Becoming Nick Biondi
Despite a hard knock life, Nick Biondi sets his eyes on the PGA Tour
By Ryan French
“I was on my way to the Travelers pre-Q, but I just had to turn around,” Nick Biondi said in a subdued voice. “My brother just called. My mom is going to die in 24 hours, and I need to get home.”
That phone call was the first conversation I ever had with Nick Biondi. Three weeks later, I landed in Scranton, Pa. I drove up the street to the Biondi home, in a quiet neighborhood in the town of Moosic. The rain was pouring down. Nick and his grandmother Rose greeted me at the door. The house was spotless. Family photos adorned almost every wall and window ledge, and images of Nick were everywhere. The first check he cashed as a pro was framed in the hallway. It was a typical grandparent’s home. A good Italian home always has food out, and there were enough sandwiches and salads to feed 15. Rose encouraged me to eat, and I didn’t want to let her down.
The respect Nick showed his grandmother was evident in the first five minutes. He made sure to get her a plate before he filled his own. When she talked, he stopped. When you learn about the role she played in his life, you understand why.
Nick Johnson (the name change to Biondi would come later) was born at 12:31 p.m. on Oct. 9, 1995, in Scranton. His mother, Frances, had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis three years earlier. She used a wheelchair, and she was a drug addict. No father was listed on Nick’s birth certificate. Frances was married but her husband was in prison, and she had gotten pregnant by another man.
A newborn is said to have a low birthweight if he or she is less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces. Nick weighed 2 pounds, 6 ounces at birth. He calls himself a “crack baby,” although his mother’s addiction was to opioid painkillers. Nick was immediately transferred to the neonatal ICU; he wasn’t supposed to make it. He would spend the next six weeks in the hospital before being taken home. One problem: He didn’t have a place to call home. His mother was in a wheelchair and his dad had disappeared. Nick was a mere 6 weeks old and the deck was already stacked against him.
Rose and Gino Biondi didn’t expect to raise more children, but things don’t always go as planned when you have a daughter who is facing serious issues. They were already raising Nick’s older brother, John, who was 5 when Nick was brought home. Rose told Gino it would be only temporary, but both knew that wouldn’t be the case; they were going to be parents to both of the grandchildren. In a predominantly white town, Italian grandparents would raise a bi-racial child. (Nick’s father was Black.) The Biondis worked tirelessly to give both the kids the life they deserved.
Gino Biondi was a successful insurance salesman who had retired early. Golf was his game; he played every day he could. In fact, he played so much that Glenmaura National Golf Club gave him his own parking spot with a sign that read, “Perfect attendance, Gino Biondi.” He introduced Nick to the game. It began with rides in the cart, then plastic clubs, then a few real clubs and finally playing holes at Glenmaura. Lessons with club pro Cleve Coldwater would soon follow. Wherever Gino went, Nick tagged along.
Gino was also Nick’s hero. Gino never missed a shot at his grandson’s tournaments, home or away. Gino drove him there, walked each round, talked through every shot afterward. Nick and John were Gino’s world, and he wanted the best for them. Gino demanded good grades and reminded Nick he had to work harder than others to stay out of trouble. A mother with an addiction problem, an uncle in and out of prison for the better part of 30 years, a cousin already behind bars. Gino reminded Nick repeatedly that one bad decision could put him on the other side. Because of that, he took it upon himself to be everything for Nick. When parents were announced to the crowd at high school homecoming, Gino was there. He attended parent-teacher conferences. He checked homework.
Nick’s mother lived 20 minutes away, but it might as well have been 20 hours. Nick was shielded from her. The ravages of MS and frequent drug use were too graphic for a kid to witness. Nick has never met his dad and has no desire to. “Fuck him,” he says. “He chose not to be a part of my life.” He doesn’t know if he’s dead or alive. He doesn’t care. Rose and Gino were his parents. The bio from his college team reads, “Son of Rose and Gino Biondi.” Nick was always guarded and rarely shared his story with anyone. “My dad is out of town,” he would tell friends. Or, “My mom has MS, so she can’t be here.” It took years for his close friends to learn the entire story.
Nick started playing in junior events at 10 and remembers winning the Hershey Invitational two years later. It was his first big victory. He loved everything about the game, especially the solitude. There was no one who could let him down, no teammate to disappoint him in the way his parents had; it was just him versus the course. His grandparents sent him to Scranton Prep, a private Catholic high school. Nick would make the golf team as a freshman and advance to the state finals as a senior. Some Division I programs came calling after his fifth-place finish at state, but Nick wanted to stay close to home. “My grandparents gave up their life for me,” he says. “It was time to return the favor.” He chose Marywood University in Scranton and continued to live at home, assuming more of the day-to-day responsibilities.
Nick took over large portions of the Biondi house. He turned a bedroom into his club room, storing every set of equipment he had ever played. He leaned old mattresses against a basement wall and surrounded them with a net, creating a makeshift practice area. He added a synthetic putting green in one corner.
In 2016, Nick’s sophomore year at Marywood, he played well, but his thoughts were often with Gino. He had been diagnosed with kidney disease, and dialysis was part of the daily regimen. His health slowly diminished. On Nov. 18, 2016, Nick was awakened by his grandmother’s screams. Gino Biondi had passed away in his sleep.
Nick was distraught. The only father figure he had ever known was gone. His golfing buddy, his best friend, his hero, gone. In a life filled with a lot of hardship, this was the toughest blow. “I was a mess,” Nick says. He would lay in his bed, paralyzed by his anger. Slowly, he turned that rage into determination. He refused to let Gino down.
Nick thought a lot about how to honor his grandfather. It started with a tattoo on his right wrist with the initials G.B., placed so he can see it when he grips the club. Nick then asked his grandmother about a name change. He wanted his grandfather’s name to live on, so in February 2018 he legally changed his name to Nick Biondi.
Members of Glenmaura made sure to look after Nick. They insisted he park in Gino’s reserved spot. One of Gino’s best friends, Ed Gregorczyk, took Nick under his wing. Nick and Ed had played a ton of golf together, but their relationship went to the next level after Gino died. “He became my second grandpa,” Nick says. Ed was a club builder who had a workshop in his basement. He spent countless hours in the basement with Nick explaining the art of club making, and he helped Nick set up his own workshop in the Biondi home. They also talked a lot about life, about Gino, golf, school, women and everything else imaginable. “Ed was such a huge part of my life after my grandpa passed,” Nick says. “I’m not sure what would have happened if he wasn’t there for me.” Nick still wraps grip tape the way his mentor taught him.
In 2017, Ed was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Nick began to spend more and more time with him. He would call his house and ask if Ed felt well enough to have visitors. Sometimes the two would order wings and chat; for a few hours anyway, they would forget about Ed’s failing health. Ed Gregorczyk died on Feb. 17, 2018. Yet another hero was gone.
* * *
Nick and I are driving to the Providence Open in June when his phone rings. “You have a collect call from Lackawanna County Prison,” the operator says. Nick accepts the call from his uncle, who pleads for help. Nick had engaged in this conversation too many times. At the end of the call, the uncle says, “All right, Nicky, I’ll see you in a year.” I am struck by how casual Nick had been in the conversation. He explains the uncle has been in and out of prison for most of his adult life. “I take the calls to remind myself I can’t fuck this up,” he says.
* * *
Biondi graduated from Marywood in 2018 with a degree in business retail marketing. He was named Marywood Male Scholar-Athlete of the Year. It wrapped up a career that included two trips to the D III NCAA national tournament, three first-team all-conference selections and multiple wins. The degree means more than any of those accolades, though. No matter what happens in his pro golf career, this accomplishment is a hurdle most people in his situation would never have cleared.
Nick turned pro, and in his first event, he tied for 11th and collected a check for $1,137.50 at the Vermont Open. He started a club-building business, and the basement is now strewn with shafts, grips, grip tape, boxes and packaging. Nick developed a loyal following; the mailman who delivers multiple packages of golf gear to the house every day was gifted a set of clubs Nick built as a thank you. Still, his grandmother helps him with entry fees and the expenses incurred while chasing his dream of getting to the PGA Tour. Because his grandmother is now alone, Nick primarily plays events close to home. Although it’s hard to stay competitive when you’re practicing in the basement for a portion of the year, pounding balls into a mattress, Nick doesn’t care. His grandmother comes first.
Like many Tour pros, Nick has had more downs than ups. The near misses and bad weeks are far more plentiful than the top 10s. It is a grind, but Nick loves it. He never talks about what will happen if golf doesn’t work out, only when it will.
Nick saw his mother more as he got older, but it’s hard to build a relationship with someone you hardly know. “She was more like a friend,” he says. As her health deteriorated, Nick tried to make up for lost time, but she was barely able to talk. Even in a perfect scenario, making up for 25 years when she wasn’t there is impossible. There was so much to unpack: anger, guilt, love. Some questions would never have answers. Hospice care started earlier this year, as Frances progressively got worse.
In June, Nick was making the four-hour drive to the Travelers Championship pre-qualifier in Connecticut when he received the call from John that their mother was at death’s door. He turned around and headed home. It was on that agonizing drive that I talked to Nick for the first time. He was ready to tell his story. He had kept it in long enough. His therapy would be to tell the world what he has overcome.
When he saw his mother, she mouthed the words, “I want to die.” It was time. Nick went home that night and wrote her a letter he never shared with her. It was his attempt to make sense of a complicated relationship. It begins, I wish I were a better son; I wish I were a better son. Fuck, that is hard to say. The person who gave birth to me never got to really know me; the disease she had gotten and her frequent drug use didn’t allow us to have a true mother-son relationship. It explains his anger, his love, his forgiveness, and his determination not to be the parent she was. I hope I can be a better son, father and mentor to the people who look up to me.
Frances Johnson died on June 19, 2021, with her family at her side.
Two weeks after Frances’s death, Nick was headed to another tournament. During the drive, I asked him how he had survived it all. “Golf has always been my outlet,” he says. “It’s always been my therapy. I’d rather be on the course than anywhere else.” When we arrived at the range the day before the event, he was relaxed. He hit balls with his good friend Mac Harris; they talked swings and clubs, told funny stories, and laughed. It was truly an escape.
That night Nick agreed to read the letter he had written to his mom. As he did, tears streamed down his face. The last line read, You never expect life to go as planned. When he finished, his head dropped. “I really wish she would have gotten better,” he said. For the first time during four days we spent together, he had let his guard down and showed the pain. Life hasn’t been fair to Nick Biondi. He had to learn how to show a tough face, to power through, but you can only do that for so long.
The Providence Open is a great mini-tour event that has been played for years. It’s everything you want in a mini-tour event. On the 4th hole, a sign for a strip club advertised “Eggs and Legs” and its tradition of opening at 6 o’clock every Friday morning. The course was decent, and the field for the 36-hole event featured former Korn Ferry members such as Jim Renner and Brad Adamonis. Nick played solidly to open his first round, but too many wayward tee shots resulted in a 76. He was T-88.
Rain washed out the second round, so Nick began the long drive home. His tournament was over, but the journey continues. A life filled with sadness and tragedy is also a story of resilience and success—on and off the golf course.