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Return to Bellerive revives memories of 9/11

ST. LOUIS – At 8:46 a.m., on Sept. 11, 2001, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

Tiger Woods was well into his practice round at Bellerive Country Club when news of the attacks began circulating. Davis Love III was waiting for his flight to leave Sea Island, Ga., for St. Louis, and Billy Andrade was having breakfast. It was a typical Tuesday on the PGA Tour.

Psychologists say it’s a part of the brain called the amygdala that fuels our ability to remember, with precise detail, where we were and what we were doing when tragedy strikes. For everyone who had assembled at Bellerive for the WGC-American Express Championship the memories of 9/11 come cascading back with little prompting.

“We were staying at the Ritz in St. Louis. I got up and turned the TV on and took a shower, and the TV was on CNN and I just got mesmerized by what was happening,” recalled Andrade. “I didn’t really know what to do. I went to the golf course. There were a lot of players, there was a decent crowd of fans. I went out and played some. It was kind of eerie.”

That day at Bellerive, when the harsh realities of a dangerous world collided with the insular routine of professional golf, now stands as an unforgettable moment in time for those who were rocked by the events.

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The day began like most, with players and caddies going through the motions of preparing to play a tournament, many oblivious to what was transpiring.

Love was en route to St. Louis when the attacks occurred and his private plane was diverted to a small airport in Tennessee and grounded.

“The vice chairman of American Express and I were good friends, and I immediately called to check on him and the employee friends that I knew in [New York City], and he said, ‘We will not be playing golf. You can go on home.’ So I went on home,” Love said. “A lot of guys came on out here, but I knew from talking to him that there were bigger things than golf and that we weren’t going to play.”

Love’s caddie, John Burke, was at Bellerive. He remembers getting a cup of coffee on his way out of his hotel and seeing people gathered around the TV in the lobby, but he didn’t think much about it and went to the course to prepare for the tournament.

“I came up on Tiger’s group, it was late on the back [nine], maybe 15 or 16, and all of a sudden these security guards just swoop down on us and they pick those guys up and got them off the golf course,” said Burke, who is caddying for Bill Haas at this week’s PGA Championship at Bellerive. “They didn’t say what was going on, it was just kind of silent.”

Like most people that day, Andrade didn’t know what to do, so he also went to Bellerive for a practice round before the gravity of the situation began to sink in.

“It was really quiet. I don’t remember a lot of excitement. The fans didn’t know what was going on in the world,” Andrade said. “We didn’t know how much under attack we were. All that was starting to filter through.”

Like Love, Brad Faxon never made it to St. Louis that day. He awoke early to catch a private flight to the tournament, from Providence, R.I., when the attacks began, but it wasn’t until he’d boarded his plane that he realized how serious the situation had become.

“The pilots were going through the pre-flight checks, and I’m not paying attention, and all of a sudden the engines shut down,” Faxon recalled. “The pilots turned around and told me, ‘We’ve heard a command we’ve never heard before. They just shut down [air traffic] the entire East Coast.’ They got the command after the second plane hit. Like the rest of the world, we were in shock.”

Both Faxon and Love were on the PGA Tour’s policy board at the time and Faxon vaguely remembers a conference call with then-commissioner Tim Finchem explaining the circuit’s decision to cancel the World Golf Championship.

Like many in the wake of the attacks, details from those surreal days are a bit blurred.

With all the nation’s airports closed, tournament officials allowed players to keep their courtesy cars to drive home. Andrade made it back to Atlanta only to discover that Love had commandeered one his cars so he could drive home to Sea Island.

Woods also drove home to central Florida, a 17-hour journey alone with his thoughts. It turned out to be a profound moment for the 14-major champion, who decided on that drive to change the direction of his foundation.

“When the tragedies happened on the 11th and I drove home on the 13th and I reflected, if I had been a part of that, what would our foundation be? Well we wouldn’t be really anything because I called it basically a traveling circus,” Woods said. “We would raise a bunch of money, be there for one week and gone for 51. What would we be?”

A few weeks later he met with his father, Earl, and the duo decided to change Woods’ foundation from a golf-based organization to an educational-based organization.

“That one drive changed our entire directive of my foundation,” Woods said.

It was a day that changed countless lives. For many, returning to Bellerive for this week’s PGA brings all those memories flooding back, even after 17 years.

“I get chills talking about it right now,” Burke said.