Nearly 22 Years After Her Death, Golfer Heather Farr Continues To Inspire

Heather Farr was an up-and-comer on the LPGA Tour before she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 24. Courtesy USGA Museum

In the year Heather Farr would have turned 50, in the month designated to raise awareness for the disease -- breast cancer -- that took her life when she was just 28, Val Skinner is recalling her friend and fellow LPGA player, who wasn't much north of 5 feet and 100 pounds.

"For as little as she was, Heather was big," Skinner says. "You'd see her bopping down the fairway, that mane of hair, and she was always talking trash with me. 'I can hit my 5-iron or 5-wood right inside that wedge of yours, Skinner. Bring it.'"

That was Farr: feisty, fun and friendly, a golfer whose indefatigable spirit has been forgotten by no one who knew her.

"She was a little bundle of special," says Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez, who thought so much of Farr that when Lopez's youngest daughter was born in 1991, she named her Torri Heather.

"Heather had a light to her," says her younger sister, Missy Farr-Kaye, now the head women's golf coach at Arizona State, alma mater of both Farr sisters. "When she walked into a room, people wanted to know who she was. Before she got sick, after she got sick -- it didn't seem to matter. She was very charismatic and people were drawn to her. She was a fantastic sister, and we had a great relationship. I feel cheated as an adult because the best part, we didn't get to have."

In December 1988, Farr was coming off her third, and best, LPGA season. She hadn't won yet, but given her background -- winner of the 1982 U.S. Girls' Junior and 1984 U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links who qualified for the LPGA Tour at 20 -- it seemed as if it wouldn't be long. One night at home in her native Arizona, Farr felt a pain in her breast and found a lump. She went to a doctor, who believed it was a benign mass and nothing to worry about -- 23-year-olds didn't get breast cancer.

But as the 1989 season progressed, Farr's discomfort didn't go away. After Farr missed the cut at the du Maurier Classic near Montreal on June 30, Dottie Pepper, a friend since the two met at a junior event in 1980, saw Farr in the locker room at Beaconsfield Golf Club.

"She was telling me that she had her mattress on the floor of her house because it hurt to sleep on her stomach," Pepper says. "She said she had gone to the doctor again a couple of weeks earlier and they said it was nothing, you're too young to have a mammogram. I talked to her 10 days later and she had been diagnosed with breast cancer."

Over the July 4th weekend, Farr had finally undergone a biopsy that revealed the seriousness of the situation: It was an advanced malignancy, the cancer having spread into 11 of Farr's 16 lymph nodes. As Farr underwent a radical modified mastectomy in Los Angeles later that month, the golf world was stunned by the news that the vivacious, talented player had been stricken with the disease.

"It was something that was so unexpected," says former LPGA player Nancy Scranton. "She was so young -- most of us were. It was kind of like, 'This doesn't happen to us.' "

But it had, creating a palpable dread in the workplace Farr had yearned to be a part of since she was a precocious junior golfer who won the Arizona state women's amateur when she was 13.

"For the tour, it was across the map a wake-up call," says Skinner. "I don't think there was a player who didn't stop for a second and say, 'Wait a minute. Did I hear that right?' There was a lot of concern and compassion, but also fear among all of us being in the same world and about the same age."

The mastectomy was the first of more than a dozen surgeries Farr would endure over the next 4½ years as cancer ravaged her body. A complex spinal operation in 1991 replaced a diseased vertebrae with one of her ribs, part of her pelvic bone and a steel rod. There were bone marrow transplants and weeks in isolation because of her weakened immune system.

She carried on throughout the grueling ordeal, her upbeat nature rarely waning. "She's like a little cork," her mother, Sharon, told Sports Illustrated in 1992. "You can't keep her down."

Amid her fears, Farr did her best to quell the anxiety of others. "She was concerned about you," says PGA Tour member Billy Mayfair, who grew up in Phoenix and was a childhood golf companion of Heather and Missy. "I went to visit her a few times in the hospital, and she always wanted to know how I was. She didn't want people to worry about her."

It was a lot like Farr was on the course. "You never saw her shoulders slump," says Pepper. "You couldn't tell if she made eagle or double bogey." But the fact that seven months passed before her original doctors ordered a biopsy made her mad. "Of course, I'm angry," Farr told Golf Digest three years later. "I'm fried beyond words at these people."

Farr was buoyed by the support of friends and strangers, including others who had cancer and were inspired by the resolve she displayed in fighting the disease. Farr died Nov. 20, 1993. Four years after she passed away, her sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a second bout with the disease in 2008 and is now cancer-free. Each time, Missy relied on the memory of how valiantly Heather persevered in her own fight.

"When people ask me, 'How do you get through cancer, how do you face it?' I had one way to do it, and that was how Heather did it," says Farr-Kaye. "She did it with strength and courage and dignity and never felt sorry for herself. She felt if she could help somebody else get through it, she would."

Says Skinner: "Heather had many bad and difficult days, but she did her best to live and be a good example. She went through it all with generosity and to be helpful, but that's who Heather was."

Inspired by Farr, Skinner began raising money for breast cancer research in 1996. Four years later, she formed the Val Skinner Foundation, whose LIFE (LPGA Pros in the Fight to Eradicate Breast Cancer) pro-am event has raised more than $10 million for scientific research and early detection programs, with an emphasis on making young women aware of breast cancer.

"We've come this far because of the influence Heather had on me and the players who have supported us," says Skinner, whose foundation has partnered with Discovery Education to create a national high school science curriculum focused on cancer genetics.

It all goes back to the person Mayfair met when he and Farr were kids learning golf from pro Arch Watkins at the Papago municipal course in Phoenix. "We were almost like sister and brother," says Mayfair, who has survived testicular cancer. "She was an amazing person. She was fun to hang around and always competitive. She went through a lot of stuff, but she still had the same fight battling the cancer as she did when she was playing golf. I think until her last breath she believed she was going to beat it and get back out on the LPGA Tour."

Mayfair visits Farr's grave at Phoenix's St. Francis Cemetery a couple of times a year. He thinks her personality would have made her a great leader of the LPGA after her playing days. "Were she alive, she'd probably be commissioner of the LPGA right now," Mayfair says. "She was such an ambassador for the game. Golf and the tour lost a lot when she passed away."

Each year since 1994, the LPGA has awarded the Heather Farr Player Award to a player "who through her hard work, dedication and love of the game of golf, has demonstrated determination, perseverance and spirit in fulfilling her goals as a player; qualities for which Farr is so fondly remembered." Posthumously, Farr was the first recipient.

While the 50th anniversary of Farr's birth in March is a logical milestone on which to reflect on her life, Missy doesn't need to wait for such an even-numbered occasion. It happens all the time, when a sister and an aunt isn't there to share joyous moments with Missy and her family, including this summer when she got the head coaching job at Arizona State. There is a statue of Heather near the 10th hole of the university's Karsten course, but Missy also honors her in another way.

"I've really tried to teach my kids about her," says Missy, whose oldest son, Dalton, was baptized in Heather's hospital room not long before she died. "There are pictures everywhere. Her name is a constant in my house. More often than not, we tell good stories, funny stories."

Before the sad story started, there were lots of those.

"There was so much to her," Skinner says. "Heather was so much more than her disease."