A Taste For Unvarnished Truth Distinguishes Dahmen
PACIFIC PALISADES, CALIFORNIA | Fresh off a nine-hole practice round with Rory McIlroy, Joel Dahmen arrives at Riviera Country Club’s chipping area dressed in the same gray hue blanketing the Los Angeles sky.
The outfit blends into its background with ease. But Dahmen (pronounced DAY-men) is otherwise a contrarian by nature. He’s unabashedly transparent with his thoughts, lacking the guarded and measured methods of most tour players. He occasionally wears a bucket hat, a la Kirk Triplett, to stand out.
How he got to this point, a 31-year-old now in his third year on tour, doesn’t resemble the way others have, either.
It never looked like he would be here, standing underneath one of the most famous clubhouses in golf, playing in the star-studded Genesis Open, but here he is.
Growing up on the Washington-Idaho state border, Dahmen’s talent matched or exceeded that of the best players in the Pacific Northwest. But ability, like honesty, has never been his issue. It’s the rest of life he’s had to contend with, the dark moments starting when his mom, Jolyn, battled and eventually succumbed to pancreatic cancer as Dahmen was finishing high school.
It began a span of several years in which he spiraled. He played for the University of Washington but dropped out after one year. He spent more time drinking and playing Mario Kart than going to class.
“It was a weird time in my life,” Dahmen remembers. “I had just lost my mom and I’m this small-town kid going to a massive school in this big city. I just got swallowed up. I thought I was bigger than I was. I was a D-1 athlete getting all of this free stuff and playing as a freshman in the starting lineup. But nothing in my life had prepared me for that moment.
“I didn’t know what to do (after dropping out). I had enough money to survive, but that’s all I was doing. I was taking some classes at a community college but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was living the college life without having to go to class. I had a great time. Did it stunt my golf game and my life? Certainly. Eventually I ran out of money and moved back home.”
He didn’t have a phone for several months because he couldn’t pay the bill. For one stretch of a couple weeks he didn’t shower, staying on the couch with a dog he got to keep him company. It was only when his girlfriend gave him $200 to take a golf lesson that he snapped out of his funk and began to take the game seriously once again.
“I thought that maybe just being a club pro would be fine,” Dahmen said. “You know, you play in the section events and make a decent living … but I also saw my friends having a lot of success and just thought I shouldn’t give up on this. Maybe I hadn’t given up on it, but I hadn’t really started it, either.”
“I basically had to learn what the best guys were doing because I wasn’t doing that. It didn’t matter whether I was in 10th place or missed the cut, I was out on the weekends having a great time.” – Joel Dahmen
Dahmen went to Canada, qualifying for the Mackenzie Tour and giving himself a place to play in the summer of 2010. That’s when he received a scare far greater than simply being overwhelmed by college. In February 2011, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. After enduring chemotherapy and undergoing surgery to remove one of his testicles, Dahmen made a full recovery in time to play that summer.
“I just needed to see how quickly everything can be taken away,” he said. “I was out having way too much fun. I basically had to learn what the best guys were doing because I wasn’t doing that. It didn’t matter whether I was in 10th place or missed the cut, I was out on the weekends having a great time.”
When he did take himself seriously, Dahmen found another gear. He won twice on the Mackenzie Tour in 2014 and earned a promotion to the Web.com Tour, where he joined forces with childhood friend Geno Bonnalie, who offered to be his caddie. That partnership has been a crucial aspect of Dahmen’s journey. In Dahmen’s first year on the Web, as its regulars call it, Bonnalie booked the hotels and flights, got his player out of bed and helped him see the bigger picture of where he could go.
Instead of struggling, Dahmen ascended, earning a PGA Tour card for the 2016-17 season. At this time last year, Dahmen ranked 570th in the world. Entering the Genesis Open, he was 170th, thanks largely to a monster month of July last season. In five events, he never finished worse than a tie for 23rd and came in the top five twice.
“When you get your card locked up, you know that it’s free money and they give it away every week if you play well,” Dahmen says. “Suddenly it’s like ‘Holy s***, I’ve just made a million dollars in one month. What is happening?’ ”
As is his personality, Dahmen talks without reservation regardless of topic and has endeared himself to many fans because of it. There was no better example of this than what happened during last year’s Quicken Loans National when Dahmen, playing with Sung Kang, flat out called his playing partner a cheater after an emotional dispute regarding where Kang’s ball had crossed into a hazard. By many eyewitness accounts, Kang’s shot didn’t come close to the greenside drop Kang took. There was no video, however. Kang parred the hole, finished third and qualified for the Open Championship by virtue of that finish.
In the pre-Twitter era, this story would never have seen the light of day. But it blew up on social media after Dahmen responded bluntly to an inquisitive fan who saw the incident live and wasn’t sure what happened.
“Kang cheated,” Dahmen tweeted. “He took a bad drop from a hazard. I argued until I was blue. I lost.”
In a statement released through the PGA Tour, Kang said he stood by the official decision and would have no further comment. Both players have been instructed to move on. If they talk about it publicly, it could lead to fines or suspensions. Don’t expect the two to be paired again, at least not intentionally. A couple of weeks after the incident, Kang approached Dahmen on the range at the RBC Canadian Open and demanded an apology. He didn’t get one.
Dahmen isn’t afraid to tell it like it is. His dream is to host his own sports radio show, maybe one where he can dish on his beloved Seattle teams.
Can he give us an audition?
Let’s start with the moribund Seattle Mariners, owners of the longest playoff drought of all franchises in the four major professional sports.
“The Mariners haven’t been to the playoffs in 16 years, so it is pretty hard to watch them,” he says. “It’s brutal to be a fan, and now they just said they are taking a step back and they’ll be competitive in another two years. Well, we haven’t been competitive in 16 years, so what are we going to do now?”
On Twitter, Dahmen is full of more takes, often sarcastic and biting. It’s now common for players to have their management teams run their accounts and fill their timelines with what amounts to ads. You won’t find any such political correctness with Dahmen.
A much happier topic is the recent success of the Washington Huskies football program.
“We were 0-12 not that long ago,” Dahmen says during a long and articulate analysis of the team’s facilities and ability to recruit. “And everyone is like, ‘Well we didn’t win the Rose Bowl or in the playoffs against Alabama,’ but who cares? We’re around and dominating the (Pac-12) North for a long time while the South is struggling. So how could you not want to be the best team in the West?”
On Twitter, Dahmen is full of more takes, often sarcastic and biting. It’s now common for players to have their management teams run their accounts and fill their timelines with what amounts to ads. You won’t find any such political correctness with Dahmen. A few weeks ago, one account tweeted they had discovered “the formula” to playing great golf.
Rather than ignoring it, Dahmen wrote back: “Attention: this guy has found THE FORMULA.”
After a top-10 at the Farmers Insurance Open, Dahmen missed the cut in Phoenix and responded to a fan who tweeted his remorse for choosing Dahmen to be on his fantasy team. To that, Dahmen responded with “Thanks! Have a great night!” Maybe he should have listened to the formula theory.
“My game has gone to s*** since I haven’t listened to the formula,” Dahmen now jokes. “I need to go revisit that apparently.”
Beneath the light-hearted banter and nonchalant transparency, Dahmen’s current standing is built on the experiences of heartbreak. He regrets letting his team down in college, going as far as to say that they were one player away from having a realistic shot at a national championship and he was supposed to be that player. He misses his mom, a lover of travel who would be ecstatic to take in Los Angeles, he says.
“When times get tough I think about her, because you see how far we’ve come,” Dahmen says, a touch of emotion breaking into his voice. “It’s easy to beat yourself up out here. I still do probably more than I should, but she’s an easy reminder of the lowest of the lows. I know she has the best seat in the house. She hasn’t missed anything, that’s for sure.”
We too often miss this side of players – the human element – at the highest level. This week at Riviera, the story carrying the day has been the clickbait-worthy lambasting of Matt Kuchar for being frugal with his Mexican caddie after winning the Mayakoba Golf Classic last November. It’s no wonder players are wary of media that clamps onto such stories.
It’s a shame, because there are better things out here, interesting things. Worthy things. Why aren’t masses flocking to discover the Joel Dahmens of the world?
What does that say about all of us?
These questions will have to wait until another day. For now, Dahmen and his story are off to the driving range in the late afternoon before the darkness, eager to further prove that he belongs.
Joel Dahmen eyes his ball after a bunker shot during the 2018 Quicken Loans National – the tournament in which Dahmen accused Sung Kang of cheating. Photo: Cal Sport Media via AP Images
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