Am Tour: Hilgers doesn't let cancer stop Nationals run

By Brandon TuckerSeptember 18, 2014, 7:38 am

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - John Hilgers’ life in golf would be the envy of most who have ever taken up the game.

Hilgers, 64, grew up in Austin, Texas, where his father was a founding member of Austin Country Club and his junior golf rivals included Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite. He'd often spend mornings on the first tee of ACC beside legendary instructor Harvey Penick.

"By osmosis you've gotta be able to pick up something," laughed Hilgers, who now lives west of Austin in Wimberley. "Somebody who grew up with Ben Crenshaw and Harvey Penick ought to be able to shoot in the 70s."

This week Hilgers, competing in the Hogan Flight (handicaps 8-11.9), played in his first Golf Channel Am Tour Senior National Championship. He shot 77-77-85-84--323, good for a tie for sixth place. He had hoped for a top-5 finish, but he was happy nevertheless, especially after making a birdie on his final hole. "I had the best week of my life," he said. "The camaraderie, the relationships you get to build over a competitive sport. Where else can you do that?"

Hilgers has had a busy golf campaign in 2014, competing in 25 events leading up to nationals, winning six times.


Am Tour flight winners: Championship, Snead | Hogan, Sarazen | Jones, Palmer


And did it all despite having terminal cancer. Multiple myeloma, according to the American Cancer Society, is "a cancer formed by malignant plasma cells," mainly in bone marrow. The disease is incurable, but treatable. Median survival rates range from 62 months for Stage I to 29 months for Stage III.  

Hilgers was diagnosed five years ago, after he became overheated on the golf course. Since then he has lost 90 pounds and three inches of height and has had five compound fractures in his back. His immune system is decimated. In spite of all that, he's playing as much golf - competitive golf - as he can.

Earlier this year, golf had grown painful and his game suffered. Fearing there was no way he could play well four days in a row, he canceled his Am Tour Nationals registration.

Then, an unexpected turnaround: His doctors prescribed stronger painkillers - morphine, plus a patch of synthetic heroin he wears 24 hours a day.

And just like that, Hilgers' game took off. He won three Am Tour events in a row, including the two-day Dallas Tour Championship at The Tribute.

Suddenly, the national championship was back in his mind.

"I thought, I better try and enter and see what I can do," Hilgers said.

"I think I can win this thing."

To help defray his medical bills as well as tournament entry fees, his Wimberley-based fan club, "Team Little John" held a golf outing in July to raise $12,000. The event included an auction of two Masters pin flags signed by two-time winner Crenshaw.


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Hilgers won the River Place Challenge in April, one of his six wins on the Golf Channel Am Tour this year.  


Once a 200-pound, scholarship football player and a big hitter off the tee, Hilgers is now the little guy in the group. In order to reduce the stress on his back, he cut his swing in half.

It means Hilgers is deadly accurate off the tee - any scramble team's dream - even if he's stuck hitting woods on most approach shots. He also gets around the course so fast it's tough to keep up.

"He's very steady," said Chris Phillips, from Houston, also a competitor in the Senior Hogan Flight. "He's a great competitor. He very rarely leaves the fairway and is always around the greens."

After back-to-back 77s at Talking Stick's North and South courses, Hilgers shot an 85 on the Talon course at Grayhawk, which left him tied for ninth and eight off the lead. He hadn't played 18 holes three days in a row since he was diagnosed.

"If I have to crawl through 18 to finish," he said after his third round. "I'm going to finish this off." That he did, closing with an 84 at Grayhawk's Raptor course.

Hilger's persistence hasn't been lost on one of the friends he met on the local Texas tour, a former high school athletic director in the Houston area, L.P. Jones. The two were paired together at a local event in Round Rock, and Jones was so blown away by Hilgers' determination he wrote him a letter afterward.

"The physical pain he's had to deal with," Jones said, "the loss of flexibility, muscle deterioration - it's just amazing. He's a heck of an athlete."

In addition to Hilgers' strong play this year, his nationals highlights have been meeting David Feherty, and running into a lot of the folks he's played with throughout the year in Texas.

"I've met some of the highest quality people I've ever met," Hilgers said of his year on the Texas Am Tour. "They almost spoil me out here, even though we're competing against one another. I just love these guys."


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Hilgers and Michael Walker watch Kevin Smith putt out during Round 3 of the Golf Channel Am Tour Senior National Championship.


Hilgers says he plans on playing golf until it's not fun anymore, which, when you watch him in action, doesn't seem like anytime soon. But he keeps a full schedule beyond the golf course already. He speaks with church groups about preparing for life with cancer, and spends as much time as he can with friends and family. 

Also, he's in the middle of starting up a new venison ministry, which prompts Hill Country ranchers to donate excess game meat to a processing plant in Kerrville to feed the homeless.

It won't just be his fellow golfers who are inspired by Hilgers' indomitable spirit.

"[Hilgers] energizes you," said Phillips, a melanoma survivor himself. "It's very clear talking to John over the last year or two, his tremendous energy, a lust for life. He's using his time to the maximum."

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What's in the bag: CareerBuilder winner Rahm

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 10:37 pm

Jon Rahm defeated Andrew Landry in a playoff to earn his second PGA Tour title at the CareerBuilder Challenge. Here's what's in his bag:

Driver: TaylorMade M4 (9.5 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Fairway wood: TaylorMade M3 (19 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Irons: TaylorMade P790 (3), P750 (4-PW), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Wedges: TaylorMade Milled Grind (52, 56 degrees), Milled Grind Hi-Toe (60 degrees), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Putter: TaylorMade Spider Tour Red

Ball: TaylorMade TP5x

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Strange irked by Rahm-Landry friendly playoff

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 9:45 pm

Curtis Strange knows a thing or two about winning golf tournaments, and based on his reaction to the CareerBuilder Challenge playoff on Sunday, it’s safe to say he did things a little differently while picking up 17 PGA Tour victories in his Hall-of-Fame career.

While Jon Rahm and Andrew Landry were “battling” through four extra holes, Strange, 62, tweeted his issues with the duo’s constant chit-chat and friendly banter down the stretch at La Quinta Country Club, where Rahm eventually came out on top.

The two-time U.S. Open champ then engaged with some followers to explain his point a little more in depth.

So, yeah ... don't think he's changing his perspective on this topic anytime soon ever.

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Randall's Rant: The Euros won't just roll over

By Randall MellJanuary 22, 2018, 9:36 pm

The Ryder Cup may not be the King Kong of golf events yet, but you can hear the biennial international team event thumping its chest a full eight months out.

As anticipation for this year’s big events goes, there is more buzz about Europe’s bid to hold off a rejuvenated American effort in Paris in September than there is about the Masters coming up in April.

Thank Europe’s phenomenal success last weekend for that.

And Rory McIlroy’s impassioned remarks in Abu Dhabi.

And the provocative bulletin board material a certain Sports Illustrated writer provided the Europeans a couple months ago, with a stinging assault on the Euro chances that read like an obituary.

McIlroy was asked in a news conference before his 2018 debut last week what he was most excited about this year.

The Ryder Cup topped his list.

Though McIlroy will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National come April, he talked more about the Ryder Cup than he did any of the game’s major championships.

When asked a follow-up about the American team’s resurgence after a task-force overhaul and the injection of young, new star power, McIlroy nearly started breaking down the matchup. He talked about the young Americans and how good they are.

“Yeah, the Americans have been, obviously, very buoyant about their chances and whatever, but it’s never as easy as that. ... The Ryder Cup’s always close,” McIlroy said. “I think we’ll have a great team, and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”



McIlroy may have been talking about Alan Shipnuck’s bold prediction after the American Presidents Cup rout last fall.

Or similar assertions from TV analysts.

“The Ryder Cup is dead – you just don’t know it yet,” Shipnuck wrote. “One of the greatest events in sport is on the verge of irrelevancy. The young, talented, hungry golfers from the United States, benefitting from the cohesive leadership of the Task Force era, are going to roll to victory in 2018 in Paris.”

European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn won’t find words that will motivate the Euros more than that as he watches his prospective players jockey to make the team.

And, boy, did they jockey last weekend.

The Euros dominated across the planet, not that they did it with the Ryder Cup as some rallying cry, because they didn’t. But it was a heck of an encouraging start to the year for Bjorn to witness.

Spain’s Jon Rahm won the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour, England’s Tommy Fleetwood started the week at Abu Dhabi paired with American and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and won the European Tour event, and Spain’s Sergio Garcia won the Singapore Open in a rout on the Asian Tour.

And McIlroy looked close to being in midseason form, tying for third in his first start in three months.

Yes, it’s only January, and the Ryder Cup is still a long way off, with so much still to unfold, but you got an early sense from McIlroy how much defending European turf will mean to him and the Euros in Paris in September.

The Masters is great theater, the U.S. Open a rigorous test, The Open and the PGA Championship historically important, too, but the Ryder Cup touches a nerve none of those do.

The Ryder Cup stokes more fervor, provokes more passion and incites more vitriol than any other event in golf.

More bulletin board material, too.

Yeah, it’s a long way off, but you can already hear the Ryder Cup’s King Kong like footsteps in its distant approach. Watching how the American and European teams come together will be an ongoing drama through spring and summer.

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Quail Hollow officials promise players easier conditions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 22, 2018, 9:14 pm

Quail Hollow Club - a staple on the PGA Tour since 2003 - debuted as a longer, tougher version of itself at last year’s PGA Championship, receiving mixed reviews from players.

The course played to a lengthened 7,600 yards at last year’s PGA and a 73.46 stroke average, the toughest course in relation to par on Tour in 2017. As a result, it left some players less than excited to return to the Charlotte, N.C.-area layout later this spring for the Wells Fargo Championship.

It’s that lack of enthusiasm that led officials at Quail Hollow to send a video to players saying, essentially, that the course players have lauded for years will be back in May.

The video, which includes Quail Hollow president Johnny Harris and runs nearly five minutes, begins with an explanation of how the first hole, which played as a 524-yard par 4 at the PGA, will play much shorter at the Wells Fargo Championship.

“I had a number of my friends who were playing in the tournament tell me that tee was better suited as a lemonade stand,” Harris joked of the new tee box on the fourth hole. “I doubt we’ll ever see that tee used again in competition.”

Harris also explained that the greens, which became too fast for some, will be “softer” for this year’s Wells Fargo Championship.