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Mark Rolfing making comeback from cancer at Kapalua

Golf commentator Mark Rolfing has been on television for decades. His pleasant, confident voice is recognizable to anybody who pays attention to the game.

And yet he's never had this kind of attention.

Cancer will do that.

On Thursday, as the PGA Tour begins the new year with the Hyundai Tournament of Champions on Maui, at a place so dear to Rolfing, he starts a new working phase of his life on Golf Channel and NBC. Diagnosed last summer with Stage 4 cancer of the salivary gland, Rolfing is returning to commentating for the first time since surgery and radiation therapy.

Doctors have given Rolfing, 66, a good prognosis, though there will be tests later this month to determine if he is cancer-free. In coming back, Rolfing has been overwhelmed by the support he's getting from every corner of golf, even if it's somewhat unsettling.

"It's awkward," Rolfing said on the phone Monday morning. "There's so much attention on me right now. I'm really hoping that we can kind of get it over with early in the week here. This is the best field this tournament has had in a decade. We've got great conditions. Everybody is revved up."

Of his own emotions, he said, "I go up and down. There are moments when I'm thinking that I'm the luckiest man on Earth and can't believe this is happening. There are other moments where I'm just so highly sentimental I can't get the words out."

A longtime ambassador for Hawaiian golf, Rolfing lives on the fifth hole at Kapalua, the rolling, windswept course on the northwest tip of Maui where he served as head pro in the mid-'70s and is the site of the Tournament of Champions. He has been eagerly awaiting the players' arrival at the winners-only event, and his first encounter, with world No. 1 Jordan Spieth, was rather fateful.

Spieth was the last golfer Rolfing spoke to before he left the PGA Championship in August to drive to Chicago for surgery.

"Jordan can get this sleepy-dog look in his eye, and I remember him with this very sad look," Rolfing recalled of their goodbye at the PGA. "It hit me that he thought he might not ever see me again.

"Oh my heavens, to come full circle and to see him on my island … me getting back behind the camera, him No. 1 in the world … I feel like it's a miracle.

"For guys like Jordan and Dustin Johnson to come up and hug me and tell me they were really worried about me … I don't know, it takes my breath away."

In July, Rolfing discovered a small bump on his left cheek. He had it checked out and the rare form of cancer was discovered. There were no symptoms, though Rolfing looks back now and realizes that he often was overly tired and had begun to lose some hearing because of the tumor.

Rolfing confided in only his inner circle until the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, where he worked on pre-tournament broadcasts before shocking colleagues with the news.

Then he drove to the University of Chicago Medical Center for a surgery that was supposed to last a couple of hours. It took 7½ to get all of the tumor.

Post-surgery radiation awaited, and in another golfing connection, Rolfing reached out to staff at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where Amy Mickelson and Mary Mickelson, the wife and mother of Phil Mickelson, underwent their successful treatments for breast cancer.

The Mickelsons' MD Anderson physician was Tom Buchholz, whom fans might remember for carrying Phil's bag for a few holes during the 2010 Shell Houston Open. Rolfing called the action that day, and five years later he was on the phone with Buchholz.

"He wanted to take over my case," Rolfing said. "He told me, 'You've got a tough one. We can beat it, but you've got to do it right.'"

Rolfing underwent the newer proton radiation therapy. It was intense, he said, and there was concern at times that he might lose his voice in the process. Awful for anybody, but doubly so for a man who talks for a living.

But other than having to build up his stamina, Rolfing said he's feeling no ill effects.

Rolfing's career has been extraordinary, considering his lack of pro golf experience when he started at ESPN in late 1985.

He first made it into the booth when he won a car for a hole in one at Kapalua during a televised fall season event. Sports producer Don Ohlmeyer was impressed with Rolfing's poise and personality and offered him a tryout. He went full time in '86.

In those days, if you hadn't won a major championship you weren't considered worthy of holding a microphone as a course reporter.

"NBC hired me at the beginning of the '88 season, and Bob Goalby was No. 1 on the course," Rolfing recalled. "He didn't accept me at all. He thought it was a travesty. 'What's this guy doing here? He's the Hawaii assistant club pro champ, for crying out loud.'

"It took him a long time to turn it around, but when it did, he became my biggest fan. We're good friends."

David Feherty and Gary McCord — golf's stand-up comedians — would come later, and Rolfing has never tried to yuck it up like they do. He has stayed with the advice Ohlmeyer gave him.

"He told me, 'For however long your career goes, be you. People will grow to like you unless you try to be something you're not,'" Rolfing said. "I think I've been able to stay with that and not be something other than the common man."

Farmers commitments

Five of the top 10 players in the world have committed to the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines (Jan. 28-31): No. 2 and defending champion Jason Day, Rickie Fowler, Justin Rose, Dustin Johnson and Patrick Reed. San Diegan Mickelson is among five past champions to commit thus far.

Spieth will not be at Torrey for the first time in his pro career because he will be playing in the Middle East. It is unlikely seven-time Farmers winner Tiger Woods will play, as he continues to recover from back surgery.


Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 06, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Back on the right course - Veteran golf commentator Rolfing returns from cancer to work at Kapalua." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe