Greg Hansen: Cancer can't keep golfer Bob Gaona off his game

2013-08-02T00:00:00Z 2013-08-02T10:11:25Z Greg Hansen: Cancer can't keep golfer Bob Gaona off his gameGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
August 02, 2013 12:00 am  • 

This is the bad news straight out: Bob Gaona has lung cancer. Stage 4A, which means they didn't get all of it, but at least it's not spreading.

He spent 11 days in the hospital, lost 20 pounds, and was afraid to sleep. "I feared that I wouldn't wake up," he remembers.

Then the medical bills arrived, which all but made him gasp. His house is financially underwater. His PGA Tour pension expires in December. No one can be sure he'll make it to his 75th birthday, in January.

So you know what he did? He got a new driver. "A friend gave it to me," he says. "I can really hit it. I can feel the kick. I'm going to enjoy it every single day as long as I can."

On Wednesday, playing in the Southwest Section of the PGA Senior Championships, Gaona shot a 77 at Oro Valley Country Club. He finished seventh in the Southern Chapter event.

Incredibly, Gaona thought he could've won the two-day tournament - he has probably won as many local golf championships as anyone in Tucson history - but, strangely, felt a new sensation: nervousness.

"I have 50 years of experience and I rarely get nervous, I mean, I've played in the U.S. Open and was on the (Champions Tour) for five years" he says. "But I couldn't relax. It took me a while to settle down."

Could you?

If a Hollywood producer set up his cameras in Tucson and filmed the Bob Gaona story, it would be spellbinding. It would be sort of a nicest-guy-in-town-overcomes-demons-to-find-happiness tale, and then, just when he's really hitting his stride, cancer comes barreling down the road.

"Bobby might not be a wealthy man, but he's generous in other ways, I've never seen him treat people with anything but kindness," says Jerry Leyva, who plays golf regularly with Gaona in the El Rio Men's Club.

"He's like a walking time capsule; he has so many stories. People crowd around to listen to him share his history."

Like the time he shot 31 on the front nine in the Tucson Open, playing against Arnold Palmer. Like the two times he won the Tucson City Amateur. Or the two times he won the Arizona Senior Open. Or when he earned $83,202 on the 1991 PGA Senior Tour. In 1958, Gaona led Tucson High to the state golf championship, winning the individual title by five strokes.

Gaona taught himself to play with the help of golf magazine illustrations, but was never able to fully break through and make golf pay all the bills.

It can probably be traced to his days as a teenager, when he eschewed a golf scholarship to the University of Houston, then the nation's ranking men's golf program. He chose to stay in Tucson, party with his friends, and work nights at the old Hughes Aircraft, making enough to pay for the next round of golf and the next round of drinks.

He drank until he was 39 and then enrolled in an Alcoholics Anonymous course, which he insists saved his marriage and his life. He was the golf coach at Pima College for almost 20 years, and has given private golf instructions on almost every driving range in Southern Arizona.

"Bobby's a total gentleman," says Cory Crowell, the 1974 Tucson City Amateur champion who often plays in Gaona's El Rio outings. "It so sad to him in this situation."

Once Gaona left the hospital in May, the golf community and family friends rallied.

On Sunday, a dance and dinner benefit will be held for him at the El Casino Ballroom at 437 E. 26th Street from 3-9 p.m. The public is invited.

And on Sept. 14, the Consquistadores and the PGA Tour's First Tee program are in the process of scheduling a daylong clinic and golf benefit for the '58 state champion on his home turf, El Rio Golf Course.

"I'm focusing on the positive," Gaona says. "I'm spending more time with my wife, Eva, and with my grandkids. I'm laughing more. No one knows if this cancer is going to grow, so I'm going to live every day smiling.

"Sometimes, especially my kids, treat me like I'm crippled, but I'm fine. Yes, we've got financial problems. Yes, I get tired more than in the past. But overall I'm happy. After all I've been through, I wasn't always sure I'd be able to say that at this age."

Gaona was paid $75 for finishing seventh in the Chapter championship Wednesday. It didn't make him a rich man. In many other ways, he already was.

Contact Greg Hansen at ghansen@azstarnet.com or 573-4362. On Twitter @ghansen711

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