On April 30, Darren Yowell was laying on a table at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Baltimore, Md., awaiting surgery to remove his right kidney. Five weeks earlier, he had received a stunning diagnosis – he had renal cell carcinoma, kidney cancer in layman’s terms.
As Yowell awaited the anesthesiologist, his surgeon, who was also a golfer, told him: “You will be ready for that World Am golf tournament in August.”
The 2018 World Am is Yowell’s first, but he used it as a driving force in his recovery from a disease that terrifies all of us.
“I set the tournament as a target,” he said. “Laying in my hospital bed, I said, ‘I’m going to go down there and compete.’”
The rehab process began almost immediately, and Yowell was ahead of schedule from the jump, attacking his recovery with a passion anyone who has played golf with him would recognize.
Four weeks after surgery, he was cleared for light work and on June 9, he returned to the course. He is playing to a 10 handicap in the World Am, his low index over the last year, but his game isn’t quite back at that level.
Yowell has been the model of consistency through three rounds, shooting 90, 90 and 89. While he hasn’t regained his length off the tee, physically, his recovery has been outstanding, but the experience has taken an emotional toll.
The 48-year-old native of Front Royal, Va., is quick to point out he was lucky. His cancer was detected early, which negated the need for either chemo or radiation, when doctors found an abnormality during a routine procedure to correct a sports hernia.
Based on how early the cancer was discovered, his chances for a complete recovery and full life are good. But no matter how good one’s odds of recovery are, cancer and the loss of an organ are life-altering events.
“In the moment, I’m very competitive but when it’s over, it’s like, ‘I’m here,’” Yowell said of his tournament experience. “When I left the course Monday, I cried. I could be dead. I think of friends who didn’t make it and how lucky I am.”
This fight isn’t Yowell’s first with an illness that left his life hanging in the balance. He struggled with addiction for years before getting sober in 2010 – his proudest achievement.
A former member of the Air Force, Yowell is now a recreation specialist at the Veterans Administration in Martinsburg, W.V., where he works with veterans, using sports and fitness to promote mental and physical wellness. Golf, pickleball, track & field, basketball you name it, Yowell either coaches or plays, leading his team into competitions across the country.
After years of preaching to the veterans he works with that “motion is medicine,” Yowell believes the lifestyle played a significant part in his recovery. He was in best shape of his life heading into the surgery, and he has doubled down on the mantra as his health has improved (he has gone boogie boarding and to the hotel gym after each tournament round).
He isn’t going to win his flight, though he will be grinding Thursday in hopes of finishing in the top 25. Yowell’s play, while occasionally frustrating, hasn’t diminished his enjoyment of the event or, more importantly, the realization of what he has overcome the last six months.
“It has blown away my expectations because of the people I’ve met and the golf,” Yowell said of the tournament. “It fuels my competitive side, and I’m out there doing it.”
To commemorate the event and as a way of saying thanks to his doctors, Yowell is having each of his playing partners sign an orange golf ball (orange is the color of kidney cancer awareness) and is going give it to his treatment team.