Cameron Champ found out a week ago how deep his grandfather, Mack, in his battle against terminal Stage IV stomach cancer.
Champ's family had withheld the agonizing details of his grandfather's condition from him since the July diagnosis. Champ had to wrestle with that reality throughout the week, spending time with his family before the tournament and throughout the week. Somehow, he had garnered a three-shot lead head into Sunday's final round at the Safeway Open, all the while wearing shoes on which he wrote "Papa Champ."
Early on Sunday, Champ took his pre-round cushion and had turned it into a five-shot edge before losing grasp of the tournament. Three closing birdies from Adam Hadwin and a slip-up on the 17th from Champ left the Texas A&M product tied heading to the final hole.
Staring down a playoff, the powerful second-year player hit a 369-yard drive on the closing par 5, giving himself a chance. With a four-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole at Silverado Resort's North Course, Cameron Champ managed to pick up his second-career PGA Tour win on Sunday at the Safeway Open -- some 60 miles from where his grandfather was watching him on TV in Sacramento.
After the final putt dropped to give Champ a one-shot win over Adam Hadwin on 17-under total, the victor raised his arms in the air and then quickly dropped them to the wipe tears from his eyes that began to swell before he pulled back the putter. He embraced his caddie in a long, sorrowful hug, before his father greeted him on the green. His dad Jeff had his grandfather on the phone.
"Are you kidding?" Champ's dad said several times, before repeating twice to his son and his father on the line, "God is good!"
All the emotions. ❤️
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) September 30, 2019
Cameron Champ took the phone from his dad as he walked off the green, not quite sure of what to say. What are you supposed to say when you're so proud and so grief-stricken at the same time?
The California native later told Golf Channel the victory is, and will always be, "the greatest moment of my golfing career."
Before a modest title defense of his first PGA Tour win wrapped up last Sunday, 2019 was a difficult year professionally for Champ. Expectations were sky-high after breaking through at the Sanderson Farms Championship early in his rookie season, but he struggled in all facets of the game. After a T-11 finish at the Sentry Tournament of Champions to open the calendar year, Champ posted just one top-25 finish the remainder of the season, in his penultimate event at The Northern Trust. In 20 total events the 2019 portion of the PGA Tour season, he missed 10 cuts and had to withdraw from another tournament.
Then Champ got the news from his dad that his Pops was in hospice care.
“We didn’t know how severe the cancer was. About 10 days ago, he wanted to go to hospice, so that’s what he wanted,” Champ said Friday. “He hasn’t eaten in 2-3 weeks. Basically from there, it’s just timing. We just want to make him as comfortable as possible and just spend as much time with him as we can.”
Mack Champ is 78 and learned to play golf in the 1940s in Texas, facing discrimination the entire way. He served his country in the Vietnam War, and he ultimately taught Cameron how to play golf in his backyard when he was 2. Mack Champ has traveled with his son, who played two seasons in the Baltimore Orioles organization in baseball, and grandson all over as Cameron has developed into the world-class player he is.
Asked what his grandfather often talked to him about in analyzing his round, Cameron said he used the word "focus" a lot. And that's what Cameron tried to do this week, separating the head in Napa and heart in Sacramento, facing a wrenching inevitability from the hours he spent inside the ropes.
"That's honestly the way I'm trying to look at it now, it's just golf," Champ said Saturday evening with the lead heading into the final round. "I have a lot of other things going on in my life. All of us do. Some guys have families, some guys have this and that. So I try to keep it separate. I think that's kind of what you have to do out here to be successful. This week it's kind of felt like that. Once I'm on the course, I focus on that, and once I'm done, I'm done."
Champ admitted to nearly breaking down on the first tee on Saturday, and there were no doubt other difficult moments.
"Everything he's been through, just to be able to come out and he's so lovable, he's so patient, he's so passionate about everyone," Champ said. "It's never been about him, it's always been about everyone else. Going through this experience, it's really opened my eyes to a lot of things."
With eyes wide open and his heart on his sleeve, Champ did something special for his grandfather. Now Champ heads back to Sacramento, a winner on the course. That moment won't last forever, and there will be trying times ahead for Champ and his family. But it seems Mack gave his son and grandson the loving education to be able to endure.
"His legendary quote I have on my wedges," Champ explained: "It's not where you come from, but it's where you're going."