I Want to Talk About My Mom

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It’s the spring of 2011 and I’m just hanging out, playing with my balls.

Just normal guy stuff. Watching TV. Hands down my pants, checking inventory or whatever.

And I felt a lump on one of them.

I knew right away what it was. My brother, Zach, was diagnosed with testicular cancer two years earlier, and I remember he had a similar experience. I immediately went into this state of like … denial. This can’t be happening. Not to me. There was no way to shake the feeling of knowing exactly what it was, though. I knew. I knew. For two weeks I just tried to will it away. Hoping the lump might not be there the next day. But that’s just not how it works. And it made me almost angry in a way — like it all just seemed unfair.

So I walked into the doctor’s office.

“Hey. I have cancer. I have testicular cancer.”

He sort of laughed at me and was like, “Alright, first let’s get some tests done.”

Three days later he called me to come in.

“Joel, you have cancer.”

I said, “I know. Thank you.”

I was 23 years old. I’d been a professional golfer for two years. I had my whole life in front of me.

In that room, everything hit me. Like a punch to the chest.

And I just wanted to talk to my mom. 

You might be wondering why I’m telling you this story, or even who the hell I am. That’s fair. I get that a lot. My name’s Joel, I play on the PGA Tour. I’m a cancer survivor, a husband, a brother, a son. I’m from Clarkston, Washington, right near the border of Idaho. And lately I’ve been thinking a lot about life, about golf — what we’re all doing out here on tour.

Golf, to me…. Man, I can’t even really put it into words.

Golf has a lot to do with my mom.

It still does.

She was a superhero. She was my superhero. Zach and I were completely spoiled by her. She made our beds everyday, she cooked incredible dinners — there wasn’t a thing we had to do around the house. We were both big mama’s boys. Her name was Jolyn, and she was the life of the party. She worked at a local elementary school and she was everyone’s favorite teacher. She’d host Thanksgiving and Christmas for our extended family and she made it look so easy. She did everything with love. 

Joel Dahmen | PGA | I Want to Talk About My Mom | The Players’ Tribune
Courtesy Joel Dahmen

And in the summers, when she’d have time off, she and I would ride around the Pacific Northwest in our minivan and go to different junior golf tournaments. Dad worked at the pulp and paper mill in the valley nearby for 38 years, and he funded a lot of my entry fees. Mom would drive for hours and hours to and from courses, making sure I was always there on time. She never missed a hole. She took notes, like how many greens I hit, or how many putts I had that day, so she could fill Dad in later.

It didn’t matter how I played on a given day, she was always there for me.

After a bad round, I’d walk off the 18th green, straight to Mom.

She’d say, “Did you try your best today?”

“Yes, Mom.”

“O.K. Let’s go get a treat from Starbucks then.”

She understood the game. She knew one day you could shoot 68, and the next 88. There are a lot of highs and lows in golf, but she was steady — she kept me right where I needed to be. I had a lot of success as a junior golfer in Washington, and I owed a lot of it to my parents.

I used to dream of being Griffey, or Gary Payton, but when I got to high school I realized there weren’t many six-foot, 160-pound guys in the NBA. And I knew I was good at golf. As a freshman I won the state championship for the first time and I started getting letters from colleges — that’s when I knew I might have a chance to get an education through golf. And that’s what the goal was. My family, we always had everything we needed, but we weren’t rich by any means. So free school? I knew what a huge bonus that would be for me.

I knew it would make my parents proud, too. That’s what mattered to me.

Golf, to me…. Man, I can’t even really put it into words. Golf has a lot to do with my mom. It still does.

Joel Dahmen

I was on the right path. I was starting my junior year of high school in 2004, and I was playing good golf. My brother had just left for college. Fall in Washington is so great. The endless rain hasn’t started yet and the leaves are changing, Thanksgiving is around the corner. My friends and I would spend Friday nights watching the football team play. I remember one Friday, I came home from school and my parents had beat me home, which was rare. I walked inside the house, and they sat me down.

“Joel, your mom has cancer.”

I was starting my junior year in high school. I was just a naive kid. Nothing bad had ever happened to me.

I just started crying. I hugged my mom for 10 minutes. I didn’t know what to say. What to do. I just wanted to be with her, to be comforted by her, by her smell — by all the things that made her my mom. They didn’t know how bad it was, or what was going to happen. A week later they sat me down again and told me she had six months to live.

She passed in the spring of the following year.

I was never really able to process … any of it. Not the first time they sat me down, or the second. Not her being sick. Not seeing her grow weak. Not her dying.

Man, I can see it so clearly now. All these years on, I can see myself back then — I was so lost.

I wish I could reach out to that kid.

I wish I could tell him to just grieve, to just miss his mom.

I wish I could tell him that it’s O.K. to be sad.

But that kid…. He lost his best friend, the rudder of his life.

In her final few months, she and I would lie in bed and watch Jeopardy or Wheel of Fortune — two of her favorite shows — and we wouldn’t say much. We’d laugh. And when I’d head off to golf, she’d tell me to keep living my life, to keep doing everything to the fullest.

That summer, I rode around the Pacific Northwest on my own. I drove the minivan to and from events. I was one of the best junior players in the entire country at that time. I had offers from a bunch of big schools. I couldn’t process any of it. When I was off the course, everything was just … it was a lot. Colleges. Moving. Paperwork. All of that.

But on the course, I found solace.

I found my mom again.

Joel Dahmen | PGA | I Want to Talk About My Mom | The Players’ Tribune
Vaughn Ridley/Getty

I’d be in a fairway somewhere, alone in my thoughts — and I’d look up to the green, and I’d see her. She’d be off to the side, with a coffee mug or a notebook, smiling and watching me. At first it sort of spooked me like, Holy S—, I just saw my mom. But it comforted me.

The next few years, the peace of golf became harder and harder to find. I never dealt with my mom’s passing. I went to the University of Washington. I acted like a teenager. I didn’t go to class, I hung out with friends, I drank. I had this God-given talent to hit a golf ball like so few people could, and I didn’t do anything with it. I had no clue what I wanted out of life. I dropped out of UW, and I turned pro with help of a friend, Bob Yosaitis, who I call Uncle Bob.

I wasn’t on a path to the PGA TOUR or anything like that, but I was having fun, I was living. I didn’t take my game too seriously. I was still just a kid.

But then I felt that lump. And everything changed.

There is no moment for me, or conversation, that really helped me deal with the death of my mom. But going through chemo, feeling the fear that she must have felt — even if it was just a portion of what she was dealing with — I just … understood a bit more, if that makes sense. I was in this room with 10 or so other people, and we’re all hooked up to our machines. Many of them were elderly and had it much, much worse than I did.

And I’d look at them and I’d think, Yeah, Joel, you got dealt a bad hand. You’re 23 and you have cancer. It sucks. But you’re going to beat this and you’re going to make something out of your life.

I remembered everything my parents had done for me. Some of my talent was a gift from above, yes — but it was also a gift from my dad, my mom. They gave me this chance, this opportunity. I was done wasting it.

How lucky am I?

So I got to work. I started practicing again — like really practicing. I enjoyed golf like I was 16. I saw all the good in the game, all the fun. The PGA Tour has a great system in place for players trying to climb, and I did my best to take advantage.

A year after I beat cancer, I met Lona. She’s my wife now. Which, if you had seen me trying to get her number at Gus’s Pizza at 2 a.m. in Scottsdale…. You might not believe we ever got married. But we did. And she’s the best thing that ever happened to me. She didn’t give a crap about golf. She didn’t care if I was an Uber driver or worked on Wall Street, she just wanted me to be the best version of myself. She worked two jobs, 16 hours a day, to pay the bills when things weren’t going well for me on the course. She pushed me to get off my butt at the end of 2013 and go get a lesson.

Joel Dahmen | PGA | I Want to Talk About My Mom | The Players’ Tribune
Courtesy Joel Dahmen

In another world, I’d tell you about all the highs and lows of the journey — the nights in downtown Saskatoon while I was on PGA Tour Canada. And trust me, there are some good stories in there. But that’s not why I wanted to do this.

I’ve been a consistent player on the Tour for six years now. I’ve won out here. I’ve lived a dream-and-a-half. Not many kids from Clarkston get this far. It took … man, it took a f------- lot to get here. I’ve got the best team in the world. Lona, Geno — everyone.  They’ve done more for me than I could ever put into words. I’ve seen every step of the PGA Tour’s ladder. I’ve lived it. And I’m thankful for it. I wouldn’t be here without it.

It took me a long, long time to figure out how to make it out here. There were a lot of bad days, a lot of good days. A lot of days in between.

If I could go back and tell that 17-year-old Joel about everything that’s to come, I’d tell him success isn’t a straight line — that life, happiness, isn’t a straight line. Everything he’s going to go through, it will make him a better human. And that’s what he’ll care about the most when he’s 34.

I’d tell him that he’ll stop seeing Mom on the course one day when he gets older. That the visions will go away. But he’ll never stop feeling her presence. He’ll know that no matter where he goes, she’ll be watching him play, tracking his stats, waiting with a Starbucks.

He’ll know that she’s proud of him — that she can see a lot of herself in him.

And that would make her happy.