‘Sam Will Be There With Me’: The J.J. Grey Story
Grey will play the final stage of Q school for a friend he lost far too soon
By Ryan French
Sam Asbury took his own life on Feb. 11, 2020. Two days later, Sam’s family, pledged to financially support the golf dreams of their son’s best friend, J.J. Grey. On Thursday, Grey will tee it up at the final stage of Korn Ferry Q school. This is a story of love, loss and how the game has given meaning to two people fighting their way through grief.
Sam and J.J. met at the Dogwood Invitational in 2014; Sam made fun of J.J.’s English accent, and the two quickly became great friends. J.J. was a few years older than Sam, but they played together on the Georgia State golf team before J.J. graduated. Sam played for two years at Georgia State before he gave up competitive golf and transferred to Georgia.
By this time, J.J. was chasing his dream of playing professionally. The two friends stayed in touch, texting and often calling, and seeing each other when their schedules allowed.
J.J. graduated from Georgia State in 2016 and immediately discovered that pro golf was challenging … and expensive. He missed at the first stage of Q school in 2017. The following year he received conditional Mackenzie Tour status but only got into one event, missing the cut. In August 2018, J.J. and his wife, Kitan, had their first child. “I felt like I was a burden on my family,” J.J. says, and that summer he put his career on hold. Kitan was in her last year of law school and would be studying for the bar exam. He temporarily took a job at a sporting goods store, but at $10 an hour, they decided it wasn’t worth the effort, so he became a stay-at-home dad. The intention always was to go back to playing professionally, but he basically didn’t touch a club for six months. For many, the dream would have died there.
In 2019 he started playing again and gained Mackenzie Tour status. Things were starting to look up. And then the world shut down. The Mackenzie Tour season was canceled. He entered 2020 knowing the door was closing on his dream of reaching the PGA Tour. Kitan was working as a lawyer, and the two talked about how she couldn’t continue to support him financially for much longer. They agreed he would give it one last go.
In February 2020, J.J. was at home on a date night with Kitan when his phone rang. It was one of Kitan’s friends, who informed him that Sam Asbury had taken his own life. J.J. hung up, refusing to believe what he was told, because Sam had never given any hint that he was suicidal. So he called around to friends, who confirmed the horrible news. Sam Asbury was 23.
Two days later, a grieving father and best friend sat in the Asbury living room. David Asbury told J.J. that Sam had talked to him about helping J.J. chase the Tour just days before taking his own life. David vowed to take care of anything J.J. needed for him to compete. His offer came with a caveat: “I’m not sponsoring you, Sam is.” Before Sam’s death the Asbury family had set some money aside for Sam; that money would now go to support J.J.’s playing career. “Sam is the one supporting J.J.,” David says. “I’m just the steward of the money.” David and J.J. opened a credit card account. David told him to charge his golf needs on the card, and he would take care of the bill. For the first few months, J.J. would call David and let him know what events he was planning to play and what the costs would be. “I appreciate the calls, J.J., but there is no need” was the response. “Use the card for whatever you need.”
Kelly and David Asbury, J.J., and a group of Sam’s best friends also started a foundation with a golf tournament to honor Sam. The inaugural Sam Asbury Memorial was held last year, and more than 100 golfers participated. And in its first year, more than $140,000 was raised for suicide awareness and the Northside Youth Organization, a sports entity in Atlanta that was dear to Sam. “We are committed to honoring a life well-lived, bringing awareness about suicide and as well as providing hope to those who have been impacted by suicide,” David says. What an amazing way to honor a life; the plan is to run the event annually.
J.J. already has had quite the year. Amid the pandemic, the Forme Tour subbed in for the Mackenzie Tour, and J.J. made the most of his opportunities, making five cuts in eight starts, capped by a T14 at the Forme Tour Championship in September. And in February, almost one year to the day after Sam’s death, Kitan and J.J. learned they were expecting their second child. Their daughter was due Nov. 19, perfect timing for the break after the final stage of Q school.
J.J., 28, made it through the first and second stages relatively easily. Last Friday he went to get his 2-iron reshafted for the final stage. It was about a two-hour drive from the Grey home in Atlanta. About two miles from his destination, he got a text from Kitan: “Call me right away.” Because of minor concerns about the baby’s size, doctors wanted to induce Kitan that day. J.J. dropped off his club and immediately headed home. During the drive, he made calls to find someone to watch the couple’s 3-year-old son. Kitan’s mom arrived on Friday, and Kitan and J.J. immediately headed to the hospital. Their daughter was born Saturday night.
J.J. spent the two nights in the hospital with Kitan and the baby. They were discharged early on Monday afternoon. After getting his wife and newborn into the house, J.J. hurriedly packed, threw everything into the car and hit the road for Savannah, Ga., and the final stage of Q school. “I felt guilty leaving home right after,” he says, “but this is part of the deal. It’s Q school.” Mother and baby are doing well.
Now J.J. turns his attention to golf. His Korn Ferry membership is locked up, but to guarantee himself starts he is still four good rounds away.
“Sam will be there with me,” J.J. says.
Here’s to four good rounds.