Caddying uplifting for cancer survivor
DUBLIN, Ohio -- I can remember the excitement in my dad's voice when he called to tell me about a unique prize he'd claimed in a charity auction benefiting the Indiana Golf Foundation.
It was Sept. 21, 2009, and Frank Oreovicz, an avid golfer and former communications specialist at Purdue University, had won the opportunity to caddy for PGA Tour professional Bo Van Pelt during a tournament practice round.
Unfortunately, a subsequent conversation with dad about three weeks later wasn't as cheerful. It never is when the word "cancer" is involved.
Long story short, the cancer of the stomach was detected at a very early stage during a routine check-up, and the treatment and surgery were successful. By May 2010, Frank was back on the golf course, whittling his handicap down to five over the course of the summer. But he still wasn't physically ready to lug a staff bag around 18 holes.
In October, almost exactly a year after his cancer diagnosis, the IGF invited dad to play in an outing at the Pete Dye Course in French Lick, Ind. His partner? Dr. Attila "AT" Nakeeb, who had performed Frank's successful surgery in February.
While in French Lick, the idea was hatched for dad to cash in his ticket to caddy for Van Pelt. It finally happened during the pro-am for the 2011 Memorial Tournament, an easy drive from Frank's home in Lafayette, Ind.
"We had this idea two years ago," Van Pelt related. "Thad Miller, a buddy of mine I used to play junior golf with in Indiana, called me up about donating something for their auction. And I had this crazy idea that it might be a fun day. I do it probably three to five times a year now. I did it two weeks ago at Colonial and finished third, so hopefully it will be good luck again this week.
"It's a fun day. It's a great experience for someone who's a golf fan. They get to see the course from inside the ropes for a day. I'm going to do it more often."
Van Pelt stayed in touch with Frank over the last year and a half via phone and text messages, and that made my dad even more focused on his recovery. Strapping on that Titleist bag at Muirfield Village GC was another symbolic step in that process.
"It was a nice closure," Frank said. "I don't know if I'm totally cured, but the doctors say I am. The two events [the cancer diagnosis and the IGF prize caddying for Van Pelt] were sort of connected, and of course I wondered if I would ever be able to fulfill the obligation. It wasn't until four or five months later after the surgery and the results were in that I could even resume thinking about doing it. We couldn't schedule it last year throughout the summer because I was just too weak. I had lost 30 pounds and there was just no way I could do it."
Now 66, Frank has come a long way from his last caddying gig -- at Ridgemoor Country Club in suburban Chicago when he was 15.
"Double bags, for husbands and wives," he recalled. "The poorer the golfer, the heavier the bag. & They'd have two dozen balls in there, an extra pair of shoes, it was unbelievable! The thing is, when you're a kid, you're never tired."
The Ohio heat and humidity and Muirfield Village's hills took a minor toll as Frank suffered some dehydration after the round. But he took away even more enthusiasm for golf and the PGA Tour than he brought in.
"It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I'd repeat if I could," he revealed. "Bo is as much of a gentleman as he is a pro. He had time for everybody and couldn't have been nicer. He signed hundreds of autographs.
"I don't think he changed his walking pace from the time he walked onto the golf course to the time he walked off. Same rhythm and tempo between holes, same pre-shot routine every time. It was very impressive and I can see how that improves your game."
Van Pelt played his college golf at Oklahoma State but he has connections to Indiana where his father played football. The Purdue-IU rivalry was a natural talking point during the round, and BVP claimed he was disappointed that Frank wore a Titleist hat instead of his usual Boilermakers gear.
Mark Chaney, Van Pelt's caddy of five years, walked the round with the golfer and his guest caddy, manning the yardage book while giving my dad guidance.
"Chaney gets a hard time because sometimes I get my buddies out here to caddy for me or we do these charity things," Van Pelt grinned. "All the other caddies think Chaney needs to give me a refund on his salary for the days he doesn't caddy on Wednesday. He was enjoying not having to sling that bag today, that's for sure."
Does Van Pelt have any advice for aspiring tour caddies?
"Go to the Nationwide Tour, work hard and be on time," he said. "The old standard joke says that the three lines a caddy has to know to tell his pro are: 'You were right,' 'I was wrong' and 'You got a bad break.'
"Well, that's the PG version."
And how did Frank perform in his substitute caddy role?
"He did awesome," Van Pelt said. "We had a great time, and it was an inspiration for me to see someone in that good of shape at that age. He's just full of life and having a great time.
"He gave me some good advice and by the end of the day he was pulling clubs for me. You can tell he's a good golfer and he knew what he was doing out here."
John Oreovicz normally covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.