Beth Judson watched her daughter play college golf for the first time. Then she said, “I love you.” Then she said goodbye.
After cheering their daughter through 36 holes on an autumn Monday in Tennessee, Lauren Judson’s parents quietly excused themselves Tuesday in hopes of outpacing a coming storm. Judson’s Southern Mississippi teammate, Vicky Correa, battled that morning in a playoff to determine the tournament champion, and Judson texted her parents updates on her friend’s progress as they flew home to Georgia in the family’s small plane. Eventually, she sent good news: Correa had won. But there was no response, no prompt congratulations, no “I love you too.”
When Judson returned to Southern Mississippi that evening, her brother called, searching for the humane way to break his little sister’s heart. He let her try to call their parents, again and again, so she could discern for herself what he already knew. Jim and Beth’s plane crashed Oct. 26, 2010, in northern Mississippi, killing them both.
“That’s probably the longest day I’ve ever had,” Judson said.
Since then, Judson has rebuilt herself, tear by tear, smile by smile, swing by swing. When she talks about her parents, her frequent laughs carry the joy of happy memories and the strain of old heartbreak.
Southern Mississippi golf coach Julie Gallup says Judson hasn’t let tragedy impede her growth. She has amassed a 3.73 GPA. She’ll graduate in May with a degree in forensic science and a minor in psychology. She has shaved nearly 10 strokes from her average round. And in her hometown of Roswell, Ga., she has squeezed in time to help create and oversee a golf tournament and foundation that honors her parents and has raised more than $60,000 for an Atlanta children’s hospital.
“I miss them more than anything,” Judson said. “Golf has been a security blanket for me.”
Though a broken leg derailed her soccer career, Judson was determined to earn a letter jacket as a high school freshman. After countless hours practicing golf with Jim, she earned one. Four years later, a handful of colleges expressed interest, but she landed at Southern Mississippi because of its forensic science program and a chance to redshirt. A year after enrolling, she had a chance to play; her parents were there to watch.
At the behest of her family, Judson returned to school the day after she buried the mother she always confided in about high school’s monumental trivialities and the father who was by her side seemingly every time she played 18. She immersed herself in books and fairways.
But by the next fall the numbness started to fade. Into the void stepped pain, loneliness. When Judson hit a bad shot, she no longer heard Jim offering words of encouragement. She took time off to grieve and returned to the team in the spring. A year later, she notched a team-best score in the Conference USA Championships, including a 72 in the final round. She collected her first hole-in-one only a few days after the second anniversary of her parents’ death. She’s now a team captain.
Gallup has coached for more than a decade. She is accustomed to seeing her players bicker over minutia. But not this team, she said. After Judson lost her parents, the typical squabbles vanished.
“All the other little stuff kind of falls away,” Gallup said. “They have tremendous perspective.”
A life spent on golf courses means a life spent amid the buzz of planes humming overhead. But Judson doesn’t shudder at those reminders in the sky. She wears a necklace with an airplane trinket, clutching it when she hears the familiar sound above. She refuses to run from her memories.
On one of many trips together to a tournament, father and daughter scrolled through options on her phone for a morning alarm to rouse them before he cheered her through another round. One, a man whistling a strange tune, had made Jim laugh. Go with that one, he said.
It has woken her up every day since.