The PGA Tour dream that cancer couldn't stop: On Scott and Jenn Harrington, the feel-good story of the golf season
WinCo Foods Portland Open - Final Round
PORTLAND, OREGON - AUGUST 11: Scott Harrington reacts as he walks off the 18th green during the final round of the WinCo Foods Portland Open presented by KraftHeinz at Pumpkin Ridge Ridge Golf Club on August 11, 2019 in Portland, Oregon. Harrington was in the lead for most of the day and ended up finishing second. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
She was always there for me, Scott Harrington thought.
Through the missed cuts and demotions and bouts of confidence, the endless nights in a middle-of-nowhere motel, the realizations that the clock was ticking on his career. It can be a testing existence, the wife of a professional golfer, yet Jennifer Harrington never wavered in her support of her husband’s dream.
“Without a doubt, she has an unending belief in me,” Scott says. “She was encouraging, and never put any pressure. A big or small paycheck didn’t matter; Jennifer just wanted me to be happy, because she knows how bad I’ve wanted it.
“She is truly the most selfless person I’ve ever met.”
Those reflections ran through his mind as he sat in a deserted parking lot in Tennessee, thousands of miles away from the horror his wife just heard. He’s not sure how long he peered through the front window of his rental car, but of this he is certain: In Jennifer’s darkest hour, Scott was damn sure he was going to be there for her.
• • •
Scott Harrington and Jennifer Thomas met on a blind date in 2011, a get-together facilitated by a mutual friend. Scott was planning on a short night; he had the final round of a mini-tour event the next morning.
“I was in contention, which was a big deal for me at the time,” Scott says. “It wasn’t a lot of money up for grabs, but I needed to scrape together everything I could.”
Jennifer, a real-estate agent in Scottsdale, had her doubts as well. "We texted for two weeks before we even met," she said, citing Scott's travel schedule. "I remember him trying—emphasis on trying—to be really funny in text messages."
Those early-to-bed ambitions were quickly abandoned, as the two recognized a connection in each other. Scott remembers Jennifer’s sense of humor, what he called refreshing. In Jennifer's eyes, it was Scott's genuineness. Be it their love of dogs or discussing their goals and fears, the conversation was easy, the laughs plentiful, and their chat went deep into the night. So late that Scott was a mess the following morning.
“Yeah, that round was a struggle,” he says with a laugh. “I didn’t care. I knew right away she was special, and remember being so hopeful it was turning into something bigger.”
It did, as the two began dating. The lower levels of professional golf are not particularly conducive to relationships, with tons of travel for little pay, but Scott and Jennifer didn't worry about such things. By the end of 2015, they were engaged.
That next year promised to be a special one. Aside from the looming nuptials, Harrington, coming off his best season on the then-Web.com Tour, was on the precipice of a breakthrough after a dozen years on minor-league circuits.
But something was off with Jennifer. She was suffering long periods of illness and body aches, odd given her strict workout regimen and healthy diet. They visited doctor after doctor to figure out what was going on, failing to receive a straight answer.
“It was frustrating, because her symptoms were so general, no one really took us seriously,” Scott says. “I’m not trying to throw anyone under the bus, but we were told there was nothing wrong.”
Unsatisfied with this response, Jennifer did her own research through medical journals and self-diagnosis websites. One can convince themselves of anything in these searches, yet one answer became a common refrain: Lymphoma. Six weeks before their wedding, Jennifer underwent a biopsy.
The results came back: She was fine.
“Weight off our shoulders, right?” Scott says, looking back. “We were thrilled.”
The emotional seesaw took its toll on Scott’s game, but it was a small price to pay for Jennifer’s clean bill of health. They celebrated their union in December, along with the news that a potential fight with the C-word had been called off.
Except Jennifer, in-tune with her body, still wasn’t feeling right. By the spring of 2017, her symptoms were amplified. The couple went in for a second biopsy. That all-clear from the fall? A false negative.
Jennifer had Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a blood cancer in the same family as leukemia.
• • •
They received the news in July, right after Scott finished T-2 at the Web.com Tour’s Pinnacle Bank Championship. The runner-up secured Web status for the following season, and gave him a shot at capturing one of the 25 PGA Tour cards in the final weeks of the season.
Jennifer was starting chemotherapy in September, giving Scott time to earn promotion before her treatment began.
“Obviously, the financial security that comes with [a tour card] can ease the burden of medical bills,” Harrington says.
However, his attention was far from the course, flying home between tournaments and not arriving to the next one until Wednesday. This prep, or lack thereof, showed as Harrington missed four of the final eight cuts with a sole top-20 finish. The PGA Tour would have to wait another year.
WinCo Foods Portland Open - Final Round
PORTLAND, OREGON - AUGUST 11: Scott Harrington watches his tee shot on the third hole during the final round of the WinCo Foods Portland Open presented by KraftHeinz at Pumpkin Ridge Ridge Golf Club on August 11, 2019 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Not that he cared. Jennifer was the only thing that mattered.
She began chemo in the fall. The sessions were long, tough, draining. Throughout the treatments, Jennifer kept a cheery outlook, in a sense relieved her suffering was finally being acknowledged, and treated. Having Scott by her side throughout the ordeal, she says, kept her spirits up.
"He is so patient and loyal," Jennifer says of Scott. "He just rolls with things and keeps looking forward."
By December, the doctors said the cancer was in remission, and that it had only a 10 percent chance of coming back. The next month, Scott returned to the tour.
“We were pumped,” Harrington says. “Things looked great, Jennifer was finally feeling great. We could go back to living our lives.”
Unfortunately, the feeling was short-lived.
The date was May 11, 2018. Scott was playing in the Knoxville Open, while Jennifer was in Scottsdale awaiting the results of a sixth-month scan. Follow-ups and visits are routine for recovering cancer patients, though the sixth-month check is monumental, acting as a stop light of sorts.
Jennifer was scheduled for an afternoon appointment, and told Scott she’d wait until after his round was complete to relay the news. After all, the latest prognosis from the doctors was positive, Jennifer had regained her energy, there was no reason to think the worst.
Despite their agreement, Scott knew that if Jennifer received a good report, she’d tell him immediately, so he kept his phone on. In the middle of the round, there was still no buzz from Jennifer. Scott began feverishly checking his phone, every 10 minutes, then five.
“I just had this horrible feeling,” Scott says.
As soon as his final putt dropped, Scott dashed to the parking lot to call Jennifer. Her cries confirmed his suspicion: The lymphoma had returned.
Horrible. Heart-breaking. Devastating. Sentences escape Scott when recalling that moment, a litany of adjectives tumbling out in their stead. His world was spinning, a dizziness that doubled knowing what Jennifer must have been feeling. In their tears, Scott knew: to hell with his dream, he was needed home.
“It was immediate,” Scott said of his decision. “We were in the middle of our season, it was sacrificing my way of living, and financially, I wasn’t sure how we were going to make it work.
“I didn’t care. I saw what she just went through in the fall. She needed me."
• • •
Scott ended up playing one more week, for a simple reason. He needed to meet with the Web.com Tour brass to discuss his situation. Then-president Dan Glod granted Scott a Special Medical/Family Crisis Extension, adamant he’d do everything in his power to help the Harrington family. The tour and a host of tournaments offered financial assistance, and Glod and his staff made weekly calls to Scott and Jennifer to see how they were holding up.
The tour wasn’t the only entity watching out for the Harringtons. PGA Tour veteran Scott Langley got word of Jennifer’s condition, and—knowing Harrington surrendered his income to care for her—pitched a fundraising effort at a Player Advisory Council meeting. A GoFundMe page was erected, with pros, both on the Web and PGA Tours, pledging dollar amounts for birdies made during their seasons.
“There’s not a lot of disposable income on the Web,” Harrington says. “I didn’t know if it would even reach $10,000, but that those guys would go ahead and chip in what they could … I’ve told them thank you a thousand times over, it still doesn’t express my full gratitude.”
As of writing, $127,000 has been raised for Jennifer’s medical expenses. That doesn’t count the $25,000 donated by Steph Curry, who learned of Jennifer's plight at the Ellie Mae Classic.
“We are all competitors, but ... ” Scott says, his voice trailing off, “... it really is a family out here.”
• • •
Jennifer began chemo again soon after her sixth-month visit. She had to undergo a much-longer process this time, and after three months it became apparent the treatments were not taking. Doctors frantically tried a different round of chemo, which seemed to hold. Jennifer then moved to a bone-marrow transplant.
“It was cruel. The process was brutal,” Scott says. “Far worse than any chemo.”
Jennifer ran through a gamut of side effects and complications. For 10 days, Scott says, it was pure agony. “You wouldn’t wish it on anybody,” he says.
Bone-marrow recipients are quarantined after their procedures, the immune system so weak it’s protected at all costs. After a three-week stay at the hospital, that guard remained up at home. Scott had to attend classes to understand all the restrictions, which are vast: hand-washing food, keeping neighbors’ pets away from the house, being vigilant about who can and can’t visit. The tiniest variation could wreck her ecosystem.
Jennifer’s family lives close by, and Scott’s came to visit as much as they could, everyone chipping in to alleviate the burden. But it was Scott who was always there, Jennifer’s full-time caretaker.
“You do what you have to do for the one you love,” Scott says. Besides, he had the easy part. Jennifer was the warrior.
“I have always felt that what I went through as the person fighting cancer was probably not nearly as awful as what Scotty went through watching me suffer and feeling so helpless,” she says. “I would wake him up at all hours of the night because I needed something, or was in pain and scared, or felt weird ... he never complained. It's just such a testament to the type of person he is and I am forever grateful to him for it.”
As winter hit, Jennifer’s fortitude and Scott’s diligence began to pay off. The transplant proved successful. Her recovery would be three months to a year, yet the early signs were good. As 2018 came to a close, Jennifer told Scott she was beginning to feel like herself again … and it was time to restart his chase.
• • •
WinCo Foods Portland Open - Round Two
PORTLAND, OREGON - AUGUST 09: Scott Harrington hits his tee shot on the 13th hole during the second round of the WinCo Foods Portland Open presented by KraftHeinz at Pumpkin Ridge Ridge Golf Club on August 09, 2019 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
“There was rust,” says Kevin MacArthur, Harrington’s caddie. “It was rough out of the gate.”
The Web.com season began in January, and Scott was unprepared. During Jennifer’s recovery, family would come to the house and give Scott 30 minutes to an hour at the range. To keep a semblance of feeling in his swing, sure, but it was also an escape—a reminder of a past life that seemed very distant. When he made his return to competition at the Great Abaco Classic, he had played just four rounds in the last seven months.
Scott missed the cut in his first three events, and six out of his first nine. It wasn't all trunk slams: a T-6 at the Louisiana Open in March put Harrington inside the top 70 in the point standings, with a T-13 at the Dormie Network Classic providing breathing room for job security.
For the Web (now Korn Ferry) Tour, that is. Regarding the PGA Tour, not so much, and as spring turned to summer, the prospects of a card were slim.
Harrington, however, had a premonition.
"I promise this is true … but I had the strangest feeling that this was finally going to be the year," Scott says. "All golfers in my position say that; I have even told myself that countless times. This was different. It still weirds me out, honestly. But man, I knew."
Providence intervened, in two fashions. The first, and most important: Jennifer's results from her sixth-month scan came back clean. "He was a new man after that," MacArthur says. "Scott already had context before this, but you could see worry on [the sixth-month] weighing him down. Once that was lifted, he seemed happier on the course."
The second was a missed cut in Salt Lake City. Harrington wasn't hitting the ball like he used to, and went to coach Boyd Summerhays with an idea: What if they changed his grip? That adjustment can take weeks, a time frame Harrington, frankly, couldn't afford. Summerhays shared his doubts, but Harrington, fueled by intuition, was steadfast.
Scott was a man of his word. After a one-week sabbatical, Harrington was in the lead on Sunday at TPC Colorado. A rough finish kept him from the win, but a T-3 provided a jump from 67th to 43rd in the Korn Ferry standings. With four weeks left, he was officially in the mix.
Here is where Harrington lets you in on a secret. Those tour visions, so lucid and powerful? Harrington says he pictured himself attaining his card in the Korn Ferry Finals, not the regular season. He told MacArthur he was going to skip the Price Cutter Charity Championship, and play the final two events—the Ellie Mae in San Francisco and WinCo Foods Portland Open in his hometown—to prepare for the playoffs.
Only Harrington, goaded once more by a hunch, ditched those plans. He called MacArthur and announced his attentions with a composed zeal.
"We're going for it, now," Harrington said. "And we're going to get it done."
• • •
WinCo Foods Portland Open - Round Three
PORTLAND, OREGON - AUGUST 10: Scott Harrington his his tee shot on the third hole during the third round of the WinCo Foods Portland Open presented by KraftHeinz at Pumpkin Ridge Ridge Golf Club on August 10, 2019 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images) (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Scott played well at the Price Cutter Championship (T-28), and followed with a T-11 at the Ellie Mae, moving him into the top 40 heading into the season finale. He would need a win or runner-up to control his destiny.
Through two days in Oregon, Harrington had his own fate in his hands thanks to a 67 and 63. Though he felt anxiety on Saturday morning, it didn't show: He opened with three birdies in the first four holes, turning in a six-under 65 for a one-shot lead. Harrington went to bed with the utmost conviction. It is my time.
Jennifer sensed it too, deciding to book a flight from Phoenix to Portland. They had rehearsed this moment, the 18th green victory hug. What they would do, what they would say. She had to hold up her end in this production.
Scott was able to ride Saturday's attitude into Sunday's start, playing the first six holes in two under. Harrington is not a leader-board watcher, figuring there's enough to worry about his own game. This was a separate beast, as one bogey—or someone else's birdie—could drop him out of the top 25 standings.
Harrington tasked MacArthur to keep him abreast of the proceedings. They were looking good with birdies at the 11th and 13th holes. But Bo Hoag had taken the lead, and a Harrington bogey at the 16th widened that advantage. Kris Ventura and Vince India were also challenging for second.
"We suddenly had no wiggle room," MacArthur says.
On the par-4 17th, Harrington's approach landed just off the fringe, and his third left a testy, hard-breaking five footer for par. "About as tough as you'll see from that distance," MacArthur says. But Scott found a line and converted. The duo headed to the final hole believing they needed birdie.
Scott hit what he says is the best drive of his career, a tight draw at the 545-yard hole that left just 200 and change. Ahead, India was having a hell of a time getting the ball in the hole, ultimately walking away with a double. Harrington knew that affected him, but he didn't know to what extent.
He pulled a 6-iron, putting his faith, and career, in this strike. As soon as he made contact, he knew. So did MacArthur. They were hypnotized as the ball knifed through the air for what seemed like forever.
It finally returned to earth, 10 feet from the pin.
What went through his mind next, Harrington's not sure. "I think I was thinking, 'Don't do anything stupid,'" he says. He lagged his eagle to tap-in range. When his birdie went down, his emotions came out. Sixteen years' worth, to be precise.
Waiting for him at the side of the green were family, friends, and Jennifer.
"When I was walking out to him on the green, he started crying; he never cries," Jennifer says. "We hugged and I said 'Oh my God, we're going to the PGA Tour!' And he looked at me and said 'I love you so much.'"
"I’ve watched the clips so many times," Scott says of their embrace. "And I get shivers and chills every time I see it."
• • •
WinCo Foods Portland Open - Final Round
PORTLAND, OREGON - AUGUST 11: Scott Harrington reacts waits on the side of the 18th green during the final round of the WinCo Foods Portland Open presented by KraftHeinz at Pumpkin Ridge Ridge Golf Club on August 11, 2019 in Portland, Oregon. Harrington was in the lead for most of the day and ended up finishing second. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Jennifer calls Sunday a really great ending to a crappy story. Truth is, their tale is just beginning. Jennifer is now 10 months into remission. Detached from the world for nearly two years, she's reclaiming a social life, and begun to return to work.
She thinks about what lies ahead, the new tournaments and cities and opportunities they will get to experience. "It's really fun to see all of the hard work pay off!" she says.
Scott still has the Korn Ferry Finals, a chance to earn a couple extra bucks before his fall season begins in earnest. Days after his triumph, the catharsis is too raw to extrapolate. What it's not, though, is unbelievable. He never doubted it would come to fruition, because Jennifer never doubted him.
Scott appreciates all the attention, well-wishes and support, and hopes his quest galvanizes others to pursue theirs. But, he notes, it didn't take him 16 years to attain his dream.
She's been by his side for the last eight.
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