The World According to SeveMichael Rogner
My mother adored Seve Ballesteros, the swashbuckling Spanish golfer who transformed golf into surrealist art – and by adored I mean she sat uncomfortably close to the television whispering things like gorgeous and dear god. He was famous for his ability to find trouble, only to miraculously recover and break men’s hearts. He had shaggy hair wild in the wind, was predatory on the putting green, and when victorious he was both gracious and cocky. His teeth were white lights where midnight reigns.
Then he got cancer and died.
I was an angry child during Seve’s peak. My father mostly disappeared, and my mother worked 60, 80 hours a week to hold things down. We’d walk through citrus groves, plucking tangerines. I couldn’t understand how she kept it together. The relentless pressure of an only child who became a single mother. How she never complained. I remember asking why she wasn’t stressed all the time. I remember where we stood. I remember a nighthawk peening in the distance. I remember the sun on her shoulders. The only thing, she said, that would be too much to bear is if she outlived one of her children.
I wanted to be Seve. He’s why I played. Modeled my swing after him. Modeled my walk. Would try any shot on the course, regardless of risk. I was all in. But then, when I got good, when I got really good, I realized what was surrounding me. Now the old men I took money off of mostly seemed to be assholes. Around the course, trees kept disappearing while the sound of backhoes and hammers was constant. They paved wetlands. And of course the illuminable whiteness. As much as I wanted to be Seve, I gave it up in that way we can change our beliefs like t-shirts when we’re young, winning my final amateur event when I was 22. First prize was an expense paid trip to Vegas. I took a friend. We got stoned and walked around Circus Circus, which went exactly how you’d think.
Twenty-five years later, on a whim, I went online and bought clubs. I started playing. It was crazy, my mind remembered how my swing should feel, but decades of rust and an older body made it difficult. Still, I persisted. I broke 80 in my fifth round. Was under par a month later. Then I channeled Seve. In a skins game where I was set to lose more cash than I had, I was desperate for a birdie on 18. I had 170 yards on my second shot to a par-4. The ball was below my feet, and I had to draw it around an oak out of the left rough. I hit it to 18 inches. A tap-in. I was back.
Even so, something felt off. Eighteen holes of carrying a golf bag is physical, but I was more tired than expected. Maybe it was this new virus we were hearing about?
I went to the doctor, got on the scale: 214 pounds. Bizarre, as I’d thought I’d weighed 180 my entire life, but there it was. Proof. My doctor told me to lose weight and said he’d see me in six months.
Since I’m averse to diets, to all the predatory hucksters, I just decided to cut back on sweets and beer. And it worked. The weight fell off. A few weeks later I was 205. Then I got under 200. 195. 190. Each time on the scale I was lighter, a relief as I was barely trying. Instead of a beer at 5:00 I might open one at 7:00. Sacrifices!
Then I did it. 180. Back to normal. I looked better in the mirror. I swung better on the golf course. To celebrate I decided to eat and drink whatever for a week. So I did. I was a glutton. I feared getting back on the scale, but my long-term goal was maintaining a weight between 175-180, so I stepped aboard.
And I’d lost four more pounds.
My theory, unsupported by the internets, was that my body had become used to losing weight, and needed to be reset. So I spent another week as a glutton. And lost three more pounds.
That’s when I really went to work. I ate everything. And the weight kept falling. The last time I checked I was 164. I’d lost 50 pounds.
My oncologist moved here from New York to start his own practice. He’s young. He keeps up on the literature. In the kingdom of cancer, you want young doctors. And in his new practice – something we laugh about now – I was his first patient. Day 1. Eight AM. He walked into a room where I sat with one hand in my wife’s lap and he had to tell us I’d likely be dead within a few months.
No one wants to hear Stage IV, but even in that terrible house there’s a scale, and some Stage IV’s are worse than others. My primary tumor was called an apple-core. It grew just past where my small and large intestines meet. It was a problem, but in the bigger scheme, not much of one.
My liver was the problem. Since veins connect the two organs, this is the most common site for colon cancer to spread, to metastasize. Meta means after. Metastasis means rapid transport. It’s bad. As one doctor told me, once the cat is out of the bag, it’s gonna get you. The question is when.
My liver’s left lobe was replaced by a grapefruit-sized tumor. The right lobe had more than 20 tumors, from peas to cue ball. They seemed surprised that I hadn’t suffered catastrophic organ failure.
He’d scheduled me for a power port. This is a portal in your chest for them to inject drugs into the largest veins in your body, to dilute it. The chemo I needed was among the most toxic drugs on the market. Going into my arm would destroy those veins. The surgeon installed my port. The next day, bloody and stitched, the nurses accessed this port and my journey began.
It’s been almost three years since I was diagnosed. For some reason, my body responded in ways the doctors didn’t predict. Though I’m still on chemo, and have lots of issues, I’m still relatively healthy. I’m not able to play golf, but on a recent trip to visit my mother we staged a putting contest. Eighteen holes. One beer on the line. We tied.
I was living in California when Seve died. My mother was visiting. There’s not much to do in my little town up north, but there is a famous brewery, and we were there for a tour and a beer. We didn’t know how to talk about Seve, because neither of us had yet entered the kingdom. When he died he was a year older than I am right now. The oldest and most prestigious tournament in the world is the Open Championship, and he’d won three times – the same as Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus. He’d won more tournaments in Europe than any player in history, a record that still stands. He won them all by the time he was 38. But we’re just a couple of fans, in a faraway place, remembering how he’d distracted us through some tough times. So we did the only thing we can do. We raised a glass. To Seve.
On the 72nd and final hole of the 1993 European Masters, Seve stood on the tee thinking he needed a birdie to win. But like so many other times, he blasted his drive off the planet. When the television cameras finally caught up, his ball had come to rest near a swimming pool (where did that come from?) and he was stymied behind a stone wall, overhung with a menacing oak. His caddy begged him to pitch out sideways to safety, and then try to make a difficult par. But Seve insisted on gunning for a miracle. His caddy begged again. And then a third time, telling Seve he wouldn’t let him hit the shot. Seve waved him away, and with a mighty hack launched the ball through an opening the size of a dinner plate, in what the announcer said was the greatest golf shot he’d ever seen. He managed to carry 130 yards to the front of the green and of course he went on to make birdie. Asked after the round he said that his theory on golf is that he always want to keep moving forward.