While Billy Horschel and Scottie Scheffler were throwing slow, scratchy pars at each other Sunday in the finals of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play Championship in Texas, 33-year-old Joel Dahmen found himself wrapped in the wind-blown hug of a lifetime as sea spray from the Caribbean washed over him.
Someone wins a PGA Tour event every week but Dahmen’s victory in the Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship in the Dominican Republic was more than just another trophy presentation.
That’s because Dahmen is one of those guys who has taken the long road, beating cancer along the way, while winning more friends than trophies. Dahmen the guy didn’t need validation, but winning for the first time on the PGA Tour was a forever moment not everyone gets.
“I’ve been at this 111 events, so I was more than due,” Dahmen said.
Who is Dahmen? The minutes after he beat Rafael Campos and Sam Ryder by a slender stroke showed the world.
Dahmen put a full bear hug on his caddie and best friend, Geno Bonnalie, burying his head in his buddy’s shoulder until Dahmen’s wife, Lona, joined them in a blur of blowing caps and happy tears.
Some players win enough that it can feel routine. Dahmen’s joy and relief spoke to what it means to everyone else.
“You just kind of have to kind of put it all on the line, put yourself out there and if you’re not good enough, you’re not good enough,” Dahmen said Sunday. “But if you put yourself out there, at least you’re going to find out. I hope to do this for another 10-plus years or whatever out here. This is just a lot of validation.”
Getting to Sunday in the Caribbean required a backstory and Dahmen has never been afraid to share his. He is among the best interviews in the game – clever, insightful and open – and one of the most popular players on the PGA Tour.
Some players are ticketed for stardom. Others, like Dahmen, are one decision or one life twist away from doing something else.
After pushing his friend, Max Homa, over the finish line at the Wells Fargo Championship nearly two years ago, Dahmen talked about his reality, playing his way up the professional ladder that doesn’t promise to reach the top.
First, he had to survive testicular cancer in 2011, knowing his mother passed away from pancreatic cancer six years earlier.
“If I didn’t have cancer, I’d be a washed-up driving range pro telling people how good I used to be,” Dahmen told the Associated Press. “I would be in my little town as an assistant pro. Everyone would love me. I’d do well in (PGA) section stuff and I’d drink too much. I’d be a woulda-coulda-shoulda guy. I’d be telling people for 50 years how good I was.”
“My now-wife gave me $200 to go get a lesson and it kind of kick-started my ’14 and now the rest of my career.” – Joel Dahmen
He spent one year at the University of Washington then set off on his own.
In late 2013, Dahmen’s game had left him and he was wallowing in doubt, having failed to qualify for what is now the Korn Ferry Tour. He bought a dog, put his clubs away for six weeks and wondered what was next.
“My now-wife gave me $200 to go get a lesson and it kind of kick-started my ’14 and now the rest of my career,” Dahmen said two years ago.
With his first tour trophy and the champion’s white shirt Sunday night, Dahmen talked about others as much as himself. He talked about his wife working two jobs to pay the rent when he couldn’t cash checks playing golf. They had dreams, Dahmen said, but he’s not sure they were as big as playing five years on the PGA Tour and winning a tournament.
Dahmen grew up in Clarkston, Washington, which isn’t near much and certainly not known for cultivating professional golfers. But he found his way with the help of Bonnalie. That helps explain their long post-victory hug and why Bonnalie immediately rushed after Dahmen’s signature bucket hat when the wind blew it off his head during the trophy presentation.
“Two dudes growing up together who were golf dorks like somehow winning on the PGA Tour,” Dahmen said. “I planned the celebration so many times in my head, it didn’t quite go as I expected. I couldn’t believe he was crying, I thought he’d be the tough guy. But he’s put in a lot of time and effort and he’s believed in me when no one else did.
“He had an 8-month old kid at home (and) to start caddying for me on the Web Tour and somehow his wife let him – it’s just special how much we’ve been through together, some lean times. I’m so lucky, he cares more about me than any golf shot I’ll ever hit. Just to be able to do that together was pretty darn cool.”
In describing himself two years ago, Dahmen talked about following his own path. Other guys, he acknowledged, put in more practice hours but he has to do what’s right for him. Winning was a goal, Dahmen said, but not the end all for him. Winning a green jacket, he said, wasn’t his goal. He was having enough fun living the dream.
Golf being what it is, Dahmen’s victory came after he had missed six cuts in his last seven starts. He felt lost. Then he found something and before flying to the Dominican Republic a week ago, he texted Bonnalie. The message was simple:
“Hi. I’ll see you in the morning. I’m tired, but good at golf. Get ready.”
It was finally time.
Top: Joel Dahmen, caddie Geno Bonnalie and wife, Lona, embrace after Dahmen won the Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship. Photo: Kevin C. Cox, Getty Images
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