Golf's Heather Farr on first tee on comeback course from cancer


-- BUENA PARK, Calif. -- Heather Farr's comeback got as far as the clubhouse doorway at Los Coyotes Country Club before she was intercepted by a security guard demanding either identification or an explanation.

Identification Farr couldn't provide. Go away for two years and things change. Go away for two years and they forget that you had won $170,000 on the LPGA tour by age 24; they forget that your face was once golf's great bright hope; they forget your name; they forget your rank, and they want to see an ID number.

Farr was fumbling through her purse when three old friends surveyed the situation and vouched for Farr. Security was semiconvinced. "I guess you're OK," Farr was told. "Go on in."

Once inside, the greetings were warmer but no less awkward. Players reached out to hug Farr and then abruptly pulled their arms back.

Was she still hurting?

Was the back all right?

Was it OK to touch?

Weeks ago, Farr had undergone surgery to remove a tumor behind the base of her head. Weeks before that, there had been a bone marrow transplant, and weeks before that, there had been surgery to remove the T-3 vertebra in Farr's back.

Two years ago, Farr had a breast removed. That was when her cancer was first detected and, for a few wishful months, believed to have been eradicated.

But cancer is a cruel disease, and with Farr it was especially

cruel. Farr was given false hope, a false start. She began practicing last fall she played one pro-am in September and she was aiming for a return to the tour in January. The doctors said all was fine. The X-rays were blemish-free.

Then, during a practice session last October, Farr remembers feeling a dull ache in her lower back. Nothing serious, she thought. "It felt like I pulled something," she said. The pain persisted for days and more tests were taken, just as a precaution.

"The doctors said it was just a strain," Farr said. "But by Thanksgiving, I tried to play in some event and I couldn't even swing. The pain was real sharp by then."

This time, a bone scan was scheduled. Two small spots were detected, one at the top of the spine, one at the bottom. It was the same strain of cancer, relocated.

Farr said she felt like she had been climbing a hill "and as soon as I got halfway there, somebody comes along and knocks me to the bottom. A couple of times I asked myself, 'Am I going to make it? How many times can I do this?'"

The ensuing 10 months, in the words of Heather's mother, Sharon, would be "a parent's nightmare." Sharon's daughter needed a bone-marrow transplant, but doctors had to postpone the procedure because the swelling from chemotherapy had caused a vertebra to partially collapse.

"They were talking paralysis," Sharon said. So first, a new vertebra had to be constructed, then the marrow transplanted, then the tumor behind the head removed.

Then, Sharon had to find some way to pay the medical bills. After too much legal correspondence, Heather's insurance company agreed to insure her only through September.

"I'm no longer on anybody's files," Heather said. "After next week, (the insurance company) said they don't want to hear from me."

The initial back surgery was an excruciating 13 hours seven to remove the tumor and six to fashion a new vertebra out of a section of Farr's right hip and part of a rib. She received the marrow transplant as quickly thereafter as she could four weeks and spent 39 days in an isolation unit before doctors could ascertain that the body would not reject the transplant.

Seven days after that, Farr was back in the hospital for brain surgery.

"There were days when I was afraid to walk through the door to her room," Sharon Farr said. "It never got to the point where I thought she wouldn't make it, but there were times whan I was afraid, because I didn't know what that day would bring."

Sharon spent 15 hours a day with Heather for 39 days in the isolation unit. "We laughed, we cried, we listened to country music," Sharon said. "I'd put a video in the VCR for her, but she was too sick to concentrate. Her friends would call, but she was too sick to talk on the phone.

"It's hard to put into words what it was like. When you're a parent, this is not supposed to happen to your children. To your parents or friends your age, maybe, or your spouse, but not your children."

Heather is finally well enough to return phone calls and see friends, which was the purpose of her visit to Los Coyotes, site of this week's MBS LPGA Classic. The LPGA held four charity events this spring and raised nearly $200,000 for Farr, money that will be needed in a matter of days.

Farr had a lot of people to thank. "I would hate to belong to another organization," she said. "The LPGA has been so wonderful to me. I think that every player out here, because they knew in their hearts that it could also happen to them, rallied like they did around me.

"Two years ago, when I was first diagnosed, I had a doctor who was wonderful, but he had lived behind books all his life. He didn't understand that I could hit a little white ball and make a living from it.

"He asked me, 'How many are in your group?' and I told him upwards of 200 or more. And he said, 'No one else has had this?' No. He said, 'Well, you are one lucky group of ladies.' At the time, the chances of a woman getting breast cancer was one in 10. Now, it's one in nine."

Farr's prognosis? She remains wary of any predictions, but doctors have told her: So far, so good.

"The tumor in my head is completely gone and they didn't find anything in the scans they took last week," she said. "They still watch you very, very closely, but they say they're very happy with my progress."

Golf remains a distant possibility. Most likely, Farr will never play professionally again. Every time she drives past a golf course, Farr is torn. "I think, 'Maybe I'll go out and hit a few,' but I know

better," she said.

She has practiced putting a couple times. Anything more strenuous requires physician's consent.

"The doctors say I should be able to play country-club golf once or twice a week," she said. "But they have no idea if the back will hold up during practice and playing four rounds in four days and traveling."

Sharon Farr, however, believes.

"The doctors don't know," Sharon said. "They look at the paperwork and say, 'Of course you can't.' But you have to look past that with Heather.

"I don't know if a body can go through what Heather's has and still withstand the rigors of the golf tour. . . . They say after a bone marrow transplant the kidneys are at risk for six weeks afterward, the liver for a couple months, the lungs for a year. So there's really no way of telling.

"But if anyone can do it, Heather can. If desire is the key, she'll be back playing here next year. That's what's kept her going this far. Heather doesn't talk about if. She talks about when."

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