PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — For the first time in his nine-month battle with Stage 4 liver and rectum cancer, Steve DiMeglio found a perfect escape from the living hell of 720 hours of chemotherapy treatments, along with the daily drudgery of waking up and feeling sick.
DiMeglio returned to his comfort zone at the Players Championship.
If only for a few hours on three different days, one of the most recognizable faces among PGA Tour players and caddies was able to commiserate with friends that the lifelong bachelor considers extended family.
That was better medicine than anything his doctors at Beaches Baptist Hospital or anyone could provide the 61-year-old DiMeglio, who has been on disability since Sept. 5 and is often confined to his second-floor apartment due to fatigue.
“I miss the guys, I miss talking on the [golf] range, I miss all the socializing in the media center,” said DiMeglio. “I don’t miss looking at a blank screen on deadline.”
Throughout The Players week, there has been no shortage of love for DiMeglio — a senior writer for Golf Week/USA Today — from the sport’s biggest names and his media colleagues.
Everyone was uplifted by his presence at the Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass because they hadn’t seen DiMeglio, who covered 20-22 tournaments a year, since he publicly announced his diagnosis last July on his birthday after the Open at St. Andrew’s.
When Rory McIlroy’s Tuesday press conference ended, he immediately went over to DiMeglio and gave him a hug. As Jordan Spieth and his caddie, Michael Greller, came to the scoring area on Friday, warm embraces were exchanged.
He received similar greetings at a practice round from one of his closest Tour buddies, 2015 Players champion Rickie Fowler, a cozy relationship for which DiMeglio is the target of much ribbing among media brethren.
Fowler’s playing partners that day, Gary Woodland, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay, also greeted him warmly. On Friday, he chatted at length with Woodland, updating the 2019 U.S. Open champion on his condition and prognosis.
“He’s just always been good to me,” Woodland said of DiMeglio. “We text back and forth. Through this process, I’ve tried to check in on him, just let him know I care and my thoughts and prayers are with him.
“I’ve had a very good relationship with the whole media, but DiMegs, he’s just out there more. It seems like he’s more on the range, more inside the ropes with us walking around. That’s just a relationship that has grown for me because I’m around him more than anybody else [in the media].”
Warning signs surfaced
Before Australia native and Ponte Vedra Beach resident Cameron Smith overtook McIlroy and Cameron Young with a Sunday back-nine 30 to win last year’s Open, it was evident to DiMeglio and others that he was off his game.
He felt a “throbbing pain” on his right side and had diminished energy. For the first time in 16 years of going to the Open, at his favorite venue there no less, DiMeglio didn’t partake of one beer all week.
“I struggled sleeping,” said DiMeglio. “I was basically off kilter.”
Sports Illustrated golf writer Bob Harig, who shared a house with DiMeglio at St. Andrew’s, added: “He wasn’t himself. He wasn’t eating properly and you could tell he wasn’t feeling well.”
It just didn’t occur to DiMeglio that not feeling well would soon become a non-stop daily thing. He was forced to step aside from his job and a sport that he grew to love after a six-year stint covering Major League Baseball for Baseball Weekly, which later merged with USA Today
One day after doctors revealed the Stage 4 cancer diagnosis, DiMeglio dropped the news on social media, which jolted the PGA Tour communications staff and everyone who knows him.
When asked why he went public so quickly, DiMeglio replied: “I don’t know. I was laying on a hospital bed and I had time to kill. That, and I didn’t want to call 50-100 people to say the same thing.”
The excruciating battle caused him to lose about 30 pounds, though the 5-foot-5 DiMeglio has regained some of the weight. He’s back up to 120 pounds from his pre-cancer weight of 145.
“I think the worst moment was one time when I looked in the mirror and saw how skinny I had gotten,” said DiMeglio. “It jarred me when I heard the news. [Taking] chemo? You just deal with it. It’s a s— feeling, but you deal with it.”
DiMeglio is reluctant to connect his cancer fight with him being courageous, though he’s worthy of praise for constantly tweeting out messages of positivity like this one on March 7: “Went to TPC Sawgrass/Players Championship today, my first tournament since Open. Lifted spirits seeing the traveling bunch of players, caddies and media again. Confirmed I had the best job I’ve ever had.”
Connecting with Tiger
One of DiMeglio’s first assignments after becoming the USA Today golf writer in 2006 was covering the Buick Invitational, a memorable event since he finally got to eyeball Tiger Woods up close and in person.
“I can still picture seeing Tiger on the range at Torrey Pines and just being awed by him hitting a golf ball,” said DiMeglio. “Accessibility [for media] to golf is unbelievable. I stood behind batting cages and watched [MLB] guys hit in practice, but it was a little different when I could stand a few feet behind Tiger, Phil [Mickelson] and Rory and watch them hit.”
It’s been well-documented that Woods has kept a distant relationship with the media beyond press conference obligations. But DiMeglio, along with Harig, Associated Press writer Doug Ferguson and a few others, were among media Woods would regularly speak to away from cameras, microphones and notepads.
That kind of access to the greatest golfer of his generation speaks to DiMeglio’s ability to forge bonds of trust.
“Steve’s got a really good relationship with a lot of guys out here,” said Fowler. “He’s treated players fairly. I don’t think he’s necessarily written or done anything that’s rubbed people the wrong way. Sometimes you’ll see that, relationships get ruined between media and players.
“He cares. He enjoys what he does. He can take and give it. We all give each other a hard time. A lot of it is because he has a great relationship and reputation.”
DiMeglio describes how he made a connection with Tiger this way, saying: “You had to earn it and he had to like you. You want to have access to the most important figure in the game. That was a big thing for me. A lot of it is just fairness. We didn’t take cheap shots.
“I was just fortunate I could make him laugh. I could give him the needle and he could give it back to me, mostly about my height. He’s done my height a lot.”
During his 16 years covering golf, no memory resonates more with DiMeglio than hearing the eruption at Torrey Pines in the 2008 U.S. Open. Woods, playing on a bum left knee, dropped a 12-foot birdie putt at the final hole of regulation to force a playoff with Rocco Mediate, which Tiger eventually won.
“I was there near the green when it happened,” said DiMeglio. “Was it the loudest thing I ever heard? Well, I did see [the New York Yankees’] Scott Brosius hit the home run at Yankee Stadium to tie up Game 5 [of the 2001 World Series] against the Diamondbacks.
“But I mean, the earth moved. Tiger made the earth move. It hits you right in the heart, in the gut and in the ears. I was fortunate to be there.”
Taking the punches
If there’s a sliver of consolation in his battle against a ruthless enemy, DiMeglio and friends have been able to affirm how much they appreciate each other.
Tour communication staff members that DiMeglio keeps in touch with — Amanda Harrington, Jack Ryan, Haley Peterson and Laura Neal — have pitched in to assist him as needs like grocery shopping and heavy lifting arise.
With his parents from Mankato, Minn., deceased and five siblings scattered all over the country, DiMeglio has people on call who care deeply about his welfare.
“In Ponte Vedra, the Tour is more or less his family in town,” said Joel Schuchmann, senior-vice president of communications. “We haven’t done anything nobody else wouldn’t do, but Steve is a special person and a part of family. Families have good times and bad times and right now, Steve is going through a tough time.”
“A lot of people out here are aquaintances, a lot are friends. Players have reached out to him. Steve is stuck at home, so getting a message from a player makes his day. He’s definitely in his element when he’s around the game.”
Unfortunately, except for watching golf on television or receiving texts from players, DiMeglio can’t be around the game in the manner he once was.
Days of bantering with colleagues at tournaments, driving up Magnolia Lane for the Masters and joking with golfers on the range — all of that has been put on hold. Even if he returns to normal health, DiMeglio is uncertain about returning to writing.
“The only word for him to say was onward,” said Ferguson. “He knew ahead of time he was stepping in the ring with Mike Tyson. There are going to be body blows.
“Outwardly, he’s trying to keep a positive outlook, which he has to. But it’s OK to recognize that, ‘I just took a left hook and I got to pull myself back up.’ “
It encourages Ferguson that his friend will occasionally put out goals for himself on social media. One was for DiMeglio to be at Ferguson’s house in Jacksonville for Thanksgiving, an annual tradition since he moved to Ponte Vedra Beach in 2013. He made it.
Spieth doesn’t pretend to understand what DiMeglio is going through. He just wants him to recover and get back to living a more normal life.
“Regardless, anybody in the world, it’s just a ridiculously bad disease,” Spieth said. “But then it’s somebody you respect in the business, too. It’s like, ‘Man, one of the good guys, just why does it happen?’ I can’t imagine how he feels when he’s not around other people. I know that he wouldn’t make you feel like it’s a problem because that’s not who he is.”
If anybody can appreciate DiMeglio’s tough situation, it’s New York Post golf writer Mark Cannizzaro, who fought melanoma for 16 months and endured a three-month hospital stay back in 2008. He’s still in cancer remission.
“My biggest recommendation to Steve was to not dwell on it and stay positive,” said Cannizzaro. “I learned to appreciate the power of positivity, which comes down to people supporting you. My wife [Carolyn] said I was depressed at the time, but she saw how my spirits lifted when people reached out to me.”
“You can’t give up”
Every day, whether it’s a chemo appointment or completing tasks that he once took for granted, DiMeglio mentally arms himself for a fight with his “invisible enemy.”
DiMeglio started his post-college life by writing children’s books, then got his first sports writing job at the Palm Springs Desert Sun in 1988 after driving from Minnesota to drop off resumes throughout California. DiMeglio is willing to go the extra mile, and minces no words about the grind of battling a dreaded disease.
“Basically, I feel under the weather every single day, but I still get to feel under the weather every single day, which is better than not,” said DiMeglio. “There is no prognosis. We don’t know.
“There’s no guarantee I’ll live. Stage 4 [cancer] can kill me. I just have to do my best to beat it. We just got to keep treatment going and, hopefully, my body cooperates and we beat this thing.”
He also copes with the side effect of neuropathy, a loss of feeling in his fingertips and toes. DiMeglio stares down a future of uncertainty with as much gusto as he can muster because he sees no viable alternative.
“Am I tougher than I thought? I have no idea,” DiMeglio added. “I don’t know why I didn’t start bawling [upon hearing the diagnosis]. I’m like, ‘I got a fight on my hands, deal with it.’ You just have to move on and be as positive as you can be. You can’t give up.”
Fowler echoed the sentiment of many players after Saturday’s third round, saying: “It’s great to see him out here. We want to see him more.”
Everybody connected with the Tour is rooting hard for the legendary golf journalist to win this battle. Whether it’s to needle him about his height, being on the range talking to players or pounding away on his keyboard, they miss him.
Golf insiders know it’s a far better game with Steve DiMeglio in their presence.