LINKS LETTER, FEBRUARY 2003

BRYCE MOLDER’S MEDAL OF HONOR

By Jeff Hopper

Maturity.

Like a gold medal, it is meant to shine richly from the chest upon which it hangs. Sometimes, though, it feels more like a stone, pinning one’s neck to the ground. Especially when you are young.

Bryce Molder, who is certainly still young, has known it both ways. His maturity, heralded by peers, coaches, the media–just about everyone–has been paid for at a heavy price.

For many golf fans, Bryce Molder’s story began on a Saturday at Southern Hills during the 2001 U.S. Open, the day after he made the cut on the number. Long before Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, and eventual champion Retief Goosen teed off, there was Molder, the broadly smiling amateur superstar, streaking up the leaderboard. When NBC recapped the morning for viewers who joined the broadcast in time to see the name players, their tapes followed Molder from first to last. He had fired 68 in the searing Oklahoma heat, and the golf world said, “Hey, who is this?”

Of course, anyone who had kept an eye on college golf knew the young Georgia Tech graduate who was waiting to turn pro after he played–again–in the prestigious Walker Cup at the end of the summer. Bryce Molder had four times been named first team All-American. Only three others had accomplished this feat. One of them, fellow Yellow Jacket David Duval, had risen to number one in the world. A second, Phil Mickelson, had gone to number two. As a collegian, Bryce Molder was in rare company.

But let’s back up and let the story begin long before Southern Hills and Georgia Tech. Let’s begin when Molder was five years old and his father handed him his first cut-off golf clubs.

“My dad played non-competitively,” Bryce says of his father, Barry Molder. “He was not a great player, but he chose the game as recreation. It was a way that I could hang out with him.”

Gradually, Molder’s interest in the game surpassed that of his father, and other sports, though he was good at them, began to fall away. First went soccer and tennis, then baseball, and finally basketball, until only golf remained.

In the summers, even when he was just 10 or 11 years old, Molder would spend all day at the golf course. His father would drop him off at the course and go to work. In the meantime, the discipline that precedes success began.

“I’d go and hit a few balls,” Molder says. “Then I’d play, eat lunch, probably some chicken fingers, then I’d play some more and play some more. I never considered any of it work.”

Work or not, Molder was grooving a swing against all odds. Born with his right hand significantly larger than his left and his left pectoral (chest) muscle entirely absent, Molder shaped a swing despite these products of an unusual affliction called Poland’s Syndrome. Only one child in 30,000 is born with it.

The disease has become a common topic when Molder’s achievements are covered by golf writers, but he considers it, for the most part, a non-issue.

“I thank my parents for that,” Molder says, “because they never kept me from doing anything. They never treated it like it was an excuse for anything, because it’s not. It’s not something where I had an accident when I was 14 and I had to learn to grip the club differently. I picked up a club when I was four or five and I figured out how I could best swing it.

“My best way of explaining this is that God makes everybody different. We’re all built different, whether you’re tall, whether you’re short, whether you’re stocky, whether you’re flexible or you’re not–whatever. But God built me perfect, just like He built everyone else. I really do believe that.”

It is perspective like that that has led to the maturity tags that have so frequently been bestowed upon Molder. But what few people know is how that convergence of age 14 and God–he doesn’t just pluck those items out of the air–burned a maturity into Bryce Molder that can only come from the crossroads where reality and reeling meet.

Kelli Molder was the perfect big sister. She swam early on, then moved to cheerleading and other sports. If most teenage boys tolerate big sisters, Bryce Molder was fortunate not to be among them. His sister was both an example and an encouragement. But in April 1993, when she was 16 years old and Bryce was 14, Kelli Molder died in the night while traveling with Bryce and the family at an American Junior Golf Association event. Bacterial meningitis had taken her without warning.

The Molders were active in their Christian faith, but never before had they been challenged to be so strong in it. Especially Bryce.

“My questions after she died were Why her? Why us? Why do we have to deal with this?” Bryce remembers. He asked of God, “How could You do this to a young girl? She didn’t deserve this.”

It was a harsh, stunning introduction to maturity.

Fortunately, it was not a road he had to walk alone. The family’s pastor spent more time at the Molder home, offering consolation. But Bryce still found it to be “a really sad time, really uncomfortable.”

Still, the friends and neighbors kept coming. And for Bryce, there was the K-Life group at his high school in Conway, Arkansas.

“I got more involved there (with K-Life), because they were waiting with open arms, which is what Christians are supposed to do,” he recalls.

li’s death forced him to wrestle with how God works in the world. The answers weren’t easy, but they changed Bryce’s life.

“I realized that God looks at it like, ‘Hey, I did her a favor and y’all should be jealous of her. She’s getting to live up here with Me in My great kingdom and watch all y’all down there.’ ”

Noticeably, it’s an emotional memory that Molder can’t recall without putting it in his native colloquialisms. But he draws a–what else–mature conclusion. “It feels great to know that He did something with her life. He affected all of ours, more lives than one.”

Kelli’s death changed just about everything about Bryce Molder. “It’s probably the biggest part of what makes me who I am today,” he says. “I don’t know where I would be spiritually right now, but I know because of that I began my relationship with Jesus sooner than I would have.

“I think the way I treat golf in relationship to the rest of my life, it has had a big impact. Golf is very important to me and it means a lot, but that’s it. When the round’s over, if I didn’t play well, I’ll sulk for my 20 minutes, then I’m usually pretty good about that being it.”

And if ever there was a time when Bryce Molder needed mature perspective, it might be now. Beginning the 2002 season with no status on any tour, Molder traveled to Australia to compete at the Buy.com Tour’s season-opening event, the Jacob’s Creek Open. Though he closed with a disappointing 73, he finished second, picked up a check for $53,000 and was on his way.

The following month at the Buy.com event at home in Arkansas, Molder finished seventh. Two weeks later, he competed on the PGA Tour, at the Compaq Classic. He tied for ninth and left with $112,000 and a boatload of confidence.

In the succeeding five weeks, Molder played in four PGA events, missing the cut at the Memorial, but finishing with ties for 22nd, 13th, and 12th elsewhere. He had played his way into a temporary PGA Tour exemption covering the remainder of the year.

Now the goal was clear: make enough money to finish in the top 125 and keep his card.

But then, as golfers must often concede, the wheels came off. From late June to season’s end, Molder played 15 tournaments, but made the cut in just six of those. He finished no higher than 32nd.

It is a long way from near victories in the spring–“there were probably three or four tournaments where if I get a bounce here or there, or if the final round works out, I could have won,” Molder says–to Tour school in the fall. But Molder found himself right back where he didn’t want to be, competing under Q-school pressure just to have a place to play.

Then that, too, fell apart. He didn’t get past second stage. And with the 2003 season embarking, Molder begins again with no exempt Tour status anywhere in the world.

“It was a tough pill to swallow to play so well over such a short period of time and then struggle so much,” Molder says, and he almost sounds like any other 24-year-old who wonders if the world is against him. “It’s very, very humbling.”

That maturity is never far away, though. And in reflecting on perhaps the most difficult six months of his golfing life, Molder puts everything back into perspective.

“Just now I’m looking back and saying, “It’s a struggle, but it’s meant to be a struggle.’ For whatever reason, I was supposed to get a glimpse of what’s to come, but I’m not ready for it yet.

“That’s one thing about my life where I’ve been blessed so much. God has watched over me in that He has never thrown me a whole lot of success at one time. He’s given it to me in small, consistent doses.”

In a lesser player, all this reasoning might come off as a spiritual excuse. But Molder has been successful. Four-time first team All-American. Two-time academic All-American. Twice collegiate player of the year. Twice a member of the Walker Cup team, three times a member of the Palmer Cup team. Twice a quarterfinalist in the U.S. Amateur, and that wonderful weekend at Southern Hills when he was the low amateur at U.S. golf’s most prestigious event. Oh, that we could all experience such “small doses” of success!

But the world of golf has gone to the young in recent years, and it is getting harder to be patient when trophies are being handed to Woods and Garcia and Kuchar and Byrd and Gossett and Howell, all within whispering distance of Molder when it comes to age. No wonder that medal called maturity sometimes feels more like a lead brick.

“Over the last 10 or 15 years of my career, God has waited until He has felt like I’m prepared to take all that goes along with success,” Molder says. “I think He’s still cutting me down so that I can be built up. I hope that’s what’s going on.

“I want to be the best player in the world. Today’s not even good enough. I want it yesterday. That’s the truth. That’s how we are. It’s never soon enough. But I’m not ready for that yet. God knows that and He knows when it is. We may have prayer requests, but He only answers them in His time, not in ours. He’s done a great job of that. I can see that in my life, that the timing of when it happens is just at the right time, not too soon and not too late.”

Certainly, it hardly seems possible that anyone could be more ready than Bryce Molder. Trained by the physical demands of a “different” body, changed by the death of his sister, supported by compassionate family and friends, matured by the hand of God. Heroes are born from just such formulas. Now Bryce Molder waits for victory in the battle.

COPYRIGHT 2003 LINKS PLAYERS INTERNATIONAL

  • Bryce Molder

    1 PGA Tour win: 2011 Frys.com Open

    1 Nationwide Tour win: 2006 Miccosukee Championship