PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Shaun Micheel called his mother on Thursday morning, just like he does every day when he is on the road, plying his unique trade.
As ever, the exchange was sobering and saddening, yet Micheel again seemed to draw a strange strength from it, knowing that her encouragement means everything.
Donna Micheel, 63, has cancer in so many parts of her body, it’s hard for Shaun to keep track. She doesn’t so much have good days and bad days, but bad days and worse days. When Shaun called before heading out to play in the first round of the 110th U.S. Open, as he does each morning, she wasn’t feeling particularly well.
“She gets pretty nauseous, and she can be pretty descriptive about how she is feeling,” he said. “The thing is, I have a hard time telling her, ‘I hope you feel better.’ Because she won’t.”
After opening with a 2-under 69 at Pebble Beach, the 2003 winner of the PGA Championship not only is leading the toughest tournament in golf, he’s dealing with the soul-sapping reality of mortality.
Told she had only a few months to live when first diagnosed last year, Micheel’s mom had stubbornly fought back and all but ordered her son to continue playing as she deals with the inevitability of her situation. Fighting guilt because he’s not near the family home in suburban Memphis to lend a hand, Micheel is somehow soldering on during his road weeks.
“I am just hoping for a miracle,” he said.
The pragmatist in him knows it isn’t likely. Micheel teared up during his post-round television interview when the subject of his mom’s plight was broached. Yet after finishing T4 last week in Memphis, the family crisis became public, though Shaun somehow finds it “cathartic, therapeutic,” to talk about the situation rather than stew silently over the unfairness of facing the loss of his mom at a relatively young age.
On the course Thursday, since golf allows for so much idle time, his mind invariably though of the fight back home.
“It makes me smile, makes me want to work hard, makes me want to dig deep,” he said. “For her.”
Donna was the one who drove him to tournaments as a kid and did all the things moms do for their sons while dad is off at work. Including insisting that he get back on the road and play, because there’s nothing much he can do to help with her plight at home.
“Every single day I think about her and I'm really playing for her,” he said. “I think a lot about what Dan Jansen did in the Olympics when he was out ice skating and speed skating. Every time I feel like I'm in a tough situation, I think about my mom and all the events that she went to as when I was a collegiate and all the events that she took me to as a kid and dropping me off at the golf course.
“There's so many great things about that. It seems to have made my life a little bit easier. I certainly wish she didn't have this illness, but sometimes you rise under difficult situations. And it might be the first time in my life that I'm actually playing better and feel good about myself with the pressure that I have.”
Speaking of which, the plan last week was that if Shaun was winning in Memphis, his dad, Buck Micheel would wheel Donna out behind the 18th in a wheelchair to watch her son win his second PGA Tour title. He finished a shot out of a three-man playoff.
“I was trying to win for her last week,” he said. “I was excited about playing in front of the hometown crowd. I had a lot of great momentum carrying over from the qualifier and everything. I played well. I really didn’t expect to come up one shot short.
“She wasn’t able to make it out … It’s tough. I’m trying to play for her. It’s nice because I’m playing for somebody else. It’s always been about me, me, me. What am I gonna shoot, what’s my money list, where am I in the fed ex cup?
“Forget all of that. It just doesn’t matter to me anymore. I love my mom. What do you say? I mean, she’s hanging in there.”
So is Micheel, who has only limited status on tour this year because he fell out of the top 125 in earnings last year and didn’t finish high enough in Q school to regain his full card. He had major shoulder two years ago and is fighting through a complicated issue with a chemical shortfall in his body, which requires a special exemption from the tour so that he can take additional testosterone.
But it pales when compared with his mom, who is so sick, she is smoking medical marijuana to deal with the nausea. Though the news is rarely good, Shaun dutifully calls home every morning.
“This morning she said she didn’t feel good and he said, ‘Well, you will be able to watch golf all day,’” Stephanie Micheel, Shaun’s wife, said.
We’re guessing what she witnessed was the best medicine possible. He birdied three of the last five holes and shares the lead with Paul Casey and Brendon de Jonge.
“We’re trying to take advantage of every moment we can,” Stephanie said. “We just don’t know how many moments we have left.”