As a rule, competitive golfers do not receive much praise for their physical toughness. But more than a few have shown their resilience over the years. Perhaps most famously, there was Ben Hogan winning the 1950 U.S. Open at Merion just 16 months after nearly being killed in a car accident, his legs bandaged and, in many ways, still battered when he prevailed in that championship. And Tiger Woods taking that same tournament almost six decades later with a fractured tibia in his left leg, and a knee so seriously damaged it needed to be surgically repaired immediately after that win.
Much less known but equally compelling is the story of Jeronimo Esteve, a Puerto Rican-born amateur who moved to Miami with his parents when he was 9 years old – and who was good enough to compete on the golf team at Dartmouth College for four years before turning professional. After bouncing around the mini-tours for a short spell after graduation, he helped his father run the family Toyota dealership in Miami. Esteve also married, and then fathered a son. Ever the competitor, he received amateur reinstatement and started playing elite tournaments. Then in 2011, when he was 30 years old, doctors diagnosed him with Stage 1 Hodgkin Lymphoma, after Esteve discovered a lump on his neck as he was being fitted for a suit for his sister’s wedding.
Esteve had planned to try to qualify for the U.S. Mid-Amateur some weeks later. That, however, seemed like little more than a pipe dream when he traveled to Houston to begin six months of chemotherapy and radiation. But then he learned there was a qualifier not far from where he was being treated. So with his doctor’s permission, he gave it a try.
“I was done with chemo and just doing radiation at the time,” recalls Esteve. “Usually, I received my treatments in the morning, but we rescheduled them for the afternoon the day of the qualifier because I had an early tee time. I finished at 2 under and then went back to the hospital. As I was waiting for my treatment, I checked the scores and suddenly realized I might be in a playoff. So, I got my radiation, which takes from 30 to 40 minutes, and then scrambled back to the golf course just in time for the playoff. It was five for four spots, and I managed to make four pars to get in.”
Let that one sink in. Qualifying for a USGA Championship is difficult enough. But in 2011, Jeronimo Esteve did so in a playoff just minutes after his body was infused with the cancer-killing poison, not knowing whether he would be around to even watch the 2012 edition of the Mid-Am, let alone try to make it into the field.
This is one tough golfer. He further proved his mettle by making it to a playoff for match play during the championship, which was also staged in Houston. The fact that he did not make it further in no way diminishes what he accomplished in the midst of a true fight for his life.
Born in the summer of 1981, Esteve spent his first years in the Puerto Rico capital of San Juan, where his mother, Yasmin, had grown up. His father, Jeronimo III, was a native of Havana but had moved to Puerto Rico with his family in 1959 after Fidel Castro had taken over his home country. “When my parents and grandparents left Cuba, the only things of value they had were some jewelry my grandmother smuggled out in her undergarments,” he says. “They had nothing when they arrived in Puerto Rico.”
Nothing but energy and ambition, it appears. “At first, my father and grandfather sold used jukeboxes and pool tables in San Juan,” Esteve says. “Then it was appliances from GE and eventually Honda cars.” Cars were a natural progression, it seems, as Esteve’s great-grandfather had once owned a Chrysler dealership in Havana. Then in 1989, Esteve’s father bought a Toyota dealership in Miami. Not long after that, he moved his family to the States. “I started fourth grade in Miami,” the younger Esteve says.
A year or so before, he picked up golf. “My dad taught me the game,” Esteve says. “He loved golf and took me to the Dorado Beach resort outside San Juan all the time to play. There were not many junior golfers, which means I played mostly with him. I stopped for a while when we moved to Florida. But I started up again after middle school, when I enrolled in an all-boys Catholic high school. I did not know anybody and thought trying out for the golf team would be a good way to make friends.”
“I made a bunch of cuts (as a pro) but could easily see that the guys who were winning the events were at a much higher level.” – Jeromino Esteve
“I made the team but my first tournament was a disaster,” Esteve adds. “My father started to work with me after that, though, and I began taking lessons with a couple of the assistant professionals at Jim McLean’s golf academy at Doral. I practiced a lot, too, and eventually did well enough to get recruited by Dartmouth.”
Esteve says he loved Dartmouth, in large part because it was everything he thought a college should be. Beautiful setting. Magnificent buildings. Interesting and fun people. “I even liked being in small town New Hampshire,” he says. “I had come from Miami and did not need a big city.”
After earning a degree in economics and playing some elite amateur tournaments the summer after graduation, Esteve decided to try playing golf for a living. “I was out there for about six months and did alright,” he says. “I made a bunch of cuts but could easily see that the guys who were winning the events were at a much higher level. I also did not like living out of a suitcase.”
At that point, Esteve headed home and go to work for his father. “I got married in 2005 to Mari, whose father was also Cuban and whose mother was Puerto Rican, and who I had met during college when she was going to Tufts University,” he says. “Two years later, I was reinstated as an amateur, and two years after that, we had our first child, Jeronimo IV.”
In subsequent years, Esteve’s business and personal lives have become much more active. He and his father set up a Honda dealership in Orlando in 2009 and after that added places from which they sold Hyundai and Mazda cars. And he and Mari have added two more sons to their brood, Nicholas Jeronimo, who is now 6, and Gabriel Jeronimo, who just came into this world this past winter.
“I was the only boy of three children my parents had and the last of the line,” says Esteve, who is about to celebrate his 38th birthday. “So, I was hoping we would have a boy. Well, first came Jeronimo IV, and then two others, and we liked the idea of their having Jeronimo in their names as well.
“I coach baseball and help out with soccer for the older ones,” he says. “And I try to help Mari with the baby.” The car dealerships keep him busy as well, and between work and family, there is not a lot of time for competitive golf. “But I still get in seven or eight tournaments a year,” he says. “The Latin American Amateur and the Travis, the George C. Thomas at LACC and the Crump, the Stocker Cup and Coleman when I am able. And I want to try to qualify for the U.S. Am and Mid-Am whenever I can.”
Now that his cancer in remission, he also wants to maintain the good health he currently enjoys – and to ensure that he never ever has to tough out a round of golf the way he did back in 2011. Even if he has demonstrated that he is more than tough enough to do so.
Cancer survivor Jeronimo Esteve during the first round of stroke play at the 2017 U.S. Mid-Amateur. Photo: Chris Keane, Copyright USGA
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