Executive Director Tiffany Nelson overcomes breast cancer to lead finale
November 07, 2019
By Jim McCabe, PGATOUR.COM
- November 07, 2019
Tiffany Nelson overcomes breast cancer to lead season finale
PHOENIX – After a hike so demanding it required three days, though she concedes four would have been more prudent, the trail had taken her group 16,354 feet to the top of Point Lenana, one of Mount Kenya’s three peaks. Above the clouds and seemingly able to touch the sky stretched over all of Africa, her lungs burning and her spirit wrapped in an exhilaration that enabled her to connect with what Sir Edmund Hillary once said – “It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves” – she absorbed the awe-inspiring moment and the majestic views around her.
Then, Tiffany Nelson brushed this thought onto the canvas. “Oh, crud,” she said. “Now we’ve still got to go down.”
Ah, so Tiffany, she of an endearing spirit and full complement of faith.
Atop Lenana, with every bone in her legs aching, she found the strength to savor the moment with profound appreciation yet didn’t let pass the chance to sprinkle in the humor that is necessary in a world filled with unexpected heartache and challenges. Provided a view that went forever, Nelson afforded herself much-deserved praise. “The most accomplished thing I’ve ever done,” she said to herself.
But she and the five college friends who shared the hike with her knew the truth. This grueling hike more than 3 miles into the clouds couldn’t compare to the mountain Tiffany Nelson had already climbed.
Indeed, it was her fight with breast cancer that stood as a measure of greater inspiration.
This week, on sun-drenched days here in the desert, a testament to the power of second chances is playing out at Phoenix Country Club. The Charles Schwab Cup Championship features World Golf Hall of Famers, well-known PGA TOUR members, and a heady list of former winners, all of them thankful for the opportunity to still be plying their love of athletic competition in an arena unique to golf.
None of our other sports offer such an avenue to its athletes and few, if any, of the 34 golfers who qualified for this season finale would say they don’t embrace this landscape. With very little fanfare, however, the most fitting piece to this Charles Schwab Cup Championship gathering is the woman whose enthusiasm and passion has helped pull it all together.
She did make it down from that trek into the clouds above Kenya and is fully engaged in the job she loves (Executive Director of the Charles Schwab Cup Championship) and the sport (golf) that has been her life since those days when her father introduced her to the game in the Chicago suburbs. “I was the little boy he never had,” laughs Nelson. “But he instilled in me a love of golf.”
But it’s her thirst for life and her determination not to let it go that personifies what is at the heart of this tournament – a sincere appreciation for what we have and second chances.
Nearly two years removed from the numbing news delivered by her doctor (“You’ve got Stage 1 breast cancer.”), 15 months since her decision to undergo a double mastectomy, more than a year from the day she ditched the wig (“Try wearing a wig in Phoenix summer heat. Impossible.”) and a little more than two months away from Lenana, Nelson is the warm face greeting all these golfers who have found wonder in the PGA TOUR Champions.
“What is the expression, ‘Find your passion and make it your business?’ That is what golf is for me. This job never feels like work,” said Nelson, who embraces her position in golf even more since she confronted breast cancer.
“The game, the job, the people in golf . . . it has all helped me keep my mind off my battle. There’s been such support of me, they’ve helped take so much pressure off.”
The road golf had taken her on – from high school golf to playing for Purdue’s women’s team to that decision she made right after college graduation to move to Arizona, because that’s where golf is basically every day, all year long – came to fruition when Nelson landed a position with the Waste Management Phoenix Open 13 years ago.
Nelson was within the PGA TOUR family and things progressed beautifully. In the winter of 2016, she took part in an Executive Director Initiative, and by the end of the year Nelson was tapped to run the Charles Schwab Cup Championship at its new home, Phoenix Country Club. It couldn’t have been a better fit. Nelson loved Phoenix, loved golf, loved the challenge that was hers.
Barely six months on the job, however, “my body was telling me that things weren’t working right,” and a visit to the doctor led to a mammogram. At 43, Nelson said she wasn’t worried, because “breast cancer doesn’t run in my family,” but the doctor’s words told her otherwise. Suddenly, her world was going faster than she ever could have imagined.
“I knew I was going to do the double mastectomy,” said Nelson. “(Looking back), I would have slowed it down, but I was frightened. You just don’t know what to expect.”
Family members came in from Illinois, adding to the already legion of supporters and friends Nelson had in Phoenix. As a youngster, Nelson had teed it up with her father and when joined by two other men who seemed perturbed to be forced to play “with a girl,” she had relished those opportunities to outhit and outplay them. Now, with cancer questioning her strength, Nelson felt that same sense of “screw you.”
They call it “Red Devil,” the toxic fluid that was used in her chemotherapy treatments, and Nelson said it hit her hard. “I was scared, but I also knew that cancer wasn’t going to define me; I was going to define it.”
When her hair started to fall out, Nelson organized a “shaving party,” and while her guests had Bloody Marys, she had tomato juice. The wig made sense, at first, then Phoenix temperatures got up near triple digits and Nelson opted for the scarves. She was consumed by “my dream job,” and so the debut of the Charles Schwab Cup Championship at Phoenix CC went well in 2017.
Of course, rough times arrived, like that evening when Nelson said she felt helpless after a chemo session and sat on her bathroom floor crying. Five friends joined her, just sitting on the bathroom floor and while the scene today can make her laugh, Nelson knows how others were committed to her fight.
“Life,” said Nelson, “is 10 percent what happens and 90 percent how you react.”
That is one of the byproducts of her sort of ordeal, that you see life differently and ponder deep thoughts. With her sense of humor, though, Nelson also studied her situation and came to realize “how men save a lot of money on shampoo and razors” as she lived with a shaved head and didn’t need such necessities.
Levity, she embraces. It is needed when the reality becomes so heavy as it does when Nelson studies the numbers. “One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, and that will go to one in seven,” she said quietly.
Statistically speaking, Nelson was “the one,” and that was crushing. But take yourself beyond the data and focus on her vibrant attitude, which is “positive and competitive,” and you are left to marvel, yet again, at the aura of the human spirit and how Nelson is “the one” who is trying to make a difference.