'You Just Play Through It'

Though ravaged by cancer, golfer Heather Farr, once a rising star, has lost none of her resolve
August 23, 1992

Heather Farr's Patio home is close enough to the Stonecreek Golf Club that on a desert evening when play is slow, she can sneak onto the course and get in a few holes. Just grab a couple of clubs and walk through the cool Phoenix air. On nights like that, around sunset, there is no gallery. It's just Heather, alone, in a competition of her own invention, walking through the smell of just-cut grass. The sharp click of the ball marks her stolen time.

That's a golfer's heaven, isn't it? Just minutes and steps to an empty course. But that easy access to time and place mocks her now. Farr, whose cancer was discovered three years ago, is in the middle of her fourth chemotherapy treatment. New spots in her skull and pelvic area were discovered in late March. How long this latest treatment will last is anyone's guess. It has already racked her with the usual nausea and has caused an unexpected infection, so at the moment she does not care to sneak onto the course and swing a golf club. She does not care even to venture beyond her patio, which she has surrounded with 16 rosebushes. With each treatment, with each sickening loss of hair and muscle, she moves further and further from golf, from the LPGA tour on which not so long ago she was a rising young star. Steps and minutes from an empty course? At the moment, the only things that remind her of the game are some trophies and medals and one favorite picture by the door: She's teeing off; there's a yardage chart Happing in her back pocket, and her long ponytail—so much hair!—is swinging free. It seems a long time ago.

In May, on the weekend before she was to travel to Arlington, Texas, to begin her latest therapy, Farr guessed it would be this way—that golf, however close it seemed, would once more recede into her past. Maybe this fight to get back to the tour was silly. Ahead of her there would be more nausea, baldness and most likely another surgery to core out the diseased pelvic bone. That was if things went well. Maybe she was kidding herself.

"Obviously," she says, "the longer I go without golf, the harder it's going to be to get back and play with these guys. They're gaining on me. They're passing me. When I played in the Skins Game in April, it was really eye-opening how far I had to go. I was 40 yards short of them off the tee. I was in no way up to their level."

Then again, it's pretty hard to discourage a golfer, at least this one. During Farr's second year on the tour, in the summer of 1987, she went eight weeks without earning a check. People say life's not fair? They should play professional golf. "The ninth week I made a check," she says. "It was for $500." That amount's a joke in professional golf, and it made her laugh to remember the moment—$500 wouldn't pay one week's expenses on the tour. "But it was a check," she says. "So you play through it. That's what you do, you just play through it."

Understand her spirit, if you can. Farr has yet to run into a patch of golf, or life, that she couldn't just play through. During her first two years on the tour, she was overwhelmed by the competition and the schedule. She had been the amateur state champion in Arizona at the age of 13, was a world-beater in three years at Arizona State and, at 20 years old, qualified for the tour on her very first try. Then, suddenly, she wasn't making cuts. But she played through it. She stopped joining every Monday pro-am offered to her—it was hard to turn down the $1,500 you could get for those outings, even if you needed the rest—and beginning in her third year, she limited tournament play to three weeks a month. The payoff was this: six top-10 finishes in 1988, placing her 41st on the money list, with winnings of $75,821. She became an endorser for Sara Lee, signing one of the most lucrative contracts on the tour. Finally she could afford a home near her family, closer still to a golf course.

Bounding down the fairway—she has marched from shot to shot ever since her father told her that the boys would leave her behind if she didn't keep up—she is the very picture of determination. And didn't her persistence pay off? For the blossoming golf star, life was suddenly perfect. Oh, her home could use some decorating if ever she found the time. How Jo people manage to choose draperies? With so much golf to play, it was hard for Farr to organize her time to do much besides find places for her autographed baseballs (she's a sports nut) and her CD collection. She's a country and western nut too. Otherwise life was perfect.

Except for the lump in her right breast. She found it in December 1988, but Farr says she could not persuade her gynecologist or another doctor to schedule a biopsy. Instead, they diagnosed the lump as a benign mass. She just had none of the ordinary risk factors: She was too young, just 24; she was too trim and fit; and there was no history of breast cancer in her family. What were the chances? It wasn't until seven months later, she says, that she could persuade the second doctor to perform a biopsy. (The issues of this lost time and the allegedly bungled diagnoses are now in litigation. The two doctors deny the charges against them.)

That biopsy, and the malignancy it revealed, signaled more than an interruption in a promising golf career. Life was no longer perfect. Surgeons discovered a late-stage tumor that had cast cancerous cells into 11 of Farr's 16 lymph nodes. This was not eight weeks of missed checks; this was a condition that had reached a stage at which it kills more than four out of five women. Play through this.

"After she was first diagnosed," her mother, Sharon, remembers, "after she was first told, there was a period of about 24 hours when she just wanted to cry. And then that was it." Farr began playing through. Three years of procedures and surgeries that seem as horrifying as the disease they are fighting—she has undergone a gradual hollowing out of her body—have not emptied her of resolve. Through this epic period of treatment, she has not played in a tournament, not since the du Maurier Ltd. Classic in July 1989. But on good days she really intends to rejoin the tour. On bad days she merely intends to forge ahead with an impending marriage and the rest of a long life.

And there have been some bad days. A young woman does not easily endure a modified radical mastectomy (her underarm lymph nodes were removed with the breast in July 1989) nor the loss of her hair. For Farr the latter hit harder than the first. "Sounds backward, doesn't it?" she says. "But after reconstructive surgery, I was fine about the mastectomy. But [during the chemotherapy] when my hair started coming off in huge clumps, that was the worst." Worse even than the nausea, which was so bad that she didn't dare leave the house for fear of becoming sick in public. "There was just something about losing my hair," she says.

That was neither the end of Farr's ordeal nor the worst of it. Eleven months after her first chemotherapy treatments ended, doctors discovered that the cancer had spread. There were tumors on the back of her skull and on an upper vertebra. Farr chose the most aggressive treatment available, a bone-marrow transplant. But before that could be done, the tumor on her back—which ate away the vertebra until it collapsed, creating extreme pain and threatening to cause paralysis—would have to be removed.

The back surgery, which was performed in the spring of 1991, took 15½ hours and required the services of three teams of doctors. One surgical team cut her open in front and back, actually separating her shoulder muscle from the bone and laying it aside to be replaced later. Then a neurological team removed the tumor along with the damaged vertebra. Next an orthopedic unit removed a rib and fashioned a new vertebra from it, affixed it to her spine and attached a seven-inch rod to her backbone for stability.

And then came the bone-marrow transplant, a procedure that removes and treats a portion of the diseased marrow, then kills the remaining marrow with massive doses of chemotherapy as much as 10 times stronger than normal. To prevent infection, Farr was kept in isolation for 39 days following the procedure. She did not keep a meal down during that time, nor in the three months after her isolation. What nourishment she got was from what little food she could keep down, and she dropped from her playing weight of 122 pounds to 98. And after all that, the tumor on her skull remained. It was surgically removed last summer. And after all that, a lesion on her hip was discovered; it was treated with radiation last September. Then, this April, there were the three new spots on her skull and in her pelvic area.

Would that discourage you? Would it dishearten you for more than the 24 hours it took Heather Farr to make sense of her condition and then plan for a new course of treatment? "She's like a little cork," says her mother. "You can't keep her down."

Each recurrence means one more painful therapy. The latest has been among the worst. Farr's ability to fight off infection was zapped to zero by the chemo, and she was beset by what her mother describes as something like a monumental flu, but more dangerous. "She was critically ill," Sharon says. Doctors had to rig her with small pumps that automatically dosed her with a mix of seven drugs. "It was a rough week," says her mother, who accompanied her to Arlington. But by the end of the week, to her doctors' amazement, Heather was feeling great, and she was allowed to return to Phoenix. Next month she'll return to Arlington for further treatment.

As bad as all of that is, the worst for Farr may be the way the cancer prevents her from planning her life. In February she announced that she would be returning to the tour in 1993. She began practicing again. She announced her engagement to Goran Lingmerth, a former NFL placekicker. She moved her life along, even got around to decorating her home, adding drapes and all. She now has a handsome cabinet that holds her autographed baseballs and her Garth Brooks CDs. Then the shocking diagnosis, the troubling spots on her skull and in her pelvic area, put her life on hold again.

This is doubly frustrating to a person like Farr, who applies to her life an organization that is nearly comical. When she was 13 and pretty sure that golf was going to be her career, she approached the sisters at Xavier High School in Phoenix and outlined a three-year plan. She had looked down the line and realized that if she graduated at 18, she would be stuck with a summer of amateur tournaments, which were all match play. It would be better, this little teenager figured, if she graduated at 17—the age limit for junior golf—and could play her last eligible summer on the junior circuit, which featured stroke play. The whole point was that college golf is entirely stroke play, and she figured she would have an easier transition, high school to college, if she graduated from Xavier in three years. Of course, she did. "My daughter planned that far ahead?" asks Sharon, laughing. There is no planning now. That would take a terrible arrogance. Her wedding gown, ordered during a spasm of preparation last spring, awaits the convenience of her cancer. Farr will not many until she feels and, of course, looks healthy. It will be after December, no sooner, and her fiancè waits patiently. The golf is put aside too. During the Skins Game last spring, although told by her doctors not to expect too much, she was heartened that her swing remained intact. Whatever the doctors, and the cancer, had done to her body, the mechanics for golf had somehow survived. She still believes that golf will be there for her when her health returns.

In the meantime she waits in her patio home. She is buoyed by the support of her friends on the tour, who have been heroic in their concern. Ever since she lost her healthcare insurance last October, Farr has had to depend on her fellow golfers, who donated all of their pro-am earnings during a 10-week period to help defray her considerable medical expenses. (Now all of their pro-am earnings are contributed to a general fund that aids any player with extensive medical costs.) Their letters—and calls, when she can take them—are as valuable to her as the money. She keeps up with their golf and gossip and remains, as much as she's able, apart of that life.

Sitting in that patio home, waiting for remission, she suffers no self-pity. Instead she rails, to the extent that this ever-cheerful one can rail, against the Bush administration's tragic under-funding of breast cancer research. Farr tells you that one in nine women—your daughter? your fiancèe?—will get the disease. "It's maddening," she says. "And the [government] research money is one tenth of what goes to AIDS. It's not fair."

That seems to be the only injustice Heather Farr can find in her cancer, even as this talented golfer sits moments and steps from a course she can't play. Her calm is unnerving, but what's to get all exercised about? The sharp click of the ball, and you can hear it from her patio home, now marks somebody else's stolen time—the only kind of time there is, really.

PHOTOMICHAEL SCULLYFarr's struggle has forced her and Lingmerth to defer their nuptials.
PHOTOHall of Famer Patty Berg was on hand when Farr captured the PGA junior title at age 17. PHOTOPORTER BINKS/USA TODAYIn 1988 Farr, strong and fit, enjoyed her most successful year—$75,821 in winnings. PHOTOBILL THORUPNancy Lopez and other pros are teeing up to help out their old pal.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)