just call me.
“About a month later, he called.”
Jennifer became Sierra’s nanny at Steve’s home in Plant City, Florida.
“It was supposed to be two or three weeks and two or three weeks turned into two or three months,” she says. “I decided I was not going to raise this little girl miles and miles away from my home. I packed her up and moved her back to (Hickory) North Carolina.” They moved in with Jennifer’s mother, Angie.
When Sierra was four and Steve was ready to go back on TOUR, Jennifer and Angie drove from Hickory to Plant City for Christmas with a Barbie Jeep sticking out of the back of their turquoise Camaro.
“Steve realized I was in love with Sierra,” says Angie. “He asked me if I’d take her for a few weeks.”
Once again, weeks became months. A real estate broker, Angie would show houses with Sierra in tow. When it was time to start elementary school, Steve knew Sierra needed stability. Hickory was it. The months turned into years.
There was another custody battle between Steve and Sierra’s birth mother and a ruling by a Guardian ad Litum in Florida that living in Hickory was in Sierra’s best interest. Angie got that news on Sierra’s eighth birthday while she was out riding her new bike.
When Jennifer married, she moved to Ohio and Sierra went, too. In order to register her for school there, Steve gave Jennifer legal guardianship.
For someone who couldn’t plan for sunrise, with a stroke of the pen, Duplantis had secured Sierra’s future without him.
The day following his son’s death, the elder Duplantis was put in touch with Andy Pazder, the PGA TOUR’s Chief of Operations.
“God love them, they immediately put together an educational trust fund for her,” said the father.
There was a memorial tournament and fundraiser for Sierra’s education that spring in Plant City, and Steve’s father organized their first benefit tournament the Monday before the RBC Canadian Open (Steve Duplantis was born in Brampton, Ontario). A number of players and caddies participated in one or the other, or both, including Furyk, the boss who fired the caddie.
“The first year was our big push,” says Steve’s father. “That was the year we wanted to raise as much money as we could for Sierra’s trust. Jim played the British Open the week before. He didn’t even get into Toronto until about 1:30 in the morning and arrived at North Halton (Golf Club, near Toronto) the next day at 11 o’clock in the morning.
“Anybody that wanted to talk to him, shake his hand, whatever. He hung around the golf course until 11 or 11:30 that night.”
Furyk’s appearance was a featured part of the fundraiser and several local golfers paid a considerable amount of money to be in his group. He even bought some hockey memorabilia donated by Craig Ramsay, who played for the Buffalo Sabres and knew Duplantis from when he was a coach for the Florida Panthers.
The week of the Canadian Open is a busy one for Furyk since RBC is one of his sponsors. Paid a tidy sum to attend a pairings party the day after the fundraiser, when it came time to get the check, Furyk told them to make it out to the Sierra Duplantis Trust.
“I don’t know if he’d want people knowing how generous he was,” says Steve’s father.
In the ensuing years, Furyk has continued to support the memorial tournament with signed memorabilia, pretty much anything they wanted. Others have played in the event when their schedule persists. Fluff Cowan said he’s played two or three times.
But that first year was the key, with 90 percent of the money currently in the trust stemming from the inaugural event.
Although Sierra is on partial scholarship, not all of her college expenses are covered, so the trust pays for the rest. Her plans to attend law school won’t be cheap, but if she says in-state, the trust should be just enough to get her through without having to apply for student loans.
Earlier this year, in the spring at the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, Furyk went to dinner at Ruth’s Chris with Sierra and her grandfather.
“We talked about the golf tournament,” says Sierra. “He talked about his foundation with Tabitha and asked me about school. He’s so sweet. He was telling me about his college days.”
To Furyk, it’s no big deal.
“I just want to be honest. That’s easy stuff,” he says. “I think most of the people Steve worked for would do that to help. I hear from Steve’s dad probably half a dozen times a year. They wish me well and say hello. I wish and hope that Sierra does well.
“I’ve played Charlotte two of the last three years and we kind of revisited. The first year she was in the process of picking colleges. She did so well in school, she had an academic scholarship. I just think it’s great. She had a lot of good people around her. I’d lost touch with her for a while. All of a sudden, you catch up with her and she’s a young lady.”
When players talk about their charities, it’s rarely about the simple kindnesses, often performed in private, for people -- even one little girl -- who could have fallen through life’s cracks.
“It was 4-1/2 years he was on my bag,” Furyk says of Duplantis. “We were both real young. We were both in a learning curve. I think we had an impact on each other.”
Indeed. The proof is right there at Memorial Stadium, the young girl with the football ticket tucked into her cowboy boots and proudly waving the orange foam No. 1 hand to support her team. Her smile is bright, her future brighter. Through small acts of kindness, she's now chasing giant dreams.