Cancer taught me to appreciate little joys of life: Joel Dahmen

Joel Dahmen reacts with his caddie Geno Bonnalie after putting in to win on the 18th green during the final round of the Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship in March in Punta Cana. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

By Joel Dahmen

When I wasn’t playing great at the start of this year, I kind of weirdly enjoyed it. As strange as it sounds, I haven’t struggled with golf for a long time. It’s been pretty easy for me on the PGA Tour over the last three or four years, as I’ve been good pretty consistent over that time.

Maybe that optimistic approach comes from my own personal history. I lost my mom to cancer in 2005, and my brother had it in 2009 but he recovered. I was diagnosed with the disease two years later, which kind of stopped me in my tracks real quick, I had the world at my fingertips as I was starting to play professional golf. It made me appreciate how precious every moment is. I think I appreciate what I’m doing a lot more now and appreciate the little things in life, like great food and good golf courses. I also learned to appreciate the not-so-fun times. With my own cancer, it kicked me into full gear in knowing what I needed to do. I wasn’t practicing as much back then and it’s one of those things where you only have this one opportunity. A lot of people, you get only one or two chances in life to really make it.

It was a wake-up call. That experience makes the tough times not so tough, and golf is not life and death. I’ve been through life and death with my cancer. Making bogeys stinks, three-putting really stinks, but in the general scheme of things, it doesn’t matter. I’m super competitive and still get frustrated, but when I lay my hand on my pillow at night it’s just golf and everything will be fine.

I owe a lot of that approach to my parents, who both played golf while I was growing up. Dad was a single handicapper. He was obsessed with the game and he had every book in the world and every training tool at home. Mom was pretty good too. As a teacher, she had summers off, so we would travel around in our minivan. She never missed a tournament and kept detailed notes so we could send them to my dad and discuss them. If I played well, I would get a Starbucks treat. I just remember all the road trips and staying in not-so-great hotels and sometimes we would drive through the nights. So many great memories there.

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It was a dream come true to win my first PGA Tour tournament at the Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship back in March. When I won, it was a lot of raw emotion. One of those things I had planned in my head for so many years and then the final putt goes in. I don’t remember a ton of it. For the first couple of minutes after I won as I was in shock or something. I have watched the video enough times now to know what happened and it was fun to see.

You’ve seen it so many times and it’s kind of one of my favourite things where the wives and kids are around the green and they give their dad or husband a hug at the end. It’s a totally cool moment. It was my 111th start on Tour and I was getting to a point where I probably needed a ‘W.’ I don’t know if that was weighing in my mind and it was kind of time for it to happen. I think there were so many emotions for me after winning, as everyone saw on the 18th green.

It was really cool for my wife Lona to be a part of the celebration, as she’s been with me on what has been a very long journey. Lona is an incredible human being and I’m very lucky to have her in my life. When we met, I was a fledgling pro trying to make it on the mini tours. I had a great financial backer who did a lot for me golf-wise, but I didn’t want to keep begging him for money every month for rent and things. So Lona worked two jobs while I was pulling in negative money at the time. I was basically worthless as she had to pay rent and put food on the table. She would get up in the mornings, wasn’t always happy going to work and then would come home for a couple of hours and go out again for her evening job. She was putting in 70 hours a week at times, as that was what it took to allow me to play golf. Without her, I would never be here. 

Joel Dahmen’s caddie Geno Bonnalie (centre) officiated Joel and Lona’s wedding. Photo credit: Joel Dahmen

She also pushed me in wanting me to be better at golf. There were times when I was not getting up and doing the proper things, and she kicked my butt. She gave me US$200 in January 2014 after I had missed second stage of Q-School for the fifth year in a row and I was depressed. I was down and out. I sat on the couch like an absolute bum and didn’t do anything. One day, she came home and said: “Joel, I don’t care what you do, don’t care if you play golf, don’t care if you are a dish washer. But you can’t sit on my couch and do nothing. I would prefer you to play golf as you’re good at it, and that’s a path you should look at.” So with the money she gave me, I found a coach named Scott Sackett, who is pretty popular in Utah. I don’t think Scott told me anything I didn’t already know but I won the very next week, and then again two weeks later. I earned US$50,000 over the next three months and headed to Canada that summer and won the first tournament up there and later the Order of Merit. It was crazy, as I never saw Scott again and I don’t know if it was the lesson or me just getting off the couch that turned the corner.

Lona is of course an essential part of my life, but so too is my caddie, Geno Bonnalie, who has been my best friend since we were kids. He actually officiated our wedding. He’s put in so much time, effort and sacrifices while being away so long from his wife and two kids.

Geno and I started our partnership back in the summer of 2014 after I had won a couple of times in Canada. He started penning an email to me and sent it the night I was officially the Order of Merit champion to get onto the Korn Ferry Tour. I was impressed. One of the things that stuck was when he said he didn’t want to jump in when I was already on the PGA Tour. He wanted to be part of this journey to help get me there. A lot of people only want to get on the PGA Tour where the money is good, but he was ready to go all-in and help me get started on the Korn Ferry Tour. I left him hanging for a while. Probably the first two months I told him he wasn’t going to do it, as he wouldn’t make enough money for his family. But he still kept after it. One of the things that I had in my mind was if I hired him, I would one day need to fire him, and I didn’t want to fire my best friend. I told him that, and he said it was totally fine as long as if I ever did fire him I did it over pizza and beer. So off we went and it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made.

It was awesome to have him on the bag for our first PGA Tour win. Through winning, expectations change. I didn’t have any expectations going into Corales, as I wasn’t playing well. Every year since I turned pro 10 years ago, I’ve improved in the final standings, from Canada, to the Korn Ferry Tour and now on the PGA Tour. If I can continue doing that, then great things are going to happen. You can improve on other things, maybe your mental side gets a bit better, maybe your routine gets a bit better and these things add up. I don’t know if I needed that win at Corales, but I always thought it would eventually happen. To get the first one now is huge and with knowing the fact that I can get it done, I want to win bigger and better tournaments. The feeling on Sunday is pretty addictive. The adrenaline rush you get, all the congratulations … that’s addictive and it’s fun. You want to do it more and more.

Joel Dahmen is a one-time winner on the PGA TOUR .

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