Notre Dame, Ind. -- Former U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links finalist Sue Nyhus isn’t going to allow her score to define success at this week’s U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship. For Nyhus, life’s standards have changed too dramatically over the years to be too concerned about circles and squares on a scorecard
Nyhus entered this week’s national championship for public-course golfers with no expectations, seeking only the satisfaction of returning to the USGA stage after a long and life-changing hiatus caused by a disease she’s trying to beat.
How things have changed in 11 years.
At the 1999 WAPL, Nyhus was mowing down hometown heroine Edith Murdoch and future LPGA Tour players Dorothy Delasin and Natalie Gulbis en route to the 18-hole championship final. As far as Nyhus was concerned, she had a great opportunity for victory.
After all, Nyhus played the Ladies European Tour from 1987-91 where she learned to master the bump-and-run, a shot that U.S. players didn’t often play. But that year at the Santa Anna (N.M.) Golf Club, the course placed a premium on placement and Nyhus, then 36, was armed with a strong sports psychology background, wisely chose strategy over stealth in advancing to the deciding match.
“Being older, I wasn’t going to hit it as far as them. I didn’t let that panic me,” Nyhus recalls. “I wanted to try to use it to my advantage. I’d knock my drive out there and be the first to hit it to the middle of the green and then let them suffer by making them hit it closer.
“I didn’t get frustrated when Dorothy Delasin’s ball just waved at mine as it flew past. That served me very well.”
Nyhus and her husband, Steve, had their hands full on and off the course that week. Their three infant daughters were in tow. As if programmed, the girls all routinely repeated the same question that every child wants answered – and it isn’t about Santa Claus – “Mommy, can we go home now?”
“We just had to keep telling them that mommy won again,” Nyhus laughs.
And she kept winning, ultimately falling, 3 and 1, to a player nearly 15 years younger in Jody Niemann. Niemann turned professional, then got into coaching and now works in the admissions department at the University of Nevada in Reno.
Then, life got in the way for Nyhus. In the ensuing years, she was busy coaching Brigham Young University’s women’s golf team and helping her alma mater to the national championship when her life took a severe turn.
For years, she’d battled eczema, a chronic skin disorder. In 2003, she noticed that what she thought were, in her words, “weird shaped moles.” They were more than that – they were cancerous. After more than a dozen tumors, she learned that the drug she was taking to battle eczema was also limiting her immune system’s ability to fight off disease.
Was the drug a curse? Not if Nyhus is keeping score. As she was taking the Brigham Young golf team to the NCAA Championship, she happened to sit next to a fellow passenger who, fortuitously, turned out to be a doctor.
“I was sick as a dog. Everything hurt at that point. I just wanted to sleep and he wanted to talk,” Nyhus recalls. “I thought, ‘OK, I’m just going to be friendly.’ I turned to him and said, ‘Have you heard anything new about pediatric eczema?’ He said, ‘Yeah, these two drugs that you’re taking are causing basal cell skin cancer.’ To this day, I don’t know how I didn’t fall out of the plane. It was a blessing.”
Nyhus subsequently went through seven years of sometimes painful therapy. She estimates that she’s endured more than 100 hours of cancer treatment, battling a disease where there are no certainties.
“When somebody uses the word ‘cancer’ and points it at you, it’s a very difficult situation,” she says. “There are a lot of unknowns and I am a person who likes to have a plan and a direction. It’s unsettling in life in general.”
Through it all, golf provided some solace.
“Playing golf was the one thing that could get my mind off of it. It made me focus on something else,” Nyhus says. “I wasn’t strong, that’s for sure – and to be perfectly honest, I don’t have my strength back even now.”
When she filed her entry for the WAPL championship, she didn’t even know where it was being conducted. Call it salvation in South Bend.
“When I found out, I was even more excited because we’d never been to South Bend and I’ve always wanted to see Notre Dame,” she says. “It’s another one of those ‘Check-that-off-the-bucket-list’ moments.
“It’s been a rough 10 years. At times, I felt like I lost me. Through all the medical procedures and difficulties, I feel like I lost the kinds of things that brought me joy and things that piqued my competitive nature. ”
In golf as in life, Nyhus allows that “you need to redefine your level of success over and over and over again.” Nyhus, the 1999 Utah Women’s Golf Association player of the year, shot a first-day 85 and likely won’t make match play. No matter, comebacks sometimes entail small but important steps.
“My goal coming into this week was to play well – for me,” Nyhus says. “That doesn’t necessarily mean I am going to beat anybody or shoot any certain score. I want to have an error-free round from a mental standpoint.”
Nyhus’ three daughters are now ages 12-18, which makes her right at home at the WAPL this week. Amid the ponytails, nervous parents and the inevitable trail of questions, a relatively healthy Nyhus can’t help but smile at the atmosphere of youth here, especially when it comes to finding humor in the hubris of the young and the young at heart.
“Very few people have recognized me as a player first,” Nyhus says. “They think I am somebody’s mom, or a spectator, or a USGA committee member.”
When she arrived in the golf shop to buy a yardage book, a girl of about 15 received some advice from a “seasoned veteran.” The youngster asked Nyhus if she was playing this week.
“Yeah, I’m playing,” Nyhus answered. “Sometimes, we old folks have to come back and play once in a while.”
The teenager smiled. “Yeah, I’m going to play when I get old, too,” the girl said. “I’m going to play until I’m 30.”
Nyhus chuckled and answered, “Well you can’t stop when you’re 30, because I almost won this thing when I was .”
That’s one of the important things you learn when battling cancer. You can’t stop. In this fight Nyhus isn’t able to define success. The disease has taken away a lot – on and off the golf course – she admits. Has she beaten the illness?
“That’s a tough question. That’s a really tough question,” says Nyhus as she pauses in thought. “I feel like I’ve definitely beaten the skin cancer issue. However, the side effects – and the things that have happened to me over the years – that’s something I will never overcome.”
After resigning from BYU in 2009, she was recently hired as the head women’s golf coach at Utah Valley. Nyhus undoubtedly has important lessons to pass along to players who will likely face challenges that today they can’t imagine. She’ll use the game as an important teacher.
“I am still passionate about the game,” Nyhus says “The game gives to you and you give back to it. You find ways to be of service. That’s the way life should work.”
Andrew Blair is the communications director for the Virginia State Golf Association. He is contributing articles at this week's WAPL for the USGA.