Getting off the couch
Joel Dahmen faced several challenges – physical and mental – but this cancer survivor is now enjoying his best TOUR season
July 09, 2019
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
Joel Dahmen faced several challenges – physical and mental – but this cancer survivor is now enjoying his best TOUR season
There he was. Sprawled out on the couch. Again.
The TV was always on. The remote control was never far away. And curled up next to Joel Dahmen, almost always, was Murphy, his black lab puppy.
Meanwhile, the dirty dishes hadn’t been washed. The laundry was still sitting in a pile. Of course, Dahmen was probably wearing the same clothes he’d worn the day before. And the day before that. And the day before that. Shoot, he likely hadn’t taken a shower in days.
Dahmen was moping around after a string of three-putts over the final nine holes – “I choked, basically, and crumbled under the pressure,” he says -- ended his PGA TOUR dream at the second stage of q-school in 2013. He was feeling sorry for himself.
“I was going to give myself five years. And that was year four and winding down. You wonder if you're ever going to make it basically. … And so, when it didn't happen, I was crushed, and I didn't really know how to respond.
“I was so devastated. I wasn't practicing for final stage. I had nothing really to plan, so I just shut it down.”
For his girlfriend Lona Skutt, it was like Groundhog Day, the same depressing scene every day when she came home from work. And it was starting to affect their relationship.
Skutt loved Dahmen, dearly. She’d known he was the one within months of meeting him, standing in line for pizza after a festive evening in Old Scottsdale in the winter of 2012. She believed in him – maybe more than he believed in himself.
But she was working two, and sometimes three, jobs to support the couple. She helped manage a nationally known clothing store during the day and worked as a cocktail waitress at night. Double shifts three times a week were taking a toll.
Skutt had had enough.
“There was one defining day where I came home and I had had a hell of a day at work, you know, a long day at work, and I was like ‘I can't do all of this.” Lona recalls. “I can't support us, come home and do the dishes and cook for you while you just sit there and do nothing.’
“I didn't sign up to be dating the bum on the couch who doesn't move for 12 hours a day. I think I reached my limit where I was, like, you've got to do something.
“That was definitely the defining conversation, because I came home, and I was like, ‘All right, get it together, man. You can't keep doing this. I let you throw your pity party for a couple of weeks, now you're good. Come on, like let’s get it together.’”
The couple had had the conversation before. But this particular night was different. This time Dahmen, who had quit paying his cell phone bill because he liked the isolation, really listened.
“The laundry wasn't done. The dishes weren't done. The place was a mess,” he recalls. “I was in the same clothes and she's like, ‘This is disgusting. You're gross, and you need to figure this out because this isn't working for me. This is unfair.’
“I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her, and as soon as she turned it, like, ‘This isn't fair to me,’ and that's when it kind of switched for me and made sense.”
Dahmen actually had thought about getting a job driving an Uber. He’d even considered swallowing his pride and working in the cart barn at some club. But he knew a 9-to-5 job wasn’t in his future.
Instead, he borrowed $200 from Skutt and took a lesson.
“And that was all I needed,” Dahmen said. “I just needed one little thing to kickstart me from there to where I've play pretty good golf.”
Skutt remembers Dahmen being nervous when he asked her for the money. He didn’t need to be – she gave it willingly. She just wanted to see her boyfriend set a new goal for himself. Golf or no golf, she wanted him to find what was in his heart and made him happy.
“That's when he got back into the swing of things,” she says. “I think you always want the person you love to feel motivated and want to better themselves and all that stuff.
“It was good to see him finally show interest again.”
But this wasn’t the first time that Dahmen -- who would earn his PGA TOUR card four years later and enters this week’s John Deere Classic in the midst of a career season -- had to overcome adversity.
Dahmen grew up in Clarkston, Washington, a town of about 7,500 situated on the Snake River across from Lewiston, Idaho. The two towns were named after the explorers Merriwether Lewis and William Clark, who led the first expedition to cross the western part of the United States in the early 1800s.
Dahmen’s father Ed introduced him to the game when he was a toddler and went on to coach him as a junior. His mother Jolyn taught school, so she had the summers off to travel with her son to tournaments, even caddying for him sometimes.
“She was my best friend,” Dahmen says simply.
In the fall of 2004, Jolyn was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died the following spring. Dahmen, the self-proclaimed “mama’s boy,” was a junior in high school. He was devastated. In fact, he thinks it took him about five years before he properly grieved her death.
“That was tough for me and tough for my family, obviously,” he says. “She was a rock. She held our whole family together.”
Four years after Jolyn died, Dahmen’s older brother Zach discovered he had testicular cancer. Unlike with their mother’s cancer, though, there was a clear path of treatment and a successful outcome.
“There was no like, ‘Oh, you're diagnosed with cancer, but we don't know what's next,” Dahmen recalls. “Fortunately, they said, we can remove it. You won't have to do chemo and you're going to make a full recovery from that. So, there was no time to be scared really with that one.”
Even so, it’s still cancer.
And then it happened again.
In March of 2011, when Dahmen was 23 years old and just starting to play golf professionally, he felt a lump in his scrotum. Here we go again, he thought. Dahmen called his brother, who told him that was the same thing that had sent him to the doctor.
“And I'm like, no way,” Dahmen remembers. “Like, this can't possibly happen to me. I was in denial for a couple of days. I mean, most people would run to the doctor. I was in denial about the whole thing and didn't tell anybody, didn't act any different … I was just hoping it would go away.”
But it didn’t. And two weeks later, as the size of the lump increased, Dahmen finally went to see a doctor. Before the physician could open his mouth, Dahmen matter-of-factly told the doctor he had testicular cancer.
“He just kind of laughed at me, but it turns out I was correct,” Dahmen says.
Luckily, Dahmen, who had no health insurance, had a sponsor in Bob Yosaitis who paid for his treatment. The two had met the previous summer during a practice round at the Washington State Amateur. Dahmen was playing; Yosaitis -- a successful jet-fuel trader who founded Bradley Pacific Aviation, an FBO based in the Hawaiian islands -- was caddying for his son. They quickly became friends.
“I was looking at Joel like another one of my kids,” Yosaitis said in the book, “Walking with Tigers.” “He called me one day on the phone and was crying. I thought he had some golf problems. I asked, ‘What’s wrong, and he said, ‘I have cancer.’ I told him, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll pay for the treatment. You’re getting the surgery.”
Doctors removed his testicle, and Dahmen spent several weeks undergoing roughly eight hours a day of chemotherapy. He was weak and nauseous but eager to play golf again. He returned to the Mackenzie Tour-PGA TOUR Canada later that year.
“So, for me, it was important to get it removed, to have the chemo and just get healthy again to where they said I was going to be OK,” Dahmen says. “And I truly believe that. I think there's two stories -- there is, the doctor tells you, but then truly believing in yourself.
“So, my motivation was to just to get healthy and to play golf again for sure.”
Skutt met her future husband the following January. Dahmen had the gift of gab, and she thought he was cute, particularly the “really curly fro” he had when his hair first grew back after the chemo.
She gave him her phone number – never expecting to hear from him – but he called several days later to asked her out. Two months later, the couple shocked each other with their first “I love yous.” When Skutt realized a job in New York City wasn’t going to be in her future, she returned to Scottsdale … and the two moved in together.
After a seven-year courtship, they were married in January of this year.
Skutt didn’t know Dahmen when he was undergoing his cancer treatment. But she thinks it has affected his outlook on life that – with the exception of that month or so where he vegetated on their couch – is overwhelmingly positive.
“He had to endure things that are unimaginable to me,” Skutt says. “I still have both of my grandparents and nobody in my family has been sick. My great grandma lived until she was 95. So, for me, when I met him, I was like holy hell, I can't complain to this kid about anything because he's already been through so much that people shouldn't have to go through.
“I think in hindsight it's something that's pushed him further in the sense that I can have fun doing this, and I can actually enjoy my career, because this isn't all that life's about. It doesn't have to consume me, but it can be just a fun kind of what I'm doing, and I think he takes that outlook.
“If anything, it has guided him in a positive and it’s allowed him to be able to have fun and allow him to not take it as life or death. Because there is actual life or death.”
Skutt is one of several people Dahmen has leaned on in the years since his mother died. His family, of course, and Yosaitis. Then there’s Jon Reehoorn, who was an assistant coach at Washington during Dahmen’s brief Huskies career and now guides the program at Oregon State.
“He's a great life coach,” says Dahmen, who admits he lacked direction in college and dropped out after a year of going to too many parties and not enough classes. “He would nudge me in the right direction. He always says he wishes he were more firm with me back then, but Horn always helped me.”
The same goes for another former Huskie, Rob Rashell, the director of instruction at TPC Scottsdale, who Dahmen says “took me in like a little brother and taught me everything he’s ever known.” Dahmen sought him out because the man who gave him the $200 tip – telling him to clear his left hip – seemed more interested in making money than making him a better player.
“I needed the support. I didn't need any lessons,” Dahmen explains. “I didn't need any help. I needed something to get me off the couch. I needed something to look forward to. I needed something to work on because I didn't know.
“I knew I was good, but I obviously had flaws. … I just needed refining and understanding and some growing up to do, obviously.”
Enter Dahmen’s long-time friend and caddie, Geno Bonnalie, who let his buddy live at his house after he dropped out of the University of Washington. Bonnalie even officiated at the wedding of Dahmen and Skutt in January.
“They let me make mistakes, but they'd beat me up pretty good too about it,” Dahmen recalls. “And so that was huge. Just let me take over their spare room and find my way there. That was big.
“Geno -- he's been here every step of the way. And Geno's always believed in me. He's always seen the golf talent, and he's always known I was going to do it and he's believed in me way more than I have.”
Dahmen goes into the John Deere Classic ranked 48th in the FedExCup standings. In the last 17 months, he’s moved from 570th in the world rankings to his current position at 81st. He’s made more than $3.6 million in three seasons on the PGA TOUR, yet, as Dahmen puts it “we don’t have fancy.” The couple owns one car, a used Ford Explorer, and live with Murphy in a home they remodeled from top-to-bottom.
“I don't know if I've had as much fun as being at home with my wife and my dog and realizing what we've built and what we've accomplished,” a satisfied Dahmen says after a recent two-week break. “And I know it's not, we don't have wins yet.
“We don't have retirement money, but it's really fun to look up because we worked really hard for what we have.”
Dahmen has also become acutely aware of the platform he has as a member of the PGA TOUR. So, it was no surprise to find him last week in Minneapolis filming a public service announcement about preventing skin cancer for MD Anderson – doling out sunglasses and that distinctive wide-brimmed white bucket hat he wears to unsuspecting players at a local municipal course. Dahmen was named this week as MD Anderson's official PGA TOUR ambassador.
“Cancer in young people is a real thing,” Dahmen says, explaining his motivation. “We think we're invisible. We think it only happens to my grandparents and only happens to my parents. But cancer affects everybody.”
Dahmen knows that better than most, of course. But he also knows what it means to overcome loss, reassess your life and realize your dream.
The 31-year-old will tell you that he’s tougher than he ever believed he could be because “I’ve picked myself up off the floor a couple of times.” Dahmen thinks he’s a better friend now, and certainly a better husband, and he has no doubt that he has a better outlook on life.
“If you told that kid sitting there on the couch with the dog doing nothing, if you told me I'd be doing this, I'd have said, ‘Well, who kidnapped me and put me back on the golf course?" Dahmen says with a smile.
“I necessarily wouldn't be stunned, maybe physically on golf sense that I could do it, but I was nowhere mentally. I didn't believe in myself at the time. I was pretty down, so physically, I always thought I could get it done.
“I always had the belief, but it takes a lot more than that to get out of here and be successful. I think I'd be pretty proud of myself that the guy now back then would be pretty excited about the whole thing.”