skip to main content

Cancer Puts Golf, Life in Perspective for Hackworthy August 8, 2017 | Chula Vista, Calif. By Bill Fields

Tess Hackworthy's bond with her mom became a lot stronger after she was diagnosed with breast cancer seven years ago. (USGA/Steven Gibbons)

U.S. Women's Amateur Home

Tess Hackworthy cried for a moment, not over the 75 she had just shot Monday in the first round of stroke play of the 117th U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship at San Diego Country Club, but while recalling a memory from seven years earlier.

It was March 2010. Tess was 13, a seventh-grader in Madison, Wis., and her mother Amie had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. The four Hackworthy children – Tess, older brothers David and Charlie, and older sister Emily – were summoned to a family meeting.

“We sat all the kids down and brought it to their attention,” said Tess’ father Dave, who is caddieing for his daughter this week. “We had gone through some challenges with family members we had lost to cancer, so it was an emotional time.”

Tess started directing the action like a point guard, a position she excelled at before  golf became her primary athletic pursuit.

“I thought if my mom can fight through something like this, I need to be by her side,” said Hackworthy, who turns 21 next month. “There had been a couple of walks around Madison that raised money and made an impact. I thought I could do that too.”

“Tess just said, hey, we’re going to do something positive here,” her father said. “She talked about getting some people together and raising some money.”

What her daughter initially envisioned as a whirl around the block at her school  quickly became a 3-mile trek through the family’s Maple Bluff neighborhood.

“Maybe it comes from being the baby and having older siblings,” Amie said. “She’s always been like that – good energy, good spirit and a strong-willed kid.”

It isn’t uncommon for families and friends to engage in fundraising after someone they know is diagnosed with cancer, but Tess took it to a different level.

“People raise money at a game or through bowling, things like that,” said Dr. Kari Wisinski, who was Amie’s oncologist at the University of Wisconsin-Carbone Cancer Center. “I don’t think I’ve seen someone so young take so much ownership of such a big event that took a lot of organization. Tess really drove a lot of it. It was pretty impressive for a girl that young. Amy was proud that Tess viewed this as something to learn from and grow with rather than be overwhelmed by it.”

Less than two months after Amie’s cancer diagnosis, Tess’ “Walk for Courage” to support breast cancer research at the UW-Carbone Cancer Center took place. More than 700 people attended, and $50,000 was raised. Amie, whose energy was down as she underwent chemotherapy, was buoyed by the scene.

“It was a sight, like a pink flood going down our streets,” Amie said. “We had a nice big party at the end. Tess stood up and spoke and thanked everyone who came. It was really powerful.”

Janie Winston, a director of development at Carbone, was working for another Madison nonprofit at the time. “People were talking about how this kid was raising all this money,” Winston said. “It was a first-class event, and she did an amazing job. She’s very mature, real driven, a go-getter.”

Hackworthy orchestrated three additional Walk for Courage events, raising more than $50,000. Her commitments at the University of Wisconsin, where she is a junior business major and member of the Badgers’ women’s golf team, caused her to pause the effort.

“We’re just so blessed to have a community and friends who were so supportive,” Hackworthy said. “They were there for us, so we’ll be there for them.”

Hackworthy needed the embrace of others two years ago as a freshman when doctors removed a melanoma on her right leg. “It was really scary,” she said, “but I had a great support system with my doctors and my family. They took care of it right away.”

For the high-energy Hackworthy, sitting out after surgery wasn’t easy.

“It was an involved process,” said Todd Oehrlein, Wisconsin’s head women’s golf coach. “They had to remove quite a bit, and it really impacted that spring season for her. She had to step away for a while to avoid opening the incision. It took a little bit of time. Whatever she could, she was doing, trying to get back out there. There is always anxiety and fear, but she dealt with it with a lot of maturity.”

After making the turn on Monday, Hackworthy sprayed herself liberally with sunscreen after teeing off on No. 10.

“I’ve learned re-applying is really important,” Hackworthy said. “I would always put sunscreen on, but I never used to re-apply. That’s something I’ve gotten into the habit of doing.”

Added Dave Hackworthy: “She caught it early, but it reminds people even at a young age, it’s good to be checked.”

Amie, meanwhile, has been in remission for six years. Recently, Tess was cleared to have checkups every six months instead of every three months.

With her father carrying her red Badgers golf bag on a blue-sky California day, Hackworthy, who has won the Wisconsin State Open two straight years, got off to a great start in her first U.S. Women’s Amateur by making a birdie on the par-4 first hole. The low point came on the par-3 13th, where she bladed a bunker shot and made a 5. Considering what she’s been through, Hackworthy knows as well any golfer, a double bogey isn’t the end of the world.

Besides, she’s still in the hunt to qualify for match play.

“She keeps getting better and knows how to win, but her best golf is ahead of her,” Oehrlein said. “I’m excited to have her for two more seasons. She is a tireless worker and loves to be around the game. Everybody has a better day when Tess is around.”

Bill Fields is a Connecticut-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA websites.