Loss and Inspiration: Jason Enloe’s Long Journey Back from Tragedy
August 12, 2019 | PINEHURST, N.C.
By Michael Trostel, USGA
Jason Enloe has many of the same goals as the 311 other players in the U.S. Amateur field. He just prepared for the championship a little differently. He arrived at Pinehurst at 2 a.m. on Saturday after a five-day cruise in the Bahamas with his daughters Emma, 7, and Maddie, 4. They swam in the pool, played in the ship’s arcade and explored the white-sand beaches. It was a much-needed respite from the stifling heat and humidity of Dallas in early August.
If a family vacation to the islands sounds atypical for a player getting ready for the biggest amateur event on the calendar, it is. But spending time with his girls this summer is more important than ever for Enloe. His wife, Katie, died 13 months ago, succumbing to a rare form of cancer.
Shock. It’s a word everyone used in describing their reaction to first hearing of Katie Enloe’s diagnosis.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, it was a 12,” said Hunter Mahan, a six-time PGA Tour winner who is married to Katie’s sister, Kandi. “It left me nauseous. You just couldn’t believe something like this would happen to someone so young and healthy.”
Katie discovered a lump in her left breast in December 2017. Initially she believed it was breast cancer, given her family history, but the Enloes were devastated when the test results came back. It was acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a type of cancer found in the blood and bone marrow.
Despite treatment at the country’s top-ranked hospital for cancer care, MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, the cancer spread into her brain and spinal fluids. Katie passed away on July 3, 2018, just six months after the initial diagnosis, at age 35.
Jason was left in a daze, trying to make sense of what seemed like an impossible nightmare. His wife was gone and he was now an only father to two young girls. Every day was a struggle as he adjusted to the new normal without Katie.
“I was there physically, but emotionally it was draining,” said Jason. “It took a while for reality to set in. There was a lot of sadness.”
The golf course had always been a sanctuary for Jason, but being around the game has become even more important in the past year.
He picked up a golf club for the first time at age 11 and was immediately hooked. His game developed as a teenager and he earned a golf scholarship to Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He was a quarterfinalist in the 1995 U.S. Amateur and the following year won two elite amateur events, the Monroe Invitational and the Northeast Amateur, and he also represented the United States in the World Amateur Team Championship. He turned professional in 1997 and won twice on the Korn Ferry Tour, in 2006 and 2009.
It was during that time that Jason met Katie. They had been talking online for a few weeks, but their first date came about from a poor golf performance.
“I missed the cut in Rochester,” said Jason, “So I called and asked if I could take her out to dinner. She said yes, so I flew to Dallas to spend the weekend with her.”
They quickly formed a bond and after a two-year courtship were married in December 2009.
Changes came to his professional life, too. After a 14-year career playing golf across the country, Jason became the assistant men’s golf coach at his alma mater, SMU, so he and Katie could settle down and start a family. In August 2014, he assumed the head coaching position, inheriting a team that included Bryson DeChambeau, who would win the NCAA individual title and the U.S. Amateur the following summer.
He endured a challenging first 24 months due to sanctions from recruiting violations committed by the previous administration. Despite those hardships, Jason bonded with the team, gaining their trust and support. SMU was barred from the 2016 postseason, which led DeChambeau to turn professional early, but Jason continued to stay positive, instilling messages of determination and perseverance.
“He’s very genuine and honest with the kids,” said Chris Parra, SMU’s assistant men’s golf coach. “He lets them see his emotion and teaches them that it’s OK to have a bad day.”
Unfortunately, there were plenty of those to come.
The 2018-19 season was without a doubt Jason’s toughest – and most impressive – coaching performance. The Mustangs played their first tournament in early September, less than two months after Katie’s death. Wearing her initials on the back of their team shirts, SMU earned its first team victory since 2016. They finished the year with four victories and a berth in the NCAA Championship quarterfinals, earning Jason a nomination for the Dave Williams Award, which honors the national coach of the year in Division I men’s golf.
“The strength Jason showed was unbelievable,” said Parra, who has known Enloe since they were SMU teammates in the mid-1990s. “We cried a lot in those first few months, but it brought this team closer together. He was an inspiration to all of us.”
Jason has also focused his efforts on fundraising. He worked with Hunter and Kandi Mahan to create the Mahan Foundation Match Play at Trinity Forest Golf Club in Dallas on the Tuesday before the PGA Tour’s AT&T Byron Nelson event. In two years, the nine-hole par-3 contest has raised nearly $200,000 to help fund research for AML and to increase awareness for the nationwide search for bone marrow donors. Much of the money has been distributed as $5,000 grants to help families offset the financial burden of treating leukemia.
“The community has really rallied behind this event,” said Mahan. “It’s something we are very passionate about and the Tour pros have been really generous with their time. We hope it’s helping all the families who are struggling to figure things out.”
Despite his many commitments, Jason was able to summon a throwback performance at his 36-hole U.S. Amateur qualifier on July 15 – the day before his 46th birthday. He shot rounds of 67-69 at Trinity Forest, closing with a birdie on his final hole to force a three-way playoff for two spots in the championship. Jason holed a 30-foot birdie putt on the fourth playoff hole to earn his way to Pinehurst.
“I missed a few short putts coming in and thought maybe it wasn’t meant to be,” said Jason. “But someone was watching over me.”
Jason is older than all but four players competing for the Havemeyer Trophy this week. It’s his sixth USGA championship, but his first U.S. Amateur in more than two decades. Emma and Maddie will be following along from Dallas, rooting for their dad as he takes on a field of players that includes two of his players at SMU. Both McClure “Mac” Meissner, 20, and Charles “Ollie” Osborne, 19, credit him with helping them grow as golfers and young men.
“He’s instilled great values in us,” said Meissner. “He stayed so positive throughout all of it last year. I know it inspired my teammates and me. He showed us what true perseverance looks like.
“And he can really play. It’s cool seeing him beat up on all the juniors and college players.”
What Jason has accomplished in golf has been impressive, but his greatest impact hasn’t been on the course – it’s been at home with his girls; in the locker room with his SMU team; and in the Dallas community where he lives.
“He taught me to cherish every day,” said Osborne. “We all want to play well, but golf isn’t everything. Family and moments with your loved ones, that’s what is valuable.”
When this week is over, Jason will return to Dallas and the reality of being a single father and a widower. Emma will start first grade soon and Jason will return to SMU for his sixth season as the head golf coach. There may be more tough times ahead, but his team and his community are ready to support him every step of the way.
Michael Trostel is the senior content producer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.