Among the joys of golf is the pace at which it unfolds. It is a slow, deliberate game demanding intense concentration and careful thought to make physical skills work.
Because the game moves so gently through time, it provides a crystal-clear window into the heart and soul of an athlete. Already this year, there was the drama between Nick Faldo and Greg Norman at the Masters.
Think of how much was learned about those two men on that one Sunday afternoon.
There was Annika Sorenstam playing through fear to win her second consecutive U.S. Women’s Open. And there was the emotional back nine in which Steve Jones slipped past Tom Lehman and Davis Love III in the men’s Open.
The sight of players learning to live with fear as they eke out a victory is truly inspiring. In the few hours of a round of golf a player gets to face the tests of character usually spread out over the years of a lifetime.
That’s why it is so startling when the sorrows of real life spill over into the lives of those watched so closely from week to week.
That happened over the weekend when LPGA player Kathy Ahern died at 47 after a five-year fight with breast cancer and Jeff “Squeeky” Medlen, Nick Price’s caddie, was diagnosed with leukemia at 42.
Ahern, the 1972 LPGA Championship winner, was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 1991 and underwent a lumpectomy and radiation treatment. She returned to the tour the same year, playing in eight events before she stopped competing.
She continued to go out on the tour, caddying or assisting other players.
“Kathy helped a lot of players,” said Sherri Turner, a close friend of Ahern. “She loved being out on tour. … In fact it was her LPGA family that was a key part of keeping her going in recent times.”
Medlen will now draw on the strength and support of his PGA Tour family in his fight with leukemia.
“Squeek told me two weeks ago that he had a preliminary blood test, and then he told me last Friday at the Western Open that it was a strain of leukemia,” Price said Tuesday. “Everything else pales in comparison. I will give him every ounce of support I can.”
Medlen, whose nickname comes from his high-pitched voice, became a well-known caddie when Price withdrew from the 1991 PGA Championship and Medlen carried the bag of the seventh alternate - a long-hitter named John Daly who stunned everyone by winning.
Squeeky was also along for the incredible ride from 1992-94 when Price won 11 tournaments, including two PGA Championships and the British Open.
But he won’t be at Royal Lytham and St. Annes next week.
“He’s not coming to the British Open with me,’ Price said. “He’s seeing a specialist Wednesday (today) who will tell him what kind of a treatment he will be on. His job will still be there when he gets well. He’s got a tough road ahead of him.”
It’s a road Paul Azinger knows well. He was diagnosed with cancer in his right shoulder late in 1993, three months after winning the PGA Championship, the last of his 11 career victories.
“I wondered if I would ever care enough about golf to be competitive again,” Azinger said when he returned to the tour at the 1994 Buick Open. “When I was sick, all I wanted to do was live.”
Azinger has yet to win since returning to the tour.
Cancer has been a particularly ominous companion on the LPGA Tour because breast cancer strikes women so often and at such a young age. Heather Farr was only 28 when she died in November of 1993.
For Price, the frustrations of not having won in the United States since 1994 was put into perspective at the Western Open.
“There had been no symptoms whatsoever,” Price said with a note of disbelief in his voice. “He lost 20 pounds since the first of the year but he was on a conditioning program and was trying to lose weight.” Medlen told Price the bad news shortly before the second round.
“I was going through the motions of the practice tee,” Price said, his voice trailing off. “He’s a very headstrong person,” he said, conviction returning to his voice as he talked about his friend. “I just want him to do what the doctors want him to do. He doesn’t always listen.”
Probably what all of golf would like to see is Price walking up the 18th fairway on a Sunday afternoon - stalking a victory - with Squeeky at his side, carrying that big bag and chatting away in that peculiar voice.
It would be another truly memorable moment in golf.
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