On a cool Saturday morning not long ago, as he prepared to tee off with his pals at Starmount Forest Country Club in North Carolina, Barry Wetzel unwrapped a large Casa de García cigar and fired it up.
“Susan lets me have one a month,” he explained with a broad smile between cloud-like puffs. “This is actually good medicine. It reminds me that every day is a gift.”
Wetzel isn’t just blowing smoke.
One Tuesday morning four years ago, as he was shaving and showering before his weekly men’s study group, he discovered a strange lump on the right side of his neck that hadn’t been there the day before. He called his doctor who suggested that he come in for a look.
She diagnosed an inflamed salivary gland and prescribed an antibiotic.
“One day you are feeling great, playing golf with your buddies and enjoying life to the fullest when something like this comes out of the blue. It really makes you think about what’s important.” – Barry Wetzel
Days later, she phoned back to insist on a follow-up biopsy.
The verdict wasn’t good. He had cancer of the neck.
“It was a shocker,” he admits. “One day you are feeling great, playing golf with your buddies and enjoying life to the fullest when something like this comes out of the blue. It really makes you think about what’s important.”
Needless to say, golf is important to Barry Wetzel, a man whose passion for the game is as infectious as it is positive, a counterpoint to the chronic complainer or tedious perfectionist that lurks in all of us.
At 78, he plays to a 6 handicap on the challenging course where Sam Snead won most of his record eight Greater Greensboro Opens. Shooting his age or better is a weekly event for super senior Wetzel, a fellow who is living proof that you’re never too old to fall in love with a 400-year-old game, which he seems to do every time out, a love affair that began 70 years ago in a small Pennsylvania town straight from a Jimmy Stewart movie.
In fact, it was Jimmy Stewart’s hometown.
But more on that in a George Bailey minute.
When the bad news about his cancer came down, Wetzel’s oldest daughter, Debby, who worked as an audiologist in the Head and Neck Department at UNC Hospital in Chapel Hill, urged her father to seek a second opinion with a leading ear, nose and throat specialist in her office. He wisely took her advice.
A second biopsy confirmed the initial diagnosis and his team of physicians set up a specialized treatment program, placing Barry in a study group of 100 other patients undergoing similar treatments, a rugged protocol that called for five days of radiation and one day of chemotherapy for five consecutive weeks.
“It was pretty tough going,” he grudgingly acknowledges. “But it was probably harder on Susan than me.”
Susan is Barry’s wife, a former Delaware State gymnastics champion and ladies club champion at Starmount in her own right who – like her husband of 46 years – lives to play the game. Together, they’ve chased golf across America and the back roads of Britain for decades, relishing the friendships they’ve made along the way.
“For us, golf is about the wonderful people you meet on the golf course,” Barry is prone to say. “You never meet a stranger.”
“At least Barry doesn’t,” chimes in Susan. “He also never forgets their names or our scores, including when and where we played.”
She admits to taking Barry’s cancer hard. “It seemed so terribly sad. Here’s one of the happiest guys on earth, a man who makes everyone he meets feel good about life. And this happens.” Her head shakes, her voice trailing off.
In order to give Susan a break from the stress of her husband’s treatment regime, his weekend golf pals – Steve, Larry, Robert, Mike and others from his church – set up a rotating schedule for driving Barry 65 miles each way to the treatment center in Chapel Hill. They also began showing up to do his yard work.
“They were incredible,” says Susan. “All out of love for Barry. When the news spread, we also had people from churches across the country praying for Barry, including lots of golfers we’d met in our travels over the years. It was so touching.”
Three months later, however, following his initial treatment, a PET scan discovered more cancerous lymph nodes than expected in Barry’s neck. He underwent surgery to remove them.
Six month later, the crisis deepened. A follow-up scan revealed that the cancer had spread into his chest. He was told that the cancer was now too close to his heart and lungs to risk further surgery, chemo or radiation.
The Wetzels heard some the most dreaded words of all in medicine: Incurable, inoperable, stage 4 cancer.
“They informed us that the best thing we could do was make me comfortable for as long as possible,” Barry remembers.
“Can I at least play golf, have a cigar and glass of scotch every now and then?” – Barry Wetzel
Fortunately, a new immunotherapy drug called Keytruda had just come on the market and been shown to halt the advance of cancer in half the patients who took it. His oncologist put him on it.
“Can I at least play golf, have a cigar and glass of scotch every now and then?” Barry playfully asked him.
“As long as it’s a good cigar and a good scotch,” his doctor came back with a laugh.
The trips to Chapel Hill resumed – once every three weeks for nine straight weeks. The question weighing on the minds of friends, family and strangers praying for him was, would the drug work for Barry?
They got an answer when his physician entered the room with the latest results. Three of the Wetzels’ four grown children and four of their seven grandchildren had gathered for the news.
The doctor was smiling.
“It’s working,” he said. Tears and hugs broke out.
Barry took the whole clan out for ice cream.
A year later, in December 2018, he returned to Chapel Hill for a new breakthrough radiation therapy. After six more weeks of treatment, five days a week, Barry and Susan Wetzel got the results they and so many others had hoped and prayed for.
A scan of his chest showed the cancer had vanished.
The unsinkable Barry Wetzel is quick to credit his faith, caring doctors and the power of prayer for his remarkable comeback.
He believes his love of golf also played a significant role in his almost miraculous recovery, a love affair that dates back to his boyhood in the classic American hometown he shares with a Hollywood legend.
Barry’s dad, Sonny Wetzel, belonged to the nine-hole VFW course in the small Pennsylvania town of Indiana, where he worked for a tire and rubber company and played to a 14 handicap using wooden shafted clubs but no woods in the bag. “My dad could chip and putt like nobody else and absolutely adored the game,” Barry says. “He was also one of the happiest men I ever knew, especially when he was playing golf.”
Today, Sonny Wetzel’s modest canvas bag hangs over Barry’s den fireplace.
When Barry was 8 and his brother Lowell was 12, Sonny told his sons to choose a sport and he would supply their equipment. Lowell chose tennis. Barry chose golf. Maybe apples don’t fall far from the trees that make them after all.
“He dropped me off at the VFW club and told the pro, ‘Walt, the boy wants to play golf. You can have him for seven days.’ ”
On Day 1, pro Walt Davis made his pupil drag the recently aerated greens. “I wondered what the blazes that had to do with learning to play golf,” Barry recalls. “Mr. Davis told me, ‘Son, I want you to know what it takes to make a golf course playable for you. That way, you’ll always appreciate it.’ That stuck with me. I’m a fanatic divot filler and ball-mark fixer to this day.”
Every morning over the next five days, Davis showed Barry the fundamentals and taught him the simple one-piece swing he uses to this day, cutting him loose to practice all afternoon on the golf course. These would be the only golf lessons he ever had.
On Sunday, the kid got to play with Myrtle Davis, the pro’s wife.
“She’d had polio and rode around in one of those three-wheeled golf carts,” Wetzel said. “Oh man, did we ever have fun! Myrtle Davis laughed the whole way. For her, golf was all about having fun. I’ll never forget what she told me when we finished – ‘Have fun and just remember the good shots!’ That stuck with me too.”
For the balance of the summer, Barry and his best buddy, Furman Smith, beat balls around the VFW course. “Toting our bags 36 holes a day, eating hotdogs in the club house, playing matches for dimes and nickels. It was heaven on earth.”
At Indiana High School – where native son Jimmy Stewart often returned just to see friends and attend graduation ceremonies – Barry became a star in football, baseball and basketball. But golf remained his truest love. By then he was almost a scratch player.
“We hit it off right away. I loved his attitude of life and the joy golf gave him. It was almost love at first swing.” – Susan Wetzel
Sonny Wetzel often traveled across the South on sales calls. The summer before his son graduated, he invited Barry to tag along to check out colleges and play a little golf.
On one such trip to the home of Clemson University, Barry was introduced to textile icon Roger Milliken and legendary football coach Frank Howard. “They had no golf team back then. But I had this crazy idea that I might try to play football until I saw the size of the average Clemson player. Nope, I decided, it was golf for me.”
With a degree in textile management, Barry found a job at a company in Delaware that invented the Ban-Lon fabric – the rage in golf shirts of that era – and eventually became the company’s national sales manager, traveling the South like his old man. “I became a good salesman because I like people so much, but I never took my clubs on the road – otherwise I would have played too much golf and not been as good at my job.”
After a divorce left him a single dad with two young children with their mother, an athletic young woman in his company named Susan Kaffenberger invited Barry to play golf with her nine-hole group after work at a course in Wilmington, Delaware. It was the therapy he needed.
“We hit it off right away. I loved his attitude of life and the joy golf gave him. It was almost love at first swing,” Susan jokes.
“I recall she had quite a promising game,” he agrees. “She was so cute, however, I hardly noticed.”
They married in 1974 and moved to North Carolina 13 years later, joining the club where they still play together most Sunday afternoons. In time, Susan became co-chair of the Starmount’s junior golf program in which their two children played. She also captured the women’s club championship in 2000.
In a strange and powerful way, Barry Wetzel’s successful second chances at marriage and life almost seem to channel the spirit of George Bailey at the end of Jimmy Stewart’s most beloved film.
“Looking back, I realize what a wonderful life I’ve had thanks to Susan, my children and countless friends we’ve made through golf,” he says with a laugh worthy of Myrtle Davis. “This game really is good medicine.”
As if to make his point, he stripes yet another drive to the center of the first fairway and picks up his smoldering Casa de García, puffing away as he sets off.
Photos: James Dodson, Global Golf Post
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