PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – The 4:03 p.m. (ET) starting time at Pebble Beach Thursday was an Oklahoma State reunion with Charles Howell III grouped with Alex Noren and promising amateur Austin Eckroat.
The inspirational story behind the story was Eckroat’s 48-year-old caddie and mentor, Donnie Darr. In December, a golf-ball sized tumor in his colon was diagnosed as third stage colorectal cancer. Six weeks of chemotherapy and radiation, five days a week at MD Anderson in Houston, sent Darr home to Stillwater to his job as assistant men’s golf coach at OSU.
“You just kind of sit around and have a lot of time to think,” Darr explained Thursday. “And when you’re not feeling well it’s amazing how your mind will want to go through some dark places. But I just kept trying to keep a positive attitude and kept thinking of things coming forward.”
It was Darr that walked every hole with Eckroat in the stroke and match-play portions of the 2018 NCAA Championship, leading OSU to victory. As soon as Eckroat qualified for the U.S. Open via a sectional playoff on May 20, he texted Darr.
“I half-jokingly had said, ‘if you make it, I’ll caddie,’” Darr said. “Knowing full well I wouldn’t be healthy enough to caddie.”
It was too late to back out once Eckroat responded, “You’re coming to Pebble. We’re going to get this done.”
The practice rounds around Pebble were therapeutic. Accompanying Darr was his wife Tina, his 15-year-old triplets Allie, Leo and Anna, along with 13-year-old Lucy.
The practice rounds with Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Gary Woodland and Rory McIlroy were a good experience for the adrenaline rush Eckroat would face in competition.
When the tournament is over, Darr will check back into MD Anderson for a follow-up before he begins chemo again.
“This a pretty nice place to spend your life for a week and leave the bad days behind,” he said.