Cancer survivor, straight shooter, Dahmen finally on track
NORTON, Mass. — Joel Dahmen has reason to pause every so often to consider how far he’s come.
His favorite moment included Tiger Woods.
They were playing together in the third round of the Quicken Loans National, a Saturday memorable for the heat and the noise. Woods was on a roll, and when he made his fourth straight birdie, the cheers were so loud that Dahmen looked over at his caddie, Geno Bonnalie, and couldn’t stop smiling.
They grew up together on the Washington-Idaho state line. They have been through a lot. This was fun.
“We looked at each other and it was like, ‘Can you believe what we’re doing?’” Dahmen said. “Two bimbos from Lewiston and Clarkston out here playing with Tiger Woods and we’re competing. It was the coolest thing ever on a golf course. It felt like a culmination of everything.”
Fast forward two months and the 30-year-old Dahmen can be found this week at the TPC Boston for the second stop in the FedEx Cup playoffs. He is No. 76 in the standings, and the top 70 advance to the third event — with another $9 million purse — with the lofty goal of being among the top 30 who make it to the Tour Championship.
This is what he might have expected to be doing all along when he and Kyle Stanley were regarded as the top junior golfers in the Northwest.
And this is what seemed so unimaginable after Dahmen’s life took so many unexpected turns.
His mother died of cancer when he was a junior in high school. His brother was diagnosed with testicular cancer. And then right when Dahmen was starting to get back on track, he was diagnosed with cancer. He had surgery in 2011 to remove a testicle, and chemotherapy followed.
And then there was the maddening sport of golf that nearly drove Dahmen to quit. He sat on his couch for a month, didn’t shower for two weeks and bought a dog to keep him company. He didn’t have a phone for three months because he couldn’t pay the bill.
Facing an ultimatum from his girlfriend — either get a job or go practice — he borrowed $200 from her for a golf lesson, the first step in taking himself seriously.
So when Dahmen says that moment with Woods was a “culmination of everything,” there’s a lot to take in.
His mother dying from pancreatic cancer is what he believes sent him into a spiral. A good student in high school, he spent a year with the Washington Huskies, drinking more, studying less and lasting only one year.
“The doctor gave her six months, and I just thought she was going to live,” he said. “I didn’t come to grips with her death. I didn’t grieve for a while, I just went through the motions. I had no direction any more. I didn’t care what I was doing. That’s where I lost my way.
His own cancer is what turned him around.
“I was still just being OK with Mom’s death, coming to grips with it — which is what I should have done four or five ago — and it was totally a case of ‘Why me?’” Dahmen said. “I’m healthy. I was a pro golfer at that point and I could not believe it was happening. Then it hit me, and it changed everything. I started practicing. I wanted to be better. It was a big wakeup call for me.
“If I didn’t have cancer, I’d be a washed-up driving range pro telling people how good I used to be,” he said. “I would be in my little town as an assistant pro. Everyone would love me. I’d do well in (PGA) section stuff and I’d drink too much. I’d be a woulda-coulda-shoulda guy. I’d be telling people for 50 years how good I was.”
Dahmen is nothing if not a straight shooter, which he displayed two months ago. He was playing in final round at the Quicken Loans National with Sung Kang when Kang’s approach to the par-5 10th went into the water. Kang says it crossed on the other side, which would entitle him to drop closer to the green. Dahmen says it didn’t. They brought in a rules official, and with no video evidence, the official had no choice but to side with Kang.
During this discussion, another group played through. That got the attention of a fan, who asked Dahmen on Twitter what happened.
“Kang cheated. He took a bad drop from a hazard. I argued until I was blue. I lost,” Dahmen tweeted .
That set off a few days of dispute, with both players standing their ground. Dahmen chose to go into silent mode in the days after the incident, and it wasn’t too much of a distraction. Dahmen tied for fifth the following week at The Greenbrier. He was a runner-up the next week at the John Deere Classic. He added a top 10 at the Canadian Open. And here he is at the TPC Boston, wondering how much farther he can go this year.
Stanley lost touch with his junior rival after they went different directions — Stanley to Clemson, Dahmen to Washington and then a series of detours — but he remembers well the teen who could make golf look easy.
“He’s always been a guy with a ton of natural talent,” Stanley said. “He reminds me of Fred Couples — I don’t know if you get that vibe — I’m not sure if it’s the way he walks. But with him, it was a matter of time.”
Dahmen no longer looks at his past as lost time. This is his second year on the PGA Tour, his first time keeping his card. He will make it to The Players Championship next year for the first time. If he moves into the top 70 in the FedEx Cup, next week he will play his first tournament without a cut.
“When I was 12 or 13, I’d probably think I’d have a couple of wins by now,” he said. “But golf his hard.”
Life can be even harder.
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