Heather Farr's Patio home is close enough to the Stonecreek Golf Club that on a desert evening when play is slow, she can sneak onto the course and get in a few holes. Just grab a couple of clubs and walk through the cool Phoenix air. On nights like that, around sunset, there is no gallery. It's just Heather, alone, in a competition of her own invention, walking through the smell of just-cut grass. The sharp click of the ball marks her stolen time.
That's a golfer's heaven, isn't it? Just minutes and steps to an empty course. But that easy access to time and place mocks her now. Farr, whose cancer was discovered three years ago, is in the middle of her fourth chemotherapy treatment. New spots in her skull and pelvic area were discovered in late March. How long this latest treatment will last is anyone's guess. It has already racked her with the usual nausea and has caused an unexpected infection, so at the moment she does not care to sneak onto the course and swing a golf club. She does not care even to venture beyond her patio, which she has surrounded with 16 rosebushes. With each treatment, with each sickening loss of hair and muscle, she moves further and further from golf, from the LPGA tour on which not so long ago she was a rising young star. Steps and minutes from an empty course? At the moment, the only things that remind her of the game are some trophies and medals and one favorite picture by the door: She's teeing off; there's a yardage chart Happing in her back pocket, and her long ponytail—so much hair!—is swinging free. It seems a long time ago.
In May, on the weekend before she was to travel to Arlington, Texas, to begin her latest therapy, Farr guessed it would be this way—that golf, however close it seemed, would once more recede into her past. Maybe this fight to get back to the tour was silly. Ahead of her there would be more nausea, baldness and most likely another surgery to core out the diseased pelvic bone. That was if things went well. Maybe she was kidding herself.
"Obviously," she says, "the longer I go without golf, the harder it's going to be to get back and play with these guys. They're gaining on me. They're passing me. When I played in the Skins Game in April, it was really eye-opening how far I had to go. I was 40 yards short of them off the tee. I was in no way up to their level."
Then again, it's pretty hard to discourage a golfer, at least this one. During Farr's second year on the tour, in the summer of 1987, she went eight weeks without earning a check. People say life's not fair? They should play professional golf. "The ninth week I made a check," she says. "It was for $500." That amount's a joke in professional golf, and it made her laugh to remember the moment—$500 wouldn't pay one week's expenses on the tour. "But it was a check," she says. "So you play through it. That's what you do, you just play through it."
Understand her spirit, if you can. Farr has yet to run into a patch of golf, or life, that she couldn't just play through. During her first two years on the tour, she was overwhelmed by the competition and the schedule. She had been the amateur state champion in Arizona at the age of 13, was a world-beater in three years at Arizona State and, at 20 years old, qualified for the tour on her very first try. Then, suddenly, she wasn't making cuts. But she played through it. She stopped joining every Monday pro-am offered to her—it was hard to turn down the $1,500 you could get for those outings, even if you needed the rest—and beginning in her third year, she limited tournament play to three weeks a month. The payoff was this: six top-10 finishes in 1988, placing her 41st on the money list, with winnings of $75,821. She became an endorser for Sara Lee, signing one of the most lucrative contracts on the tour. Finally she could afford a home near her family, closer still to a golf course.
Bounding down the fairway—she has marched from shot to shot ever since her father told her that the boys would leave her behind if she didn't keep up—she is the very picture of determination. And didn't her persistence pay off? For the blossoming golf star, life was suddenly perfect. Oh, her home could use some decorating if ever she found the time. How do people manage to choose draperies? With so much golf to play, it was hard for Farr to organize her time to do much besides find places for her autographed baseballs (she's a sports nut) and her CD collection. She's a country and western nut too. Otherwise life was perfect.
Except for the lump in her right breast. She found it in December 1988, but Farr says she could not persuade her gynecologist or another doctor to schedule a biopsy. Instead, they diagnosed the lump as a benign mass. She just had none of the ordinary risk factors: She was too young, just 24; she was too trim and fit; and there was no history of breast cancer in her family. What were the chances? It wasn't until seven months later, she says, that she could persuade the second doctor to perform a biopsy. (The issues of this lost time and the allegedly bungled diagnoses are now in litigation. The two doctors deny the charges against them.)
That biopsy, and the malignancy it revealed, signaled more than an interruption in a promising golf career. Life was no longer perfect. Surgeons discovered a late-stage tumor that had cast cancerous cells into 11 of Farr's 16 lymph nodes. This was not eight weeks of missed checks; this was a condition that had reached a stage at which it kills more than four out of five women. Play through this.
"After she was first diagnosed," her mother, Sharon, remembers, "after she was first told, there was a period of about 24 hours when she just wanted to cry. And then that was it." Farr began playing through. Three years of procedures and surgeries that seem as horrifying as the disease they are fighting—she has undergone a gradual hollowing out of her body—have not emptied her of resolve. Through this epic period of treatment, she has not played in a tournament, not since the du Maurier Ltd. Classic in July 1989. But on good days she really intends to rejoin the tour. On bad days she merely intends to forge ahead with an impending marriage and the rest of a long life.