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Saturday, November 21, 2015

Remembering Chris Fuga's love for the game at Llanerch

   There’s always a lot going on on the first day of the Philadelphia Amateur. There’s 120 or so golfers playing two rounds at two different golf course and at the end of the day, weather permitting, there will be 32 of the Philadelphia area’s very best players advancing to match play.
   So when you first arrive, you’re just staring at the scoreboard trying to figure out what’s going on. That’s where I first met Stephen Giampietro on Day 1 at Llanerch Country Club last summer. He was asking if anybody knew about where Chris Fuga would be on the course at that point. As the Golf Association of Philadelphia official manning the scoreboard tried to figure out about where Fuga would be, I checked his name on the scoreboard and it listed him as being an Overbrook member.
   The name rang a bell from covering high school golf and GAP events, but he was St. Pius X in high school and Phoenixville Country Club, so he wasn’t “mine.” That’s the way you think when you’re covering an event like that for a paper like the Daily Times. OK, he’s Overbrook now, he’s on my radar.
   I asked the gentleman how long Fuga had been at Overbrook. I was guessing it was his dad, but I later learned he was Fuga’s uncle. He said, “Do you know about Chris?”
   “No, tell me,” the nosy reporter answered.
   I listened, I’m sure increasingly wide-eyed, as his uncle told me that Chris was near death this time last year after being diagnosed with leukemia. That he had a bone-marrow transplant at Temple’s Fox Chase Cancer Center in August. He had shot 73 in the morning at Rolling Green. He was in the process of shooting 2-under 69 in the afternoon at Llanerch. It was 90 degrees. He was 10 months removed from a bone marrow transplant. Are you kidding me?
   “In the newspaper business, we call that a story,” I said to Giampietro when he finished.
   And what a story it turned out to be as Fuga finished tied for third in qualifying and would make it all the way to the semifinals before falling to eventual champion Cole Berman, the three-time Daily Times Player of the Year at The Haverford School.
   Which is why my heart sank last week when, in my regular scanning of the Internet to see how former Delco high school kids are doing in college, I discovered that Chris Fuga had died Oct. 30 at age 24.
   It turns out that Fuga had fallen ill again in the hours following his loss to Berman in the Philly Am semifinals. The leukemia had returned  and he would spend the rest of June and most of July in the hospital and have another bone marrow transplant.
   But Fuga bounced back again. He actually was doing well until he was hit with an infection the Sunday before Halloween, an infection his immune system, weakened by all the anti-cancer drugs he had taken, could not fight off. By Friday he was gone.
   I talked to his dad Mark last week, his emotions still understandably raw.
   “He was talking about going back to Coker (College) for the spring, the last time I talked to him he was like, ‘It’s OK dad, I got this, I’ll be OK,’” Mark Fuga said.
   Chris Fuga had been one of the top players at Coker, in South Carolina, before missing the 2014-2015 season while recovering from the first bone marrow transplant. At the Philly Am, he was planning to go back for his senior season.
   Oscar Mestre, a longtime Overbrook member, had invited Fuga to gain membership through the club’s President’s Pick scholarship. That’s how he ended up helping Overbrook reach the final four of Division AA, the top tier in GAP’s Team Matches, in the spring.
   At Llanerch, he couldn’t have been more complimentary of the way in which he had been accepted at Overbrook.
   “It was a six-and-a-half hour wake,” Mark Fuga said. “The president of Coker came up here with a posthumous degree. People came from Overbrook. People came from everywhere. Chris never wanted to be the center of attention. It was an amazing tribute to him the way everybody came to pay their respects.”
   One of the things that struck me about Chris Fuga that week at Llanerch was how much he enjoyed just being there. The Philadelphia Amateur, he told me, was his favorite tournament. He had reached the quarterfinals two years earlier at Aronimink.
   And there he was at Llanerch in the semifinals. He ran into the only person more determined that he was that week in Berman. And even then, Fuga won the 10th and 11th holes, to take a 1-up lead on Berman before the three-time GAP Junior Player of the Year surged back to win the match, 2 and 1.
   There was no shortage of story lines at Llanerch that week for the guy covering the tournament for the Delco Daily Times. First of all, it was Llanerch, one of three Delco courses to stage a major professional championship, the 1958 PGA Championship, along with Aronimink (1962 PGA Championship) and the five U.S. Opens at Merion’s East Course.
   There was the dream matchup in the second round of match play between Michael McDermott, who grew up at Llanerch, and Jeff Osberg, a former Llanerch member. It was a tremendous match between the two best mid-am players in the Philadelphia area for the last decade-plus and their Llanerch connection had quite a few of the membership sneaking away from  work early on a Wednesday to catch some of it.
   And there was the final between Berman and Michael Davis, who were only a year removed from the Inter-Ac League battles I had covered for four years with Berman at Haverford School and Davis at Malvern Prep.
   I asked Chris Fuga’s dad for a picture to add to this post and it is that same smile that I remember that week at Llanerch. He loved the Philly Am because he knew that if you were good enough to reach the semifinals in this tournament, you were a player. You could play.
   “Anybody, 1 to 32, is good enough to win this once match play starts,” he said.
   He loved the game and he was very thankful that week that Dr. Henry Chi Hang Fung at the Temple Fox Chase Cancer Center’s Bone Marrow Transplant program had given him a reprieve and he was going to make the most if it.
   It’s Thanksgiving week and we always like to talk about what we’re thankful for. And I guess I’m thankful that Chris Fuga came along and reminded me how much I love the game. Just like he did.
   The Philly Am is at Merion next year. Chris Fuga would have loved it.

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