Esteve's key to beating cancer? Beating golf balls


PANAMA CITY, Panama – Hours after making the cut at the Latin America Amateur Championship, Puerto Rico’s Jeronimo Esteve settles into a chair at a hotel restaurant and recounts his Friday at Panama Country Club.

Of issue: the wind, the firm conditions, the tight tee shots, the jumpy lies, the bumpy greens, the slow play.

In the end, as afternoon scores ballooned on Day 2, Esteve, 35, followed a first-round 68 with a second-round 78 for a two-day total good enough to advance him to the weekend.

After going through the round, nearly hole by hole, and laughing about having to move a sign on 10 and flying a 180-yard 9-iron to the back edge on 18, he asks a straightforward question:

“How far back do you want go?”

Esteve was 30 years old in 2011 and living outside Orlando, Fla., with his wife, Mari, and their 2-year-old son, Jeronimo V. A former mini-tour pro who spent time on the Tour de las Americas, the Hooters Tour, the Golden Bear Tour, and even the European Challenge Tour, Esteve decided to give up the pro game when he "ran into" Mari in Spain in 2004. The couple married in 2005, and Esteve had his amateur status reinstated a year and half later. Shortly thereafter, he went into business as the general manager of a collection of car dealerships, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.

Born in Puerto Rico but raised in Miami since the age of 10, Esteve found himself back in South Florida playing in the Indian Creek club championship, where he had just advanced to the final. That same afternoon, he went to get fitted for a suit for his sister’s wedding.

“I go and the guy is measuring my neck, and the guy tells me I’m a size 18 ½ neck. And back then I was working out. I was actually in good shape. So I’m like, “Man, you know, that’s weird. That’s not right. But okay, I have been working out. Maybe my traps are getting bigger,'” Esteve says, laughing at himself.

“So we put on the suit and this and that and then we’re trying on shirts, and when I take my shirt off, I look at my neck.”

It was at that point that Esteve realized his traps weren’t getting bigger.

“I had a giant tumor,” he says. “I had a giant, swollen piece, and I show the guys [at the suit store], and they don’t know what it is. They just go, ‘That doesn’t look good.’”

Esteve quickly called Mari, who wanted him to go to the hospital that night, but he had plans the following morning. He wanted to play the Indian Creek final. So they made a deal: Esteve would play the 36-hole match the next day and go the hospital the minute he was done.

“I won like 7 and 6,” he says. “I played really good, and then right afterwards went to the hospital. I went right in there and the guy is like, ‘Listen man, at your age, the way you’re describing it, the way you’re feeling’ – I didn’t feel anything – ‘there’s a 95 percent chance you have cancer.’”

Esteve was eventually diagnosed with Stage I Hodgkin Lymphoma, which after doing some reading is exactly what he wanted, assuming of course that he had to have cancer. He found out that there are these things called Reed-Sternberg cells, and that “if you have these little Reed-Sternberg [MF-ers], you have Hodgkin. … And if we have this, we’re going to have to go after it as hard as we can. So what’s the best place in the world?”

Esteve’s father had a friend who previously had Lymphoma himself and who recommended both a hospital and a doctor: The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and Dr. Luhua (Michael) Wang.

Two days after his diagnosis, Esteve flew to Houston to see Dr. Wang, who confirmed that he indeed had Hodgkin Lymphoma and then almost immediately changed the subject.

“He goes, ‘Oh Jero, you like to play golf?," Esteve recalls. "'I want to go play golf with you tomorrow.’”

And so Esteve, his father, Dr. Wang and a second doctor from MD Anderson, Richard Champlin, played Westwood Golf Club the following day, with Esteve and Wang riding together in the same cart. Before the round, Wang, who had reviewed all the test results, looked at Esteve and assured him: “I am going to cure you.”

And so, Esteve says, “I went out and shot the easiest 62 in the history of 62s.”

He remembers that he missed a 3-footer for a front-nine 29, that they stopped for nearly an hour between nines for lunch, that he 3-putted the 10th hole for bogey, and that he got up-and-down on 18 for a 62, which remains the Westwood record.

That round of golf set the tone for his next six months of treatment. As an institution, MD Anderson instills in its patients the belief that the fight against cancer is as much about an attitude as it is about a treatment. And so Wang encouraged Esteve to keep playing, to play as much as his body would allow him.

Wang was serious enough about it that when Esteve started receiving eight-hour treatments of rituximab, he offered him an alternative to the normal chest port.

Wang told him: “‘You won’t be able to play golf [with a port]. ‘But, if you can take it, we’ll put an IV in your arm every time.”

That went on for four weeks before the chemotherapy started.

“Chemo hurts, man. It burns your veins,” says Esteve, who remembers those same veins hardening and turning black.

The key to getting through the treatments was his new routine. He would undergo chemo on Tuesday, rest Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, and then head to the driving range on Wednesday afternoons at Champions Golf Club, founded in 1957 by Jackie Burke and Jimmy Damaret. By this time, Esteve had secured himself a temporary residence in Houston to limit his flying back and forth between Texas and Florida. A friend had referred him to Champions, where he worked his way as a non-member into a Saturday afternoon men’s game and won the pot.

“It was such a relief,” he remembers, “to be able to play golf and not think about crap. We ended up joining the club, and we made that our routine. Chemo on Tuesday, and then hit balls Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. I would play – in the middle of the day I couldn’t do it, because my skin would hurt from the chemo.”

Of note, prior to his arrival, the club had a strict no-eating policy in the locker room, a rule that was tabled for Esteve, who needed to eat regularly to keep up his strength. "The guys used to joke with me," he laughs. "They say I'm probably the only guy who's ever eaten in the locker room at Champions."

After weeks of chemotherapy – and golf – Esteve began radiation therapy, which, he understates, “is when the Mid-Am thing happened.”

The 2011 U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship happened to be at Shadow Hawk Golf Club, just outside Houston. While still undergoing chemo, Esteve secured a practice round with a member: “I told him, ‘I’m coming back here. I’m playing the Mid-Am.’ The guy just looked at me, like, ‘Are you out of your mind?’”

Of course, to make the Mid-Am, he had to go through a qualifier, and because he needed radiation treatment each day, that posed – at bare minimum, to say nothing of the effects of the treatment - a logistical problem.  And so, the day of the qualifier, Esteve arranged to receive radiation in the afternoon, leaving him free to play the tournament that morning at Pine Forest Country Club.

He went out and made seven birdies but also some mistakes coming home for a round of 2-under 70. When he reached the clubhouse, he was doubtful his score would hold up throughout the day, but he also didn’t have time to wait around. So he signed his card, left the course, and headed to the hospital as planned.

“So they hook me up with my mask, and I get in the machine, and I get treated for about an hour,” he says. “And so we get done, and I look at my phone, and I go, ‘Holy s---, I think we might go to a playoff.’ I look at my dad, and I’m like, ‘We gotta go back out there.’ He says, ‘What?’ And I say, ‘We gotta go back out there.’”

They did. Fresh out of radiation, Esteve drove 45 minutes back to the golf course to find out he had made his way into a 5-for-4 playoff to qualify for the U.S. Mid-Am.

“I wasn’t even nervous in the playoff,” he remembers. “I just got treated for cancer. [After going through that], this doesn’t even matter to me.

“We went out and just played solid for three holes and got in. We got in the Mid-Am.”

Between the qualifier and the Mid-Am, Esteve was able to end his treatments when his Lymphoma went into remission. Two weeks later, he showed up for the tournament, having beaten cancer. But he was still weak, and he had gained 40 pounds while undergoing chemo.

He shot 74 the first day at Houstonian before bad weather resulted in a three-day long second round at Shadow Hawk. After a poor first nine, Esteve came back two days later to birdie 11, dunk a 5-iron for eagle on 13, add another birdie and make a key up-and-down for par on 17.

He arrived at the par-5 finishing hole, the ninth at Shadow Hawk, thinking he needed par to secure a berth in match play and a birdie to get himself a good seed. And that’s when, after all it had given him for six months, golf decided to take something back, as it tends to do.

“There was like a little lake on the right,” he says, “and like all of Texas on the left …

“And I hit it right in the middle of the lake.”

He squeezed into a 20-for-3 playoff with a 40-foot bogey save on the final green, but at that point it was done. Esteve lost in the playoff and his Mid-Am run – saved by a return trip to the golf course from radiation therapy – was over.

“When we were doing it, it wasn’t that big a deal,” he says, now five-and-a-half years later. “It was normal. That was our life, getting treated and then doing whatever. But you look back and … that’s crazy. It’s crazy.”

Back in Orlando, Esteve and his wife went on to have a second child, Nicolas, who’s now 4, his older brother Jero now 8. Members at Isleworth in Windermere, Jeronimo continues to work on his game, while Mari plays tennis. His cancer remains in remission.

“Golf was the escape,” he says. “Golf was what let me deal with everything. I’d go work a couple days, and come back [for treatment], and go back to golf.

“I got a lot of release from trying to get better at golf, from hitting it better, from working on the ball flight, tinkering with equipment, you know I’m going to do this with this shaft, and this 3-wood, and today I’m going to work on hitting high-draws. … That’s what kept me occupied. That’s what kept me from thinking … bad s---.”

In the middle of our talk, a tournament official from the USGA walked up to Esteve and congratulated him on “hanging in there” through the tough conditions on Friday.

Esteve thanked him and laughed. “Yeah, it was tough, man,” he said. “That was tough.”