This weekend, Mississippi State’s women’s golf team will be competing in South Carolina as part of the Darius Rucker Intercollegiate. When each player takes the course, their hat will have the initials HDJ stitched on the side.
Just over one month ago in Taiwan, days before MSU’s season began, Hong Ding Jun was killed when his TransAsia Airways flight 235 crashed into a river after engine trouble struck shortly into takeoff.
As far as away that event seemed at the time from Mississippi, it had a sad but pronounced impact on a group of young women in Starkville.
Jun, whose initials were soon sewn onto the caps of MSU’s golf team, was the lifelong friend of Jessica Peng, State’s sophomore star from Taoyuan, Taiwan. The pair were best friends as children, even tending to a community garden together, and as Peng’s golfing career took off and she traveled the world, eventually landing in college in Mississippi, the two never lost their bond or closeness.
In the days following the wreck, Peng couldn’t help asking the natural question.
“I fly all the time,” she told coaches and teammates. “Why hasn’t it happened to me?”
Her coach Ginger Brown-Lemm, along with teammates, has been a big part of the healing process over the last month.
“I think when kids are young they don’t’ realize their mortality at all,” Brown said. “We fly all over the planet, particularly international kids … You learn life lessons every day, and this was a big one.”
Just as golf was the reason Peng had flown across the world to begin with, it was in the middle of golf that she received the news about her friend. Following the end of a qualifying round at Old Waverly Golf Club, Peng opened her phone to enter her stats on the app they use to keep track of their progress. When she finished filling in the numbers, she checked her messages. That’s when the hardest news of her young life hit.
“She was quite upset,” Brown recalls, “so as everybody came in from their round, she was our focus. I think it was an automatic kind of thing for us. I don’t remember who brought it up, but it was just a natural progression into saying, that’s it. That’s who we will make sure we honor and who our work ethic continues to elevate.”
Peng’s teammates told her, this season is for him.
It’s a difficult thing to receive news like that and be halfway around the world, completely unable to do anything, disconnected from the family and friends associated with the memory of a lost loved one.
Had she been able, Peng likely would’ve flown home that day to grieve with those who knew him. But just as the show must go on, so must school, golf and life, as difficult as it can be to think about such things in that situation.
The best comfort Peng has had has been her new collegiate family, her two coaches and small group of teammates who have surrounded her with support. People hailing everywhere from Florida and Mississippi to New Zealand and South Africa have been her sisters for the last two years, and it’s they who were able to comfort her that day and every day since.
“I think that’s the critical piece,” Brown said. “Golf has been a huge part of her life. Probably the biggest part. For us to already be an established family for her here was pivotal in her getting through the bumps and bruises and trying to get her head around it. She couldn’t understand for quite a long time. But she’s so superior mentally that she’s been able to process through it and still play incredibly well anyway.”
And that’s part of it, too, the playing. Playing incredibly well, at that, as Peng is one of the top players on one of the top teams in the country. The Bulldogs have goals of winning a National Championship, and that’s a plenty realistic aim, far from just a dream.
Having something like that to channel her grief into has been beneficial for Peng, an outlet not all who grieve are so lucky to have. Her teammates around her, they tell others, have been moved by her courage and focus.
“I think we all want to pull for something and somebody,” Brown said. “The other girls on the team are inspired by her functioning at such a high level and it affects them in a positive way. As tragic is this was, we often learn from really hard lessons.”
Golf was a forgotten concern in the immediate wake of the news, but as time goes on, it has become the vehicle for honoring and remembering a treasured friend. Whatever Peng and MSU do this season, it will be done for HDJ – Hong Ding Jun.