Golf

Wife, golf community mark murdered Kennesaw club pro’s bright legacy

Red pants were the fashion Tuesday at Kennesaw’s Pinetree Country Club. The brighter, the better. That was Gene Siller’s happy color.

On the morning of July 3, the 46-year-old Siller dressed for a big day at the club, where he had been director of golf since 2019, in full holiday splendor. Red pants, American flag shirt. His family didn’t know whether to hug him or salute him.

Still in their PJs, what his 6- and 7-year-old sons decided to do was dance around dad like a maypole, giggling while singing out their new name for him: “Mr. Fancy Pants.” Siller’s wife, Ashley, then sent him off to the club with a kiss and a parting I-love-you and a request for him to get home a little early before the fireworks show.

Later that afternoon, those red pants were about all Ashley could make out as she sat on the back steps of the Pinetree clubhouse and looked several hundred yards down the 10th fairway to just in front of the green, where her husband lay dead. That was as close as she could get while authorities worked the scene of a crime that stunned this club, the community around it and a golfing world that for all its luxuries does not operate in a bubble separate from unthinkable, random violence.

“I will never forget the way my heart sank in disbelief trying to convince myself that my brain was playing a sick trick on me,” Ashley said. “Because of the horrific, repulsive way Gene’s life was taken, I didn’t get to walk to that green, see his face or even hug him one last time.”

But, she added, “I refuse to hold that snapshot at the forefront of my mind.”

Addressing the golfers preparing to play in the afternoon flight of the first Gene Siller Memorial Red Pants Pro-Am Tournament at Pinetree, she said the man in the red pants she remembers always will be the one laughing with his children earlier that day. A family man in full, with everything to live for. And that’s the one she wanted all those who dressed in the color of the day to remember, too.

Siller was shot and killed while investigating a pickup truck that had been driven onto the course, bogging down in front of Pinetree’s 10th green. In the bed of the truck were two other shooting victims, and still on site, Cobb police say, was a suspect desperate to cover up the crimes. Siller had stumbled into a wrong-place, wrong-time nightmare. A man charged with the three killings awaits trial.

“We’ve had 52 days to slice this scenario every different way to try to envision a different outcome,” Ashley Siller said Tuesday in her first comments to media members since the murder. “And the reality is there is nothing we can do to reverse it. But what we can do is remember Gene and his legacy and all the humble and amazing things that he stood for.”

Siller’s life and his death have touched off an outpouring of support. With great revulsion has come an even greater reaction.

A GoFundMe account established for Siller’s family thus far has raised more than $750,000. Tuesday’s tournament was designed to seed a grant program through the Georgia PGA for junior golfers in need of help keeping up with an expensive sport. Said his wife, “Gene’s favorite part of being a golf pro was impacting other people’s lives – but especially juniors and kids. He loved when someone he gave lessons to would make the golf team or win a big tournament. That was the biggest smile he would bring home from work.”

They had hoped to raise upward of $100,000. By Tuesday afternoon, they had raised more than double that, club president Lou Bottino said.

“The day it happened I turned to our (general manager) and said, I know this club, it will change this club, but this club will step up for this family and for each other like nothing you’ve ever seen. And they have exceeded my expectations,” Bottino said.

Support came from all precincts of the golf world. Last weekend, the short-game coaches for PGA Tour pros Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka hosted a clinic at Pinetree to raise more funds. Donations for the blind auction for Tuesday’s tournament included autographed items from Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Johnson, Bubba Watson and 2021 Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama. Andy Bean, an 11-time PGA Tour winner drove from Florida to be part of the Pro-Am. Local PGA Tour pros Larry Nelson – a three-time major winner – and Jason Bohn also participated.

Other support has been of the more deeply personal kind. Pinetree allowed Siller to have Sundays off, and with that, almost without fail, he’d take his sons to play 18 holes. Friends and fellow club pros have taken turns playing golf with the boys on Sundays to keep the tradition alight.

Her sons were at Pinetree on Tuesday, taking in the testimonies to their slain father. “They’re resilient,” Beau’s and Banks’ mom said. “And it feels really good to be surrounded by so much love and support and people who loved Gene.”

She said the circumstances of her husband’s death have seemed only to add to the need of people to answer with kindness.

“There is no making sense of it,” Ashley said.

“I think people see how unbelievable it is and just want to help.”

What happened July 3 on the 10th hole always will be a part of this club’s history. The tire tracks in front of the green still can be seen, but the ever-growing grass soon enough will erase those signs. Other scars never heal. Some members have avoided playing the hole, said one Pinetree member, Loretta Byrne. On Tuesday, she hit a shot very near the spot where she administered CPR to Siller that terrible day. A registered nurse who had just finished a round, Byrne spotted him in those red pants lying by the green and rushed out with a friend to try to help.

“People have had a hard time playing that hole, but I do it as an honor. I want to play well to honor him,” she said.

Another member, Brian Panosian, remembered the way that Siller, a mechanical engineer before he gave in to his passion for golf, tackled difficulties.

“When we were in meetings and had conflict, he’d always say, ‘It’s going to be OK,’” Panosian said. “Because he was an engineer by education, he could see through it.”

They gathered at Pinetree on Tuesday, some in their red pants, and tried to carry on the message that somehow in the face of what never can be understood, everything, still, was going to be OK.

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