Editor’s Note: During the week of Aug. 4, WPSD Sports Director Jeff Bidwell spent time in Sylvania, Ohio to cover the LPGA’s Marathon Classic. While there, both he and Princeton’s Emma Talley learned of the death of Lyon County’s 20-year-old golf sensation, Cullan Brown. This is a personal reflection of those moments.
Ever since Emma Talley joined the LPGA Tour, I have covered her at The Marathon Classic in Sylvania, Ohio. Not only is it about the closest LPGA event to Paducah, but it’s also played 20 minutes from my childhood home. Getting to see Mom and Dad makes it a win-win for me.
After I got to my parents’ house, I reached out to Emma to find out when we could meet for an interview the next morning. We had texted a couple times Tuesday night before her texts suddenly stopped. Ninety minutes later, my phone rang. It was Emma.
“Hey there,” I said, walking into my parents’ backyard. “What’s going on?”
“Hey, Jeff. It’s Patrick,” said the voice on the other end. Patrick Smith is Emma’s boyfriend. While his New Zealand accent is always an easy giveaway, him calling me was out of the ordinary. While I tried to process why he was calling, I could hear someone sobbing in the background. I realized it was Emma. “What’s going on, Patrick?”
“Emma wanted me to call and tell you Cullan passed away tonight.”
In that moment, everything went quiet. I bent over at the waist, barely able to support myself.
“What?” I asked rhetorically. This was a call I had prepared myself to get at some point, but I never dreamed “some point” would be today.
Cullan Brown was just 20-years-old when he passed away on Aug. 4, after his year-long battle with osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. Emma and Cullan were best friends. Cullan was 25 years my junior, and yet he made me feel like I was his best friend, too.
He first got on my radar in 2014. He was a freshman at Lyon County High School, and the school was honoring him for being part of the USA’s winning team in the Evian Championship Juniors Cup played in France.
The tape of his interview from the event was dumbfounding. Normally when we interview high school kids, we pray they don’t get nervous and clam up in front of the camera.
Then there was Cullan.
He turned every answer into a mini-manifesto. He was not remotely fazed by the spotlight. It was a thing of beauty. Cullan was a combination of that thick, yet disarming, accent; a dump truck full of southern niceties...and a sense of humor that could win over anybody. This kid had me at “hello.” I selfishly couldn’t wait to stick a microphone in his face as often as we could in the years to come.
I hosted a radio show in Paducah while he was in high school. Any time I could find an excuse, I’d have Cullan on the show. “Good morning, Mr. Bidwell,” would always be his first words to me, in that unmistakable drawl. Without fail, I’d have countless people call or text after his appearances asking me some version of the same question: “Who IS that kid?!?”
In the summers of 2016 and 2017, I invited him often to come in to co-host my show. Cullan was barely old enough to drive, but he was plenty capable of carrying the radio waves for two hours. I just sat back and enjoyed the ride. We always talked about golf, but I swear his true passion was food. We spent more than an hour on the air one day just talking about meat and his homemade rub he dubbed “FlavorDust.”
It was radio gold.
A lot of people called Cullan “The Mayor.” I called him “The Governor.” I firmly believed — even if he never picked up another golf club — his personality, not to mention his brains, would take him wherever in the world he wanted to go. If he wanted to get into politics, he’d win any race in a landslide. If he wanted to run a Fortune 500 company, he’d crush that, too.
Oh, by the way, the dude could golf. He was a state high school champion; he earned a scholarship to Kentucky; he made the Southeastern Conference All-Freshman team; and he made the cut at a PGA Tour event. Cullan’s future was as bright as his wildest dreams. Then everyone’s worst nightmare happened.
After Cullan’s cancer diagnosis, the news never seemed to swing to the “good” side of the pendulum. I would text Cullan words of encouragement about every six weeks, and he always answered back with something along the lines of, “Thank you, Mr. Bidwell. Everything will be just fine.” It was impossible not to read those texts in Cullan’s voice. That voice always made me smile. I never knew if our texts made him feel better, but they sure helped me.
I knew he hadn’t been well in recent weeks, but on the sliding scale of fighting cancer, it was hard to tell what that really meant. I just knew I needed to be prepared to eventually get “the call.”
As I listened to Patrick, I sat in stunned silence, listening to Emma cry in the background. Would she still play in the tournament? Did that even matter? He said she was too emotional to talk to me, but I found a small dose of humor in listening to her tell Patrick what to tell me on the phone. She’d see me in the morning at the course.
When I first arrived at Highland Meadows Golf Club on Wednesday, I ran into Patrick in the parking lot. He caddies for another golfer on tour. He said Emma was sitting in the car trying to get herself together. I texted her that I’d be inside waiting for her, and there was absolutely no rush.
Another 30 minutes went by before she finally emerged from the clubhouse. In this era of COVID-19, the LPGA players are kept in a bubble, of sorts, away from people not directly affiliated with the tour. In that moment, Emma didn’t seem to care much for protocol. She walked over and threw her arms around me.
I don’t know if she was hugging me or I was hugging her, but both of us were glad to see someone from home who could fully understand the weight of the moment.
I stood and listened to her recount everything that had happened in the last 24 hours. She said she didn’t want to be at the course at all, but knew if she stayed in the hotel room, she’d do nothing but cry all day.
I handed her the microphone to clip on her pullover.
“Can I leave my sunglasses on?” she quietly asked. I told her she could do whatever she needed to do to make herself comfortable. I started the interview with some easy golf questions to distract her. It didn’t work. Emma was polite as always, but her answers were short, and it was obvious she wanted the interview over as soon as possible. I couldn’t stall any longer.
“Why are you playing this week?” I asked. She had told me the answer before we started, but her response still brought me to tears.
“I don’t want to play,” she said. “I want to go home,” tears rolling down her face. She paused for several seconds and wiped her eyes.
“I know Cullan would want me to be here. He’s one of my best friends and I know he’d want me to play. This week is all for him.”
Emma began her tournament just before noon on Thursday. As she prepared to tee off, I could see she was fidgety, almost agitated. When she had walked by me on her way to the tee, I quietly said, “Go get ‘em today.” She barely acknowledged me, which was completely unlike her, but totally understandable. It was clear she was still struggling.
I saw her take some deep breaths, trying to compose herself. When it was finally her turn, she ripped her drive off the No. 10 tee, and for a moment it looked like business as usual. That’s when the avalanche of emotions came pouring out. Emma broke down in tears, slipping out of sight into the starter’s tent.
“I don’t really know what happened,” Emma said. “Just knowing that this is the place he loved, he loved golf so much. It was just really hard. I have no words.”
She struggled with her emotions, and her game, early. She bogeyed No. 11, No. 14, and No. 16 to fall to 3-over through seven holes. All I could think about was her telling me the day before she wanted to go home. Cullan’s visitation was on Friday and his funeral was Saturday. It felt like she was going to play out the round for him, withdraw from the tournament, and head back to west Kentucky.
Two holes later, those feelings were gone.
On No. 18, Emma rolled in her first birdie putt of the day. Walking off the green, you could tell something was different. She was standing more upright and walking with a purpose.
On No. 3, Emma buried a 15-foot birdie putt, and, for the first time all day, I saw her smile as she gave a quick kiss to the heavens.
“Right before I hit it, I looked at my caddie, and I said, ‘This is for Cullan.’ I just had a feeling I was going to make it.”
After three bogeys in her first seven holes, Emma finished her round with two birdies and no more bogeys. She smiled, looking almost relieved, as she walked off the course with an opening round 1-over 72. While the contrast between the emotions at the beginning and end of her round was striking, Cullan never left Emma’s mind.
“All that I could think about today was him,” she said. “Every time I putted, I thought, ‘What would Cullan read this putt like?’ He was on my mind all day, and he’ll be on my mind every golf round for the rest of my life, honestly.”
Teeing off bright and early Friday, Emma began her day with another birdie on the third hole. After five-straight pars, you could argue Emma had a 90-minute stretch where she was the best player on the course. She birdied No. 9, No. 10, and then No. 11.
It was the best I had ever seen her play.
Emma shot a bogey-free 66, which was tied for the third-best round of her LPGA career. Despite the great play and a morning full of positive energy, Emma wiped more tears away as she walked to the scoring tent. She said Friday’s round may have been even more emotional for her than the day before.
“I’m so thankful for how much love and support he’s gotten. Yesterday at the U.S. Amateur, they all wore ribbons. Just knowing that everyone loved him just as much as I did, it means a lot.”
She wrapped up the tournament with a pair of 69’s over the weekend to finish in a tie for fifth-place. And as far as I’m concerned, this was the bravest performance of her career.
“This was definitely the hardest week of my life,” Emma said after finishing Sunday. “Every day was a battle; every hole was a battle. I obviously have an angel watching over me.”
I asked Emma what she’d want people that never met Cullan to know about him. While these are her words, anyone who knew him could say the same thing.
“Cullan Brown made everyone feel like they were his best friend. He definitely made me feel like that. He never met a stranger. He always saw the positive side of everything. If you didn’t meet him, you really missed out. He’s the best person I ever met; the funniest person; makes me smile more than anyone I know. I know he’ll continue to make a difference.”
Cullan Brown was a treasure. My life, Emma’s life, and the life of every person that crossed paths with Cullan is better for having the privilege of knowing him.
Thank you for being you, Cullan.