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.
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.
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."
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."