After testicular cancer, 27-yr-old returns to Open in best form of life

By Ryan LavnerJuly 13, 2016, 3:21 pm

TROON, Scotland – Matthew Southgate’s dream of playing another Open never felt further away than a year ago Friday.

It was July 15, 2015, when he underwent surgery for testicular cancer. The day after the procedure, he was slumped on the couch, watching wall-to-wall coverage of the first round of The Open, broken, unable to walk, his lower abdomen ravaged. A struggling mini-tour player, he relived his own experience the previous year at Royal Liverpool and assumed that his playing career was over.

Turns out it was just getting started.

The 27-year-old Englishman has returned to The Open – nearly a year to the day after his surgery – in the best form of his life.

“Mentally, and what’s in there,” he said, pointing to his heart, “that’s what’s gotten me back here.”

Southgate’s life flipped upside down when he felt a lump in the shower. He saw the doctor immediately, and as he awaited the results of his scan, he played a Challenge Tour event in Germany. He finished fifth that week, only to receive the scary diagnosis upon returning home to Southend-on-Sea. Surgery followed a week later.

Southgate will be the first to admit that he’s underachieved in his career. He experienced plenty of success as a junior, and even as a young pro, but not much since. He was a frequent Q-School casualty with a world ranking in the 1000s. Before this year, he had played the European Tour full-time only twice, most recently in 2013, and never came close to retaining his card. He played poorly at the Hoylake Open in ’14 and promised himself that he’d earn another player’s badge, someday.

“I’ve had ability to have the results I’ve had recently a long time ago,” he said, “but it’s taken, for some reason, a long time for those results to come out. My mindset wasn’t quite strong enough.”

Life on the Challenge Tour was unglamorous, playing a schedule that included stops in Kenya, Slovakia and Austria. In a 140-player field, Southgate usually needed to finish in the top 40 just to make any money. A few missed cuts in a row would make a serious dent in his earnings. The co-sanctioned events, with more cash on offer, turned into his majors, and he often put too much pressure on himself to perform.

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“The financial side of things was an absolute nightmare,” he said.

And so when he heard the diagnosis, and the uncertain timetable for a recovery, he thought that his career was finished, that he’d have to find a real job, that he’d be reduced to trying to qualify each summer for The Open, nothing more. He was 26, hesitant to ask his parents to keep him afloat for much longer. And besides, his family was already coping with the news that his 2-year-old niece, Hattie, had been diagnosed with leukemia.

“It wasn’t the best time of my life,” he said.

But Southgate was fortunate. The cancerous cells in his testicle hadn’t spread and were completely removed during surgery. Though he couldn’t walk for two weeks, he was back on the range about two months later, against the wishes of his doctors and parents.

“The boy just loves golf,” said his father, Ian. “Always has.”

While recovering, Southgate used his girlfriend’s clubs because his felt too heavy. Shifting his weight onto his left side was painful. Walking 18 holes was exhausting. Unable to hammer drives or hit towering irons, he changed his strategy and approach, nursing his ball around the course. But by September, he had returned to competition, navigating all three stages of European Tour qualifying school, the final step a six-round marathon at hilly PGA Catalunya Resort in Spain. He finished sixth to earn another promotion to the big leagues.

“That extra little bit of fight was what got me over the line compared to others who were just playing for a card,” he said. “I was playing for personal reasons.”

It was a remarkable comeback story, but real life intervened this spring, and he missed five consecutive cuts before finding his groove. In May, at the Irish Open, he finished fourth – his first top-10 on tour in five-plus years as a pro – and broke down in tears on the 18th green. The much-needed paycheck secured his card.

Less unexpected, at least to Southgate, was what happened two weeks ago at Royal Cinque Ports, where he shot rounds of 70-66 to medal at his Open qualifier.

“I feel like the attitude I took to the first tee there was a stronger mindset and a stronger passion than anybody else in that field, with an equally good golf game as anybody in the field,” he said. “And so it wasn’t a surprise, no.

“That might sound arrogant, but it’s the same mentality I took at Q-School: I wasn’t going to accept second-best. You’re not going to beat me today. This is my day. I’m playing in The Open.

“I got so headstrong that I made five birdies in the first nine holes, and as I walked to the 10th tee it never crossed my mind that I was going to mess this up. There’s not going to be any mistakes. I’m going to get over the line. I’m going to hit fairways and greens, and I’m going to get that player’s badge. That passion will be there forever with this certain tournament.”

Instead, what has surprised Southgate most over the past few months is the outpouring of support. Each week, it seems, he will receive Facebook messages from men all over the world who had stumbled upon his story and turned around their lives. Maybe they got tested for the first time because Southgate did. Or perhaps they thought their life was ruined and now, after seeing Southgate thrive post-surgery, they’re filled with hope.

“I always felt like I was playing just for me, solely for me,” he said. “It was always for me, so that when I climbed into bed at night, I could feel like I’d played good golf and achieved for me. But as soon as a couple of those messages hit, I realized this is bigger than me. This has nothing to do with me. This becomes life-changing stuff for people I’ve never met.”

And so Southgate, who has been given the all-clear sign from doctors, signed on with a charity called Ballboys, a testicular cancer awareness organization, in hopes of spreading the word about testing. His message has been simple: A healthy life is well worth the 30 seconds of awkwardness.

“I’m glad that’s a period of my life that I can put behind me,” he said, “and now I can just focus on my golf.”

And an Open he never imagined he would play.

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The missing link: Advice from successful tour pros

By Phil BlackmarJanuary 20, 2018, 1:24 am

Today’s topic is significant in that it underscores the direction golf is headed, a direction that has me a little concerned.

Now, more than ever, it has become the norm for PGA Tour players to put together a team to assist in all aspects of their career. These teams can typically include the player’s swing coach, mental coach, manager, workout specialist, dietician, physical therapist, short-game guru, doctor, accountant, nanny and wife. Though it often concerns me the player may be missing out when others are making decisions for them, that is not the topic.

I want to talk about what most players seem to be inexplicably leaving off their teams.

One of the things that separates great players from the rest of the pack – other than talent – is the great player’s ability to routinely stay comfortable and play with focus and clarity in all situations. Though innate to many, this skill is trainable and can be learned. Don’t get too excited, the details of such a plan are too long and more suited for a book than the short confines of this article.

So, if that aspect of the game is so important, where is the representative on the player’s team who has stood on the 18th tee with everything on the line? Where is the representative on the team who has experienced, over and over, what the player will be experiencing? In other words, where is the successful former tour player on the team?

You look to tennis and many players have such a person on their team. These teacher/mentors include the likes of Boris Becker, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors and Brad Gilbert. Why is it not the norm in golf?

Sure, a few players have sought out the advice of Jack Nicklaus, but he’s not part of a team. The teaching ranks also include some former players like Butch Harmon and a few others. But how many teams include a player who has contended in a major, let alone won one or more?

I’m not here to argue the value and knowledge of all the other coaches who make up a player’s team. But how can the value of a successful tour professional be overlooked? If I’m going to ask someone what I should do in various situations on the course, I would prefer to include the experienced knowledge of players who have been there themselves.

This leads me to the second part of today’s message. Is there a need for the professional players to mix with professional teachers to deliver the best and most comprehensive teaching philosophy to average players? I feel there is.

Most lessons are concerned with changing the student’s swing. Often, this is done with little regard for how it feels to the student because the teacher believes the information is correct and more important than the “feels” of the student. “Stick with it until it’s comfortable” is often the message. This directive methodology was put on Twitter for public consumption a short time back:

On the other hand, the professional player is an expert at making a score and understands the intangible side of the game. The intangible side says: “Mechanics cannot stand alone in making a good player.” The intangible side understands “people feel things differently”; ask Jim Furyk to swing like Dustin Johnson, or vice versa. This means something that looks good to us may not feel right to someone else.

The intangible side lets us know that mechanics and feels must walk together in order for the player to succeed. From Ben Hogan’s book:

“What I have learned I have learned by laborious trial and error, watching a good player do something that looked right to me, stumbling across something that felt right to me, experimenting with that something to see if it helped or hindered, adopting it if it helped, refining it sometimes, discarding it if it didn’t help, sometimes discarding it later if it proved undependable in competition, experimenting continually with new ideas and old ideas and all manner of variations until I arrived at a set of fundamentals that appeared to me to be right because they accomplished a very definite purpose, a set of fundamentals which proved to me they were right because they stood up and produced under all kinds of pressure.”

Hogan beautifully described the learning process that could develop the swings of great players like DJ, Furyk, Lee Trevino, Jordan Spieth, Nicklaus, etc.

Bob Toski is still teaching. Steve Elkington is helping to bring us the insight of Jackie Burke. Hal Sutton has a beautiful teaching facility outside of Houston. And so on. Just like mechanics and feels, it’s not either-or – the best message comes from both teachers and players.

Lately, it seems the scale has swung more to one side; let us not forget the value of insights brought to us by the players who have best mastered the game.

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Woods, Rahm, Rickie, J-Day headline Torrey field

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 20, 2018, 12:47 am

Tiger Woods is set to make his 2018 debut.

Woods is still part of the final field list for next week’s Farmers Insurance Open, the headliner of a tournament that includes defending champion Jon Rahm, Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson and Jason Day.

In all, 12 of the top 26 players in the world are teeing it up at Torrey Pines.

Though Woods has won eight times at Torrey Pines, he hasn’t broken 71 in his past seven rounds there and hasn’t played all four rounds since 2013, when he won. Last year he missed the cut after rounds of 76-72, then lasted just one round in Dubai before he withdrew with back spasms.

After a fourth back surgery, Woods didn’t return to competition until last month’s Hero World Challenge, where he tied for ninth. 

Woods has committed to play both the Farmers Insurance Open and next month's Genesis Open at Riviera, which benefits his foundation. 

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Even on 'off' day, Rahm shoots 67 at CareerBuilder

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 20, 2018, 12:36 am

Jon Rahm didn’t strike the ball as purely Friday as he did during his opening round at the CareerBuilder Challenge.

He still managed a 5-under 67 that put him just one shot off the lead heading into the weekend.

“I expected myself to go to the range (this morning) and keep flushing everything like I did yesterday,” said Rahm, who shot a career-low 62 at La Quinta on Thursday. “Everything was just a little bit off. It was just one of those days.”

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After going bogey-free on Thursday, Rahm mixed four birdies and two bogeys over his opening six holes. He managed to settle down around the turn, then made two birdies on his final three holes to move within one shot of Andrew Landry (65).

Rahm has missed only five greens through two rounds and sits at 15-under 129. 

The 23-year-old Spaniard won in Dubai to end the year and opened 2018 with a runner-up finish at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. He needs a top-6 finish or better this week to supplant Jordan Spieth as the No. 2 player in the world.

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Landry stays hot, leads desert shootout at CareerBuilder

By Associated PressJanuary 20, 2018, 12:35 am

LA QUINTA, Calif. – Andrew Landry topped the crowded CareerBuilder Challenge leaderboard after another low-scoring day in the sunny Coachella Valley.

Landry shot a 7-under 65 on Thursday on PGA West's Jack Nicklaus Tournament Course to reach 16 under. He opened with a 63 on Thursday at La Quinta Country Club.

''Wind was down again,'' Landry said. ''It's like a dome out here.''

Jon Rahm, the first-round leader after a 62 at La Quinta, was a stroke back. He had two early bogeys in a 67 on the Nicklaus layout.

''It's tough to come back because I feel like I expected myself to go to the range and keep just flushing everything like I did yesterday,'' Rahm said. ''Everything was just a little bit off.''

Jason Kokrak was 14 under after a 67 at Nicklaus. Two-time major champion Zach Johnson was 13 under along with Michael Kim and Martin Piller. Johnson had a 64 at Nicklaus.

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Landry, Rahm, Kokrak and Johnson will finish the rotation Saturday at PGA West's Stadium Course, also the site of the final round.

''You need to hit it a lot more accurate off the tee because being in the fairway is a lot more important,'' Rahm said about the Pete Dye-designed Stadium Course, a layout the former Arizona State player likened to the Dye-designed Karsten course on the school's campus. ''With the small greens, you have water in play. You need to be more precise. Clearly the hardest golf course.''

Landry pointed to the Saturday forecast.

''I think the wind's supposed to be up like 10 to 20 mph or something, so I know that golf course can get a little mean,'' Landry said. ''Especially, those last three or four holes.''

The 30-year-old former Arkansas player had five birdies in a six-hole stretch on the back nine. After winning his second Tour title last year, he had two top-10 finishes in October and November at the start the PGA Tour season.

''We're in a good spot right now,'' Landry said. ''I played two good rounds of golf, bogey-free both times, and it's just nice to be able to hit a lot of good quality shots and get rewarded when you're making good putts.''

Rahm had four birdies and the two bogeys on his first six holes. He short-sided himself in the left bunker on the par-3 12th for his first bogey of the week and three-putted the par-4 14th – pulling a 3-footer and loudly asking ''What?'' – to drop another stroke.

''A couple of those bad swings cost me,'' Rahm said.

The top-ranked player in the field at No. 3 in the world, Rahm made his first par of the day on the par-4 16th and followed with five more before birdieing the par-5 fourth. The 23-year-old Spaniard also birdied the par-5 seventh and par-3 eighth.

''I had close birdie putts over the last four holes and made two of them, so I think that kind of clicked,'' said Rahm, set to defend his title next week at Torrey Pines.

He has played the par 5s in 9 under with an eagle and seven birdies.

Johnson has taken a relaxed approach to the week, cutting his practice to two nine-hole rounds on the Stadium Course.

''I'm not saying that's why I'm playing well, but I took it really chill and the golf courses haven't changed,'' Johnson said. ''La Quinta's still really pure, right out in front of you, as is the Nicklaus.''

Playing partner Phil Mickelson followed his opening 70 at La Quinta with a 68 at Nicklaus to get to 6 under. The 47-year-old Hall of Famer is playing his first tournament of since late October.

''The scores obviously aren't what I want, but it's pretty close and I feel good about my game,'' Mickelson said. ''I feel like this is a great place to start the year and build a foundation for my game. It's easy to identify the strengths and weaknesses. My iron play has been poor relative to the standards that I have. My driving has been above average.''

Charlie Reiter, the Palm Desert High School senior playing on a sponsor exemption, had a 70 at Nicklaus to match Mickelson at 6 under. The Southern California recruit is playing his first PGA Tour event. He tied for 65th in the Australian Open in November in his first start in a professional tournament.