Not often will a player shoot a 2-over 74 at a national championship and say it’s a blessing. Then, again, not often – if ever – does a player receive radiation treatment for cancer and hours later win a playoff to qualify for the championship.
Jeronimo Esteve is living proof of someone surviving and advancing.
On Saturday at the 31st U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship, Esteve shot a 74 at The Houstonian Golf and Country Club – the companion stroke-play qualifying venue (neighboring Shadow Hawk G.C. is the main course) – and was genuinely upbeat afterward.
"I’m just happy to be out here," said the 30-year-old Esteve, a native of San Juan, Puerto Rico who currently lives in the Orlando suburb of Windermere, Fla. "This is a treat, and I hope I can play well as a way of saying thank you to those who have supported me through this ordeal."
The ordeal is Hodgkin's lymphoma, which Esteve was diagnosed as having in March. When he teed off on Saturday, he was two weeks removed from his final radiation treatment on Sept. 2 that put the cancer in complete remission.
What transpired in between is a story of how golf helped Esteve survive.
"I was playing in my [Indian Creek Country Club] championship in [Miami Beach, Fla.] and had won two matches on Friday. My sister was getting married a couple of weeks later and I was getting a suit made. So I go to the store to get my suit made and the guy measures my neck and says I’m a size 18," Esteve said.
In Spanish, Esteve told the Cuban tailor that there was a mistake, that something was wrong with the tape measure.
"We were joking around and my uncle was with me and I told him, ‘See, I have been working out.’ I take off my shirt and really notice I had this big mass on my neck," said Esteve, whose wife wanted him to go to the hospital that night, but was convinced to wait a day. Esteve was not suffering from any of the symptoms such as night sweats, itchiness or rapid weight loss.
In the next day’s scheduled 36-hole final, Esteve won convincingly, 12 and 10, before heading to the hospital. After a few tests, Esteve was told that he had lymphoma, that X-rays showed a lump in the right side of his neck, which accounted for his larger neck size, and in his upper chest.
"When you hear you have cancer, it’s not a pleasant moment," said Esteve. "I was with my father. We both cried a little bit. Then, from the moment they told me I had cancer, which is a terrible thing, everything else was like great news."
Through an acquaintance, Esteve secured an appointment the following Thursday with Dr. Kwong K. Wong, a noted physician at the Houston-based MD Anderson Cancer Center, regarded as the No. 1 cancer facility in the nation.
"I was hoping it would be Hodgkins lymphoma," said Esteve, explaining that Reed-Sternberg cells needed to be in the biopsy for it to be Hodgkins, because it’s the most curable form of cancer. "If they catch it early, they have a good shot at getting it."
National Hockey League player Mario Lemieux was treated for and cured of the same form of lymphoma.
Taking an extended leave from his family-owned Headquarter Honda business in Clermont, Fla. Esteve began four cycles of chemotherapy, rotating between a week in Houston and a week at home with his wife, Maritere, and 2½-year-old son, Jeronimo Esteve V. The chemotherapy took nearly five months.
"I didn’t want my family to see me weak," Esteve said. "The first time I had chemo it was a Tuesday and I didn’t want to sit around and feel sorry for myself. So my dad and I went out to play golf the next day."
While in Houston, Esteve also became an out-of-town member at Champions Golf Club, home to Jackie Burke Jr., and site of the 1969 U.S. Open and 1993 U.S. Amateur.
Esteve has his own unique back story. He learned to play at age 5, took lessons from Chi Chi Rodriguez, played collegiately at Dartmouth College and tried his hand at professional golf – playing on the Tour de las Americas, Canadian Tour and European Challenge Tour – before meeting his future wife in Madrid and eventually regaining his amateur status.
The chemotherapy weakened Esteve for a day or two, but by Saturday he summoned the strength to play in some scratch matches at the club.
Esteve did not lose his chunks of hair or weight, but, in terms of golf, he lost his balance easily and the feeling in his fingertips went away. To compensate, he needed to swing easier and the feel in his putting stroke came more from his palms.
"Golf was my escape for awhile," said Esteve. "During the chemotherapy, I didn’t feel much like reading and there is only so much television you can watch, so golf was my way of killing six hours to get away from it all."
After chemotherapy concluded Esteve underwent nearly three weeks of radiation treatment. Again, Esteve used golf as an outlet, scheduling his appointments in the morning and playing in the afternoon.
"That was the best part, being able to play a lot of golf," Esteve joked.
On Aug. 29, though, Esteve had to reschedule his appointment. He was entered in a U.S. Mid-Amateur sectional qualifier at Pine Forest Country Club in Houston.
Playing in the morning wave, Esteve shot 70 and thought he was in. As scores were posted, Esteve figured a playoff was imminent, so he hurried to the hospital for the treatment and quickly returned to play in a five-man playoff for the qualifier’s final four spots. Esteve made the field on the fourth playoff hole.
Four days later, Esteve received his final dose of radiation. He still must get checked every three months. Staying cancer-free through the two-year milestone also reduces the odds of the lymphoma returning.
"If I go five years, then I am no more likely to cancer than the average person," Esteve said. "My faith, my wife, my family and a lot of people at home newsContenting for me is what got me through this. We prayed a lot. Without my wife and family this would be an entirely different story I think."
While golf provided Esteve an escape, the experience also brought clarity as to what is most important in life. An admitted workaholic prone to spending 80-hour weeks at the office, the nearly six months away from work allowed Esteve to develop a stronger bond with his young boy and spend quality time with his wife.
"I now need to figure out how to effectively do my job and not work so much," he said.
Still, every day is a blessing.
No matter what the score says on the card.
Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work has appeared previously on the USGA’s championship websites.