U.S. WOMEN'S OPEN
Bogeys, Missed Cuts Can't Bring Nagel Down July 11, 2015 | Lancaster, Pa. By Stuart Hall

A battle with thyroid cancer coupled with the loss of her grandfather have helped Liz Nagel put golf into perspective. (USGA/Hunter Martin)

For the latter half of Liz Nagel’s U.S. Women’s Open second round on Friday, she sat precariously on the cut line.

The 23-year-old Nagel, of Dewitt, Mich., needed six qualifying attempts to even reach this championship and now she was a misplayed shot away from having the journey end prematurely.

But what’s the worst a missed cut would mean? Just that, a missed cut.

“For some out here, golf is everything,” Nagel said. “And golf means a whole lot to me, as well, but not as much as it used to be because I had a day where they said ‘Liz, you might not be able to play golf again.’ ”

More Than Just a Cough

The Friday before Thanksgiving in 2012, Nagel, then a junior at Michigan State University, headed to the women’s golf team’s early morning kickboxing workout with a persistent cough and bleary eyes from a sleepless night.

“You could tell she wasn’t feeling well,” said MSU coach Stacy Slobodnik-Stoll, who suggested Nagel skip practice and stop by team physician Dr. Jeffery Kovan’s office for an appointment.

Unbeknownst to Nagel, the right side of her neck was visibly swollen.

Kovan decided to perform a biopsy of Nagel’s neck tissue that determined she had a cancerous lymph node. Noted surgeon and University of Michigan professor Dr. Mark Prince confirmed the diagnosis and scheduled surgery for two days after Christmas.

During the five-hour surgery, a cancerous lymph node the size of a golf ball –  “kind of ironic, I know,” Nagel joked – that was attached to her thyroid gland was removed.

No chemotherapy was necessary, but she did receive radioactive iodine treatment that necessitated her being secluded for several days.

Nagel was unsure how the surgery and treatment would affect her upcoming collegiate season. Slobodnik-Stoll, who first met Nagel when she was 13 and they were second-round opponents in the Michigan Women’s Amateur Championship, was concerned about more than Nagel’s golf game.

“In my 15 or 16 years of coaching at the time I had never experienced anything like what Liz was going through,” Slobodnik-Stoll said. “She was one of my best players on the team, and we wanted her back, but we also wanted to do what was best for her. This was just golf.”

Nagel, who adopted “Spartan Strong” as her mantra, was determined to play, and joined the team for its second tournament of the spring season. Playing in the Central District Invitational in Parrish, Fla., Nagel tied for 43rd.

“It was so hot and she was still recovering, but she played 36 holes the first day and 18 the next,” Slobodnik-Stoll said. “From then on she was in the lineup the rest of the season. She had her ups and downs as was to be expected, but she was nothing short of an inspiration to the team.”

Nearly two months later at an event in Columbus, Ohio, Nagel tied for third, and in May, she tied for 11th at the NCAA Women’s Central Regional in Norman, Okla.

The cancer remains in remission.

Because the thyroid is akin to a body-control center, Nagel is continually making medicinal and lifestyle adjustments. “They tell you everybody feels differently, so it’s not like a textbook thing where you do A, B and C,” she said. “You just have to go with it.”

The Loss of an Anchor

Nagel already understood the historical significance of Sept. 11, 2001, in America, but in 2013 the date took on a deeper personal significance.

On that Wednesday, Nagel was preparing for Michigan State’s season-opening tournament when she received a call from her mother, Nancy. Nagel’s grandfather and ardent supporter, Jon Sanford, had died suddenly.

“He was like the backbone of our family,” Nagel said. “He and my grandma came to all of my matches. It shook our entire family on top of everything I had gone through.”

Again Slobodnik-Stoll was faced with a difficult decision, or so she thought. That was before Nagel told her that playing is what her grandfather would have wanted.

In the opening round of the Spartans’ Mary Fossum Invitational in East Lansing, Nagel shot a tournament-low 68 and went on to a three-stroke victory, her first collegiate title.

The Lessons of Life

Nagel is currently a rookie on the Symetra Tour, though she has limited LPGA Tour status, having made her first start two weeks ago at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship, where she missed the cut by four strokes.

In nine Symetra Tour starts, Nagel has made seven cuts, with her best finish an eighth-place showing. That came in April at the Chico’s Patty Berg Memorial.  

Nagel is not overly concerned.

“It’s my rookie year and it’s my year to figure out my weaknesses,” she said. “When you get on big stages like this, they come out, they have a way of peeking through and for me it is a little bit mental.

“I’m not used to this and it’s really important for me to stay in my moment even more than most of the girls here. And really focus on what I’m doing and what no one else is doing.”

On Friday, Nagel made par on the final hole to make the cut. She was thrilled, as was her family. Nagel had just made the cut in her first U.S. Women’s Open and as memorable as the moment was, she had already framed it in a broader scheme.

“It is perspective and I know everyone who goes through something like this says that, but it really, really is,” Nagel said. “When you hear the word cancer, when you lose someone who is so integral to a family, you quickly learn there are many things more important than golf.”

Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA websites.

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