Dale Gray didn’t think life could get any better.
The Sydneysider was in the middle of a traineeship at Kogarah Golf Club when he was summoned to Dallas, Texas, in 1996 to work under renowned teacher Hank Haney. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that came about when highly regarded Australian instructor Gary Barter – who knew Alaska-born Dale Gray had American citizenship – put him in touch with Haney.
Two years into the dream job, Gray would watch on as Haney helped Mark O’Meara to two Major championship wins during his breakthrough 1998 season.
Gray was living the dream, or so he thought. But he was truly about to win the lottery when several women walked into the Hank Haney Golf Center one day in 2002, seeking four weeks of group lessons. Among the six keen golfers, Carrie Young caught Gray’s eye.
“I was pretty fixed on Carrie. It was probably obvious, but I didn’t really want to teach the other girls,” Gray laughs, gazing out the window from the Drunken Horse pub on 10th Avenue in New York City. “I wanted to ask her out, but I knew that was unprofessional.”
But he didn’t have to. In between the first and second lessons, Young came back in to the Haney centre to work on her game, or so she claimed. Gray gave her a bucket of balls and came out to watch her hit a dozen or so shots, offering occasional swing tips. “Afterwards, Carrie said, ‘I owe you one… can I buy you a beer?’ So that night, we went to a local bar in Dallas. We hit it off. It was love at first sight, mate,” Gray recalls.
Gray and Carrie’s relationship blossomed, and the pair were married in 2004. The newlyweds bought an apartment in Dallas. Gray’s coaching career was also taking off, becoming a Haney disciple who believed analysing ball flight was the quickest way to diagnose swing faults, from amateurs to elite tour players.
“Hank would teach us to watch the flight and ask, ‘Where is the bottom of the swing? What’s the club doing to create the impact position? What is the body doing to influence the club leading up to that impact? How is the body aligned to the intended target?’ It was teaching the golf swing backwards, and it was an eye-opener,” Gray says.
In March that year, Haney announced he had started working with Tiger Woods, who was determined to rebuild his swing around various injuries while chasing a ninth Major title. He was as attracted to Haney’s knowledge of ball flight as Gray.
It meant Gray – the son of a Canadian pilot who married an Australian woman and raised his family in Sydney’s beachy Sutherland Shire – was given a front-row seat to the second wind of arguably the greatest golfer of all time. Woods would win six of his 15 Majors under Haney. Gray watched the duo prepare for all six.
“To witness that up close, you just had to pinch yourself,” Gray recalls. “Tiger would come to the Haney ranch in McKinney, Texas, and I’d get to see what they were working on. To stand a few feet away and see some of those shots Tiger was hitting was unbelievable; he had nine different ball flights. Nine! I always admired Tiger, but Hank took his irons to another level.
“I remember one day on Hank’s range, Tiger was aiming at yardage posts in the distance. These posts were probably 12 inches in diameter with black and white stripes. Tiger took his 6-iron and hit three consecutive shots that ricocheted off the post at 200 yards. My mouth just dropped. I wondered, Is this even real?”
Meanwhile, Gray’s profile as a Haney school graduate had lifted in PGA Tour ranks and players started enquiring. Among them was South Africa’s David Frost, a 10-time winner on the PGA Tour.
“I got an opportunity to teach some tour players and ‘Frosty’ was my first,” Gray says. “It was amazing, but also a little intimidating at the time. I’d go out on tour with him and observe and coach during practice rounds. Then I started working with another South African, Tim Clark, and briefly with other players like Robert Allenby and even Pat Perez.”
Big Move, Big Apple
In 2006, Carrie received a job offer from American telecommunications giant Verizon, which required a move to New York. The pair packed up their Dallas life and bought a house in Chatham, New Jersey.
“We came to New York for her career, and it was a great move because Carrie became one of the youngest executives at Verizon,” Gray recalls. “For the first couple of years, I would fly back and forth to Dallas regularly to teach my clients.”
Professionally, Gray was also ready for a change. In 2008, he started working at one of the world’s most iconic driving ranges: Chelsea Piers Golf Club in New York City. Golfers there beat balls from a state-of-the-art range towards the Hudson River, while enjoying views of the Statue of Liberty and New Jersey skyline. With his coaching credentials, Gray was promoted to director of instruction in 2009.
“That was a really cool; teaching students at one of the most unique driving ranges in the world. But I was also developing the other coaches and that was really satisfying.”
Gray and his wife would travel extensively for fun. Gray recalls visiting her old stomping ground, the University of Virginia, and marvelling at “the most amazing campus I’d ever seen”. They also went on a snowboarding trip to Whistler, Canada, in 2012. That was where everything changed.
“Carrie was a very good snowboarder,” Gray says. “But this one day she started making turns and kept falling. We just thought she was tired. But the next day, it kept happening and Carrie said her vision was blurry in one eye. We didn’t think much of it, but we went to the eye doctor when we were back in New Jersey. The doc said her eyes were fine, but he was going do an MRI just to double-check.”
Doctors then found a brain stem glioma, a tumour most commonly found in children. Gray pauses then continues: “I remember the day vividly.”
Courage Under Fire
Not much happens on the New York golf landscape in January. Temperatures are in the minuses and most courses are closed. Chelsea Piers remains open, but lessons are quiet.
“I was sitting at my desk in my home office and got the phone call from Carrie. She said the MRI results came back and they found a tumour on her brain stem,” Gray recalls. “I went and picked her up immediately, so we could get the MRI reviewed by the oncologist at the time. Obviously, I was in a state of shock, too. But I said, ‘Don’t worry it might not be what they were saying.’ She was the most positive, upbeat person I’ve ever met.”
Given the tumour was on the brain stem, surgery to remove it was far too dangerous. Instead, Carrie began treatment at the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City that was having some success with a drug known for helping breast cancer patients. The biggest obstacle, though, was that the brain is designed to flush out drugs or chemicals trying to enter – even if they are trying to help.
Gray didn’t think twice about resigning from his post at Chelsea Piers to be with his wife full-time. He threw himself into researching doctors and treatment options. The pair travelled across the US – and even to Germany – gathering a variety of opinions. “We were such a great team. We were determined to beat it.”
But the experts came to the same conclusion: “It was basically inoperable,” Gray says. Because of the precarious position of the tumour, even a biopsy was out of the question. Knowing whether the tumour was malignant or benign was not possible. “That was probably a blessing in disguise, to be honest,” Gray admits. “To know it was all downhill from there would have been tough.
“But we never gave up. Carrie was so positive. What she must have been going through mentally, you can’t imagine. Seeing her remain so strong is the most inspiring thing I’ve ever, ever witnessed. She was more concerned about me than what she had going on. And she wanted to help find a cure. ‘Help, save, cure’ was her motto.”
Gray and Carrie had always dreamed of living in Hawaii. The staff at Sloan Kettering encouraged them to pack up and relocate to Honolulu and continue treatment there. For the first three months, treatment was going well. But in the next three months, the tumour began to grow. Carrie lost the ability to walk and a portion of her eyesight. “She lost her quality of life,” Gray recalls. “But she never lost her positivity.”
Carrie Gray passed away on November 4, 2013. Although they knew it was coming, nothing could prepare Gray for the earth-shattering heartache.
“It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever experienced in my life,” says an emotional Gray, again looking out at a stream of yellow taxis on New York City’s 10th Avenue. “Unless someone has been in that situation, you can’t describe it. There are no words for what you go through emotionally, or physically.
“It was unimaginable pain. But in saying that, I was grateful we had the most amazing nine years together. It was incredible. We never really had a fight, ever. Her courage was the most inspiring thing to me. I’ll never forget it.”
Carrie is buried near the famous Diamond Head volcano in Honolulu. “It’s a pretty amazing spot looking out over the ocean. She wanted to be there.”
“I’d rather teach a guy who has an amazing attitude but lacks talent than a guy who has perfect technique and a poor attitude. What you can accomplish with a good attitude is incredible.”
Beware The Haole
Hawaiians have a word for white men trying to surf their local breaks. A haole – said ‘how-ley’ – is not an endearing term. Gray learned its meaning while using three surf sessions a day, on Oahu’s iconic North Shore, to get over his immeasurable grief.
“The Hawaiians are amazing people; super friendly and supportive,” Gray recalls. “But out in the surf, they’re not so amazing to begin with. I was a haole,” he adds through laughter. “A white guy in the water. It took me six months to earn their respect and show the locals I could surf their breaks. They’d yell, ‘Oh, f––ng haole! Get the haole out of here!’ But I held my weight and showed I could surf. Six months later, they were like, ‘Hey, Aussie! What’s going on?’”
“But just being in the ocean gave me a lot of clarity. I grew up on the beach in Cronulla. I love the ocean. But under those circumstances, after Carrie passed, there was nothing that put my mind at ease more than being in the ocean – and the pure beauty of Hawaii.”
Gray stayed in Hawaii for five months after Carrie’s passing. Although regular visits from family and friends were appreciated, Gray needed to get back to work and reconnect with his New York area friends. Upon return, Gray’s close friend and fellow Australian, James Clarke, hosted a touching memorial celebration for Carrie at New Jersey’s iconic Baltusrol Golf Club.
Gray was initially hired to teach at Golf & Body NYC – a private, indoor facility near midtown Manhattan aimed at improving flexibility and fitness to better the swing. Gray was beginning to feel better in the city that doesn’t sleep. “As a distraction, I moved right into the heart of New York City, to Hell’s Kitchen (in midtown),” he says. “New York helped me deal with everything in a totally opposite way to Hawaii; there is always something to do here in New York. Plenty of distractions.”
Eventually, Gray returned to Chelsea Piers because he “wanted to see ball flight again”. Ball flight was the catalyst for his love of instruction becoming a lifelong passion. Despite the highs and lows being so extreme, Gray says he’s relished every moment in 23 years of living and working in the US.
“Career-wise, I’ve done more than I ever imagined I’d do by this age,” says the 44-year-old. “The experiences I’ve had and knowledge I’ve gained, it’s the greatest thing I have ever done. If you want to succeed in any area of golf, our industry doesn’t get any bigger than in the US.”
At least for the foreseeable future, Gray plans to continue teaching in New York City. But it begs the question: how does one teach a game that requires patience in the most impatient city in the world?
“Good question,” he laughs. “I think my personality helps; I’m pretty laid-back. Most Aussies are.”
Gray intends to help the occasional secondary tour player work their way up through the ultra-competitive American ranks. But only the right pupils.
“I’d rather teach a guy who has an amazing attitude but lacks talent than a guy who has perfect technique and a poor attitude,” Gray says. “What you can accomplish with a good attitude is incredible.”
Thankfully, New York has given Gray plenty to work with. “This city has a lot of attitude.”