When Ken Wood first met with the James Monroe golf team in July, he told the dozen or so prospective players he’d prefer not to be addressing them as their coach.
Not that Wood dislikes the sport, or teaching it. But his presence was a necessity borne out of tragedy.
“I’d rather Greg be standing here instead of me,” Wood said.
Longtime Yellow Jackets coach Greg Howard died of a heart attack on March 28. He was 56. As James Monroe tees up a promising season, Howard’s memory will be etched in players’ minds and his initials—GSH—stitched on their sleeves and hats.
“It warms my heart,” said Greg’s wife Diane Howard, pausing to choke back tears. “Greg was very humble, he wouldn’t have wanted to bring a lot of attention to himself. But that would’ve really meant a lot to him. He loved those kids.”
Senior Noah Adams was doing homework one day this past spring when his mother informed him of Howard’s death. Shock gave way to sadness over the loss of a persistently positive force in a game that sometimes engenders pessimism.
“When you’re playing golf and getting frustrated at yourself, he was always the guy who would come by and pick you up and make you feel better,” Adams said. “He was just big into the corny jokes.”
But Howard was very serious about sharing his lifelong passion. A talented player in his own right, Howard got his start coaching when his son Matthew was a freshman at JM. Initially, he’d planned on coaching just those four years, but something kept pulling him back even when Matthew graduated and went off to Randolph-Macon College.
“He really wanted these kids to have the availability to play golf,” Diane Howard said. “Some of his golfers, like Grayson and Marshall [Wood] were just terrific, but he had kids, too, that never picked up a golf club. And he wanted those children to have the ability to do that.”
At JM’s sports banquet last fall, Howard invited Grayson Wood, then an eighth-grader, to stand on stage with the rest of the team. Wood played in every match with the Yellow Jackets, but—despite Howard’s pleadings with the Virginia High School League—his scores didn’t count. James Monroe finished with a 2–10 record.
“If Grayson’s scores would’ve counted, they would’ve won every single match,” Ken Wood said. “And he’s a year better.”
Now officially eligible, Grayson Wood says he’s driving the ball between 275 and 280 yards and should vie for the Yellow Jackets’ top spot as a freshman. Adams, the team’s returning No. 1, has shaved several strokes off his average to post recent scores in the mid 70s.
“I think Grayson and Noah are going to push each other to be No. 1 on the team all season long,” Ken Wood said.
James Monroe features 11 players on its roster this season, up from five last year. Talented freshman Wiley Furner-Moore will make an immediate impact while juniors Clare Kingsley and Gray Dameron bring two years of match experience to the lineup.
Wood also arranged for each player to receive two free lessons from Tom Lernihan, the instructor who molded the swings of Marshall Wood and Rachel Detore, the past two Free Lance–Star golfers of the year. He’s already seen marked improvement throughout the roster.
“The confidence is through the roof,” Adams said.
Diane Howard is glad Wood was the one to fill the coaching void left by her husband’s death. The two were good friends, and Greg would’ve been devastated had JM’s program fallen by the wayside after he was gone.
For his part, Wood can hardly swing a golf club anymore. Both his sons surpassed him by the age of 7.
But there he was, shepherding teenagers between the driving range and putting green during Tuesday’s practice at Fredericksburg Country Club. More than any outward gestures, coaching is how he chooses to honor Howard’s memory.
“That was Greg’s focus,” Diane Howard said. “It wasn’t about him; it wasn’t about his past golf glory. It was about giving these kids an opportunity.”