Philip Mehaffey hadn’t gotten out of bed in months, but that didn’t stop him from having a motorized scooter delivered to his house in the small village of Scarva, Northern Ireland. His only daughter, Olivia, was set to make her LPGA debut at the ISPS Handa World Invitational about 50 minutes away, and he wasn’t going to miss it. Never mind the terminal cancer diagnosis.
Philip put on six layers and a wooly cap and embarked on what he’d later call the best week of his life.
Olivia, 24, thought she might see her father on the first tee, and maybe a few of the finishing holes at Massereene Golf Club. But every time she looked outside the ropes, there he was.
“He did not miss one shot,” marveled Olivia, who tied for 17th at her home LPGA event.
Olivia Mehaffey’s cheer squad at the ISPS Handa World Invitational. (courtesy photo)
Father and daughter were partners in mixed events at their golf club, Tandragee, and often had to tell mom to keep the Sunday roast warm because they had to stay longer for the prize-giving ceremony. Philip was a big believer in his daughter’s talent, and while she rarely made a decision without him, Olivia said he was never a pushy parent.
She began to understand the true depth of her father’s love and pride when she held his hand day after day in the final months of his life.
“The reason I play golf is because of him,” she said.
Olivia, one of three four-time All-Americans to come out of Arizona State, makes her first start of the 2022 season at this week’s Carlisle Arizona Women’s Golf Classic on the Epson Tour, where she’s competing close to her second home on a sponsor exemption. The top 10 on the Epson Tour at season’s end earn LPGA cards for 2023.
A strong finish this week would go a long way toward better status after the tour’s first reshuffle. She tied for sixth at the event last year.
Olivia was in the U.S. when her father was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2020. The surgeon said it was the worst tumor he’d ever had to remove. Her mother Evelyn asked head coach Missy Farr-Kaye to deliver the news so that Olivia, a fifth-year senior, wouldn’t be alone.
In November of 2020, Farr-Kaye, who had twice battled breast cancer, received her own colon cancer diagnosis.
“The last person I wanted to tell was Olivia,” said Farr-Kaye, who is like a second mom to the Irishwoman.
AUGUSTA, GEORGIA – APRIL 03: Olivia Mehaffey of Northern Ireland plays her shot from the 12th tee during the final round of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur at Augusta National Golf Club on April 03, 2021 in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
At the 2021 Augusta National Women’s Amateur, Olivia found out from her mom that the cancer had spread, and that her father’s condition was terminal. She cried for about an hour, and then decided that she needed to play her best golf so that he could see her on TV. She finished ninth.
Mehaffey struggles being vulnerable, calling herself a closed book. Last season, she said, was mentally the worst year she’s ever had.
Rounds of 80-74-72-78 put her toward the bottom of the field at Stage II of LPGA Qualifying School in October and miles away from an LPGA card. She immediately went home to Northern Ireland to be with her dad.
“I knew she was devastated,” said Farr-Kaye, “but looking back on it now, she was supposed to be home.”
Mehaffey stayed by her father’s bedside for weeks.
Philip had plans for her though, and he told everyone who would listen that she was going to Spain for Ladies European Tour Qualifying School.
“He looked me in the eye and said, ‘You’re going to Spain,’ ” said Olivia, who insisted that she couldn’t leave him.
Philip died on Friday, Dec. 3 at age 59, and the family held his funeral service that next Sunday. Olivia honored her father’s wishes and flew to Spain on Monday. Few people outside of Northern Ireland knew of her loss. Olivia just wanted to go out and play for dad.
“I think it taught me how strong I was,” she said. “To be in the space I was mentally and kind of it aside and try to hit shots.”
A tough Mehaffey secured Category 15 membership on the LET for 2022.
Earlier this year, Leona Maguire became the first Irish player to win on the LPGA. The pair are close friends and talk to each other most days. After Maguire won, she told Mehaffey that her LPGA title will come “sooner than you think.”
“That meant a lot to me,” said Mehaffey. “We go so far back.”
Olivia Mehaffey gives her ball to a girl on the 18th hole during the final round of the ISPS HANDA World Invitational at Galgorm Spa & Golf Resort in Ballymena, United Kingdom. (Photo: Oisin Keniry/Getty Images)
Farr-Kaye calls Mehaffey one of the hardest, if not the, hardest-working players she has ever coached. One of her strengths is being able to put up a solid score even when she’s not playing well, a strong recipe for a tour player.
Mehaffey returned to Arizona on Jan. 7 and tried to immerse herself into practice and not think too much about the pain.
In time, however, she realized that wasn’t a healthy approach. She talks to Farr-Kaye every day and sometimes practices with her old Sun Devil team. In Farr-Kaye, she has a warm and compassionate confidant. Swing coach Jorge Parada tackles things logically and calmly. They are people she can open up to and unburden herself.
Farr-Kaye said the best advice she can give Mehaffey is to embrace the present, even when it doesn’t look like what anyone wanted.
“Sometimes when you have to work a little harder for something,” said Farr-Kaye, “it means a little bit more.”