So Much More Than Golf

By Mercer BaggsOctober 1, 2008, 4:00 pm
Conor Oliver had only one thought at the time. Fatigued, his once 4-up lead down to 1, he trudged to the 15th tee at Bandon Dunes and asked himself: Did I come all this way just to lose?
 
One could interpret that to mean, Did I win three matches and take a commanding lead in the finals of the Oregon Junior Amateur just to throw it all away?
 
Conor Oliver
Conor Oliver at this year's Oregon Junior Amateur.
But this was about so much more than golf.
 
On August 18, 2006, Conor, 11 years old that very day, was celebrating his grandfathers 70th birthday.
 
His father, David, was with his younger sister, Etienne, whom he took gliding. Etienne loved flying, just as her sister, Elliette, the middle child, loved gymnastics. But because of their parents dedication to Conors burgeoning golf game, the two girls sometimes had to forgo their enjoyment for the sake of their brothers.
 
Today, however, was a daddy-daughter day, one for the girls to spend flipping in the air and flying thorough it. One that was very pleasant, until David received a phone call from his wife, Melody.
 
Meet me at the hospital, she said.
 
For some time, the family had been concerned about Conor as he had been showing signs of intense exhaustion. Melody had noticed at a recent family gathering that he wasnt able to keep up with the rest of the kids. He even had to sit down just to brush his teeth.
 
So prior to attending his grandfathers pizza party, Conor took a trip to the pediatrician.
 
I was kind of hoping and praying that it was mono, Melody recalls. So, of course, they took a mono test and the nurse came back and said, Oh, yea, its not mono! and I said, No, you dont get it; I was hoping and praying this would be positive. At least that way we could deal with it.
 
Melody was later informed that Conor had extreme anemia and to hurry to the emergency room. They arrived at 7 p.m. By 10 p.m., a doctor had informed them that Conor had leukemia.
 
You are shocked. You dont know what to do. You wonder, you sob, everything. But I didnt get angry, David says.
 
Instead, we decided when it happened that we were going to be normal ' that we werent going to let this change our lives, for as much as we could help it.
 
For 12 days, David and Melody stayed day and night by Conors bedside. For the first 30 days, he was in and out of the hospital.
 
That first month was crazy, Melody says. Lots and lots of treatment.
 
Adds David, During the first part of chemo, they have little regard to quality of life. They give you as much poison as you can stand and still stay alive.
 
And then there was the drilling. Doctors had to bore holes into Conors hip to harvest bone marrow in order to evaluate the abnormalities in his blood cells.
 
That was the worst, says Conor. My hip felt like something was missing.
 
Fortunately, his body responded well to the treatment and the cancer went into remission early. Doctor visits were reduced from weekly to monthly. Spinal taps went from monthly to quarterly.
 
Conor still takes oral chemo every day and over 200 pills a month, according to his mom. But he can play golf, something that one doctor told Melody her son would never again do at the competitive level of which he was accustomed.
 
Golf is what Conor loves. He wants to attend college ' Maybe Stanford, he says ' and make the team. He would love to play professionally, but if not, maybe a career in golf architecture.
 
The odds of becoming a (successful) professional golfer are slim to none, David says. But if hes good enough hell have some opportunity. We always felt he would have some sort of opportunity. What hes able to do with that, well see.
 
The Olivers are a modest family, one living on an inherited farm passed down by Melodys grandparents. They are able to allow Conor to play competitively by making sacrifices elsewhere in their budget. And they are the grateful benefactors of charity throughout the community, whether its money from fundraisers or free golf from the owner of Gresham Golf Course.
 
Weve come to the conclusion that this is really what God wants him to do. We dont want to push a kid into something he doesnt want to do. But we do try to accommodate what he does enjoy, David says.
 
Gods given him a talent and wed be remiss if we didnt nurture it.
 
Conor Oliver
Conor says he averages roughly 250 yards off the tee.
Conor has been playing since he was 18 months old. He picked up the game watching his cousins out at Gresham. His dad taught him the basics, just as his dad had taught him. Not that it took much instruction.
 
He has a natural gift for golf. It was obvious, David says. Hes one of those kids who when he goes golfing someone would come up to him and ask how old he was. People always notice his swing ' its very conventional ' and the way he hits the ball. He always gets a lot of attention.
 
And a lot of trophies.
 
In 2006, the year Conor was diagnosed with leukemia, he won eight out of the 14 tournaments he entered, including his 8-11-year-old age group in the Oregon Junior Amateur.
 
The following year, he won his first tournament back after his cancer battle. He wasnt, however, able to defend his state title, as his body wasnt yet ready to undergo four rounds of match play.
 
The highlight of 2007 came in Augusta, Ga., where Conor, through the Make-A-Wish foundation, was able to attend the Masters.
 
Prior to traveling from Oregon to Augusta, David e-mailed Aaron Baddeley through his Web site, explaining Conors story and hoping to secure a meet-and-greet during the event. Baddeleys agent, Jens Beck, soon called back to say, Aaron will do anything you need.
 
Why choose Baddeley? Hes a great (role) model for my boy, says David.
 
While at the 07 Masters, Conor tagged along with Aarons wife, Richelle, for six holes. Conor and Aaron chatted extensively that day and have been trading e-mail messages since.
 
Conor Oliver and Aaron Baddeley
Aaron Baddeley stops by to greet the Oliver family at this year's U.S. Open.
This year, Conor, now 13, was able to attend the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. Of course, he made a beeline for Baddeley.
 
Aaron didnt recognize me, Conor says. Not that Baddeley had a lapse in memory; it was that Conor was now 58 and a hearty 140 pounds.
 
I was looking a lot better, Conor adds. I had my hair back.
 
Said Baddeley through e-mail: Conor is an amazing young man, one who is strong and is an inspiration. When I saw Conor at this years U.S. Open, 15 months since we got to hang out at Augusta, he looked like a totally different person. He looked fit and healthy. That is a testimony right there of how tough and courageous he is.
 
Thanks for being a great example and inspiration, Conor.
 
Upon leaving the Open, while heading back to Oregon, Conor played in a few tournaments in Northern California. The results werent very positive. The family was concerned enough to consider keeping him out of the Junior Amateur for a second consecutive year.
 
We couldnt do it, though, says Melody. It was very obvious that it was so important for him to get to States.
 
The logistics of making that happen, though, were tricky. This years Oregon Junior Amateur was being held at Bandon Dunes. A dream come true, most certainly, for Conor ' but a course some 6 hours away. Add in a $265 price tag for a practice round, and the Olivers, a Christian household, were left wondering what to do.
 
The answer was in prayer.
 
Commit your way to the Lord; trust in Him, and He will act. ' Psalm 37:5
 
The family was soon informed that Conor was a part of a group of players to win a lottery, awarding them a free practice round the Sunday before the tournament. Melody ' who would later in the week say, God is blessing the socks off this kid ' then decided to take Conor to Bandon herself, arriving in time to get in the complementary warm-up session.
 
When we pulled into the grounds that Sunday he said, Mom, Im so happy to be here, Melody says. His next words were: I just hope I dont lose too bad.
 
That Monday, Conor, who says his strong suit is his iron game and that he plays Titleist 681T pro-forged blades, made it through qualifying to get into the match play. He won his first match, 6 and 5. He won Round 2, 7 and 5, going 4 under through 13 holes. It was a match Melody says was the prettiest golf Ive ever seen.
 
Thursday was a bit of a tester, though, as it took a 4-foot par putt on the final hole to secure a 1-up victory.
 
Then came the final, contested on July 4. And the fatigue.
 
Conor was 4 up through seven holes, but the margin was far from comfortable. He was slowing down, feeling nauseous by the turn. With four holes to play, his lead was down to 1-up.
 
Did I come all this way just to lose? Conor inwardly asked.
 
Conor Oliver
Conor receives his trophy for winnig his age division of the OJA.
Apparently not. Conor won the 15th hole, piped a drive down the 16th fairway (complete with a Tiger Woods club twirl finish) and was eventually conceded the hole and the match, 3 and 2.
 
Mom, mom, I won! Melody remembers Conor shouting as he ran into her arms.
 
Says Conor, I was so happy. I was happy, excited, everything.
 
It was a far cry from the feeling he experienced 21 months prior, out in the big field behind his farm where he loves to practice, hitting balls for the first time since being diagnosed with leukemia.
 
It felt weird, and it hurt, he recalls about the first contact he made with his 8-iron.
 
Conors clubs were shelved for two months. Now, nearly two years after being told he had cancer, Conor was not only playing again, but winning. And not just winning tournaments, but winning THE tournament ' the one he didnt get a chance to properly defend the year prior.
 
That was the best week of my life, Melody says upon reflection. And I think it was for Conor, too.
 
This was (about) so much more than golf.
 
Editor's note: If you have a story of inspiration, or how golf and life have intertwined, e-mail Mercer Baggs at mbaggs@golfchannelclub.com
 
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