Joel Dahmen: Golf’s self-deprecating everyman is a family man, motivated by memories, love and fear

Joel Dahmen: Golf’s self-deprecating everyman is a family man, motivated by memories, love and fear
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It’s mid-May, halfway through a long season, and Joel Dahmen is moving into his new pad in Scottsdale afforded to him by his consistent play and burgeoning profile. Located just a few miles from the raucous TPC, his backyard is an under-construction sports oasis with more toys and activities than he’d ever need. But these days, he’s thinking big. Bigger than himself.

This personal playground feeds right into Dahmen’s assumed reputation: uncommitted, unserious, unequivocally fun. At times, it feels like he has become a caricature – a White Claw-drinking, self-deprecating everyman who’s starring in a buddy-cop film with his caddie and best friend, Geno Bonnalie. On a tour full of arrogant alphas, Dahmen’s egoless relatability is refreshing – to the point that Netflix, in a stark departure in its star-driven docuseries, dedicated an entire episode to the 35-year-old journeyman.

The hook: his unexpected star turn at the 2022 U.S. Open. 

The title: “Imposter Syndrome”. 

“That’s actually, like, flip the ‘imposter’ back almost,” Dahmen says now, almost a year later. “Let’s just flip it around the other way.”

Because, sure, the Open was a moment. Dahmen had won on the PGA Tour before. He’d even previously top-tenned in a major. But never had he snagged the halfway lead at one of the game’s biggest events – and never had he been the center of attention like this. Over the span of four days, Netflix had its clean, neat narrative, ready to be packaged in 45 minutes: the unconfident overachiever (who almost didn’t bother trying to qualify) ended up proving himself against the top players in the game’s most tortuous test. It was TV gold, and Dahmen’s episode was widely lauded as the best of the series, a folk hero born.

But to the protagonist, at least, it felt incomplete, if not insincere. “It is better if you play the self-deprecating card, the I-suck-worse-than-everyone at tournaments, because then they’re just always cheering you on. They’re never going to say anything negative to you,” he says. “So I played right into it where I just have this following that thinks I’m just the Little Engine That Could.”

Only it’s not as simple as him underselling his talent.

“I’ve been through life and death,” he says, “and I’ve done a lot of things that are way harder than trying to compete for a golf tournament.”

So the real story isn’t whether Dahmen believes he’s good enough to win big.

It’s why, despite all of the loss and trauma and setbacks in his life, he never gave up trying.

* * *

THE GOAL WAS NEVER to claim a U.S. Open, or double-digit PGA Tour titles, or world No. 1. Growing up in Clarkston, Washington, a town of 7,500 near the Idaho border, Dahmen’s aspirations were much more modest.

“It was always just to get college paid for,” he says. “There was no benchmark for me.”

Few professional athletes have emerged from the region. There was an MMA fighter. An offensive lineman in the ’30s. A one-time WNBA player; another who toils in a Japanese basketball league. And then there’s Dahmen, a well-rounded jock who showed enough promise that his father, Ed, built the family a house near Clarkston Country Club, where his youngest son would play until dark and sharpen his scoring skills in weekly games against the members.

The Dahmens were a typical blue-collar, middle-class family: Ed first began sweeping floors at Clearwater pulp and paper mill in the valley straight out of high school and wound up working there for 38 years, while his wife, Jolyn, was a longtime kindergarten teacher. With summers off, Jolyn and Joel hit the road for tournaments, forging an unbreakable bond as they traversed thousands of miles together throughout the Pacific Northwest. Each round Jolyn dutifully tracked her son’s stats to report back home. By then Joel had established himself as one of the area’s top prospects, but to his mom, the score mattered little. If he answered affirmatively to her only post-round question – Did you try your best? – then off they’d go to Starbucks for a sweet treat.

Joel, mom Jolyn, dad Ed and brother Zach


At home, Jolyn was the glue of the family, taking care of all of Joel and brother Zach’s needs, from cooking to laundry to household chores. She was the students’ favorite teacher. The generous host for family gatherings. The life of any party. “She had it all,” Dahmen says. “I was the most spoiled kid alive.”

But one fall Friday in 2004, at the beginning of his junior year of high school, Dahmen was met at home by his parents. They sat him down, grim-faced.

“Your mom has cancer.”

Tests were ongoing to determine the severity, and Dahmen remembers crying and hugging her for 10 minutes, unable to let go. A week later, the dire prognosis was delivered: Stage-4 pancreatic cancer. Six months to live.

“When you’re a mama’s boy and you’re 16, 17 years old, it’s awful news, obviously, but I think it hit me particularly hard,” he says. “When you get that news when you’re in high school, there’s nothing you can really do.”

Just 17 at the time, he accompanied his mom to doctor’s appointments and chemotherapy sessions, witnessing the insidious disease up-close. Even as she grew weak, his mom encouraged him not to worry, not to dwell on the misfortune – to go hang out with his friends, to keep chasing his golf dreams. During the final few months of hospice care they’d lay in bed together and watch her favorite shows, “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune”. Only once has he visited her gravesite.

“That’s not where she is,” he says. “She’s with me. She’s in my heart.”

After she passed, Dahmen felt adrift. He traveled to tournaments alone, overwhelmed by grief, by the onslaught of paperwork, by the prospect of going away alone to college. For the first time, he had to learn how to take care of himself – even small, trivial things, down to making a PB&J.

“I was completely affected – so messed up that I didn’t know how messed up,” he says. “I was like a rudderless ship in the ocean. I was lost. I didn’t care about much anymore. I just didn’t really have a direction in my life.”

Dahmen had accomplished his goal – he’d earned a scholarship to powerhouse Washington – but now was in no position to capitalize on it. Despite playing every fall event his freshman season, he rarely went to class, partied like a college kid, and flunked out after one year. He worked valet at a high-end downtown hotel for beer money and briefly enrolled at a community college in a last-ditch effort to rejoin the Huskies. But it didn’t take him long to realize his heart wasn’t in it. 

“For a few years,” he says, “I was kind of floating around after that.”

A wakeup call didn’t come until spring 2011, when he was watching TV at home, his hands down his pants – and felt a lump. Immediately, he knew what it was, a familiar enemy returning. His brother had been diagnosed with testicular cancer two years earlier. His mom had endured her own battle with cancer. For two weeks he wished it away, partying like nothing was wrong, until he finally decided to head to the doctor.

“Hey, I have testicular cancer,” Dahmen announced upon arrival, explaining his family history. The doctor laughed at first and then ran some tests. The cancer was confirmed, and surgery was scheduled for two days later.

Driving home Dahmen sobbed so hard that he had to pull over. He was 23 at the time, a young pro, lost and unfocused but still enjoying life. “You don’t know how serious it is, and I just remember all of the emotions of it: If this is it, and this is the battle I’m going through, you’ve wasted the last five or six years of your life,” he says. “I had this special talent of playing golf, and I knew that I didn’t want to waste it.”

After a month of chemotherapy, Dahmen received a clean bill of health and resumed his career. He was playing the Canadian tour at the time, and after the scare he returned to the course with a fresh perspective.

“I vowed that I was going to try my best,” he says. “If my best was getting on the PGA Tour, great. If it wasn’t, that’s fine, too. But I wasn’t going to sit around and let all this just go by the wayside. I was going to find out.” 

* * * 

THE FIRST THING LONA Skutt noticed at 2 a.m. was the messy, curly hair that spilled out underneath Dahmen’s ball cap.

His chemo hair.

They were standing in line for a late-night slice in Old Town when Joel offered to buy if Lona got to the counter faster than he did. That pickup line at Gus’s was enough to get her number, he rang her a week later, and they’ve been together ever since.

Their love story never should have worked: Joel was an aspiring pro, a year into remission and trying to survive on the mini-tours; Lona was single and set to move to New York City, alone, to pursue a career in merchandising. Smitten, she never left.

“There’s definitely a line in the sand where I was surrounded by someone who made me better,” Dahmen says.

With another strong, confident, supportive female in his life, Dahmen’s play improved almost immediately. “She motivated me and pushed me to be good at what I was doing,” he says. “She wasn’t willing to just sit around.” A stranger to the golf world, Lona soon got a crash course in the realities of mini-tour life. That sponsors were the most important members of the team. That third-place finishes were little reason to celebrate. And that Q-School was a cutthroat, unforgiving hellscape.

After an encouraging season in 2013, Dahmen felt ready for a promotion, but he bombed out for the fourth time at the all-important second stage. Stuck in golf’s no-man’s land, he sank into a depression. He stayed on the couch for days. Didn’t change clothes. Didn’t shower. Didn’t clean the dishes. All while Lona was clocking 16-hour days as a cocktail waitress … as a scribe in a hospital … an assistant at a garage-door company … a sales associate for a retail store … an event planner … just to get by.

One day, around the holidays, she finally snapped.

“I don’t know if it was an ultimatum,” Lona says, “but I just looked at him and said, ‘I love you for who you are. I don’t care what you do. But you have to do something. We’ve gotta share the burden here, so get your s–t together.’”

Dahmen had about $15 in his account – for Christmas that year he bought her Tupperware – so Lona paid for him to get a lesson in the new year. The move jump-started his game during a year in which he won two of his first three starts in Canada, topped the Order of Merit and, at last, earned his way to the Korn Ferry Tour. After two years there, his persistence was rewarded in 2016 when he graduated to the big show, earning the final card by $975. It’s been his competitive home ever since.

“I think I’ve always just believed in Joel,” Lona says. “He has always said that if I can make it to the PGA Tour, I fully believe I can stay on the PGA Tour. His confidence in himself, and his willingness to bet on himself, makes it easy to stand behind somebody on that.

“I guess I just had a gut feeling that he meant it and was gonna do it, and so you make all the sacrifices to make the dream a reality and just hope for the best. He didn’t have a plan B, and I was OK with that because I don’t think you need a plan B unless plan A fails. And plan A didn’t fail.”

* * *

IT WAS HARDLY A concern at 23, but more than a decade removed from his diagnosis, Dahmen was starting to grapple with the long-term complications of his medical history. Testicular cancer survivors were more likely to develop long-term health effects – and in many cases, that meant infertility.

Dahmen always knew he wanted to be a father. He’d thought about the dad he aspired to be, and how it looked a lot like his own father: the one who worked and loved hard, who sacrificed everything for his children’s success, who coached him in T-ball and basketball, who played golf with him on those endless summer nights. 

Struggling privately for years, Joel and Lona searched for answers and tried multiple rounds of in vitro fertilization. Lona endured all of the needles and medications and hormones, and as a couple, they experienced the wave of emotions familiar to so many families: excitement, anxiousness, disappointment, determination.

They had scheduled another IVF implant the week before the 2022 PGA Championship. Dahmen was the first alternate at Southern Hills, but he thought about withdrawing to be with his wife for the crucial blood test. “We knew we at least wanted to be together,” Lona says, “because it’s not a great day if it goes the other way.”

But once Dahmen got the call on Monday of tournament week, she told him to pack for Tulsa and play: “It’s a major. And we don’t skip majors.” Lona found a lab in the area and booked an appointment for first-thing Thursday – the morning of the opening round.

Dahmen was last off, 3:42 p.m., which afforded Lona plenty of time to concoct a plan. At first, she thought about staying at the hotel all day – with one look, good or bad, she could doom her husband’s play – but decided she could use the emotional support. While Joel was in the physical therapy trailer, getting worked on before the round, Lona was “biting all my nails off” in family dining. Finally, about an hour before his tee time, Lona received the call from the doctor. She tracked down her hubby’s whereabouts and burst through the doors of the PT trailer with tears in her eyes. Happy tears.

“It was the coolest moment ever,” Joel says. “I still get choked up about it because it was such a hard process, especially for her.” 

“There were some tough moments,” Lona says, “but I found that I can do hard things. It’s what I keep telling myself.”

All Dahmen wanted was a celebratory beer, but his PGA was about to begin. He floated to the first tee, smoked a drive down the fairway and then hit a terrible wedge that finished a foot from the cup. For a moment, he thought some mysterious and wonderful forces were at work. “I was like, I’m winning the PGA this year!” he says. Reality set in soon after that (he missed the cut), but a month later, he authored his star-making performance at Brookline, where he shared the 36-hole lead and finished in a tie for 10th – the Netflix cameras rolling the entire time.

Over his career a curious pattern has emerged between Dahmen’s upcoming life events and his results. He played well before his wedding. Before he moved into a new house. Before his first child, Riggs, arrived in January. And it’s likely no coincidence.

“A lot of his motivation comes down to him wanting to feel like he’s been successful and setting his family up for a good future,” Lona says. “It’s having smaller goals to get to where you want to be in life, and I think Riggs is a big motivator now. He wants to give Riggs the life that he has in his mind.”

A vision that is starting to become clearer.

* * * 

THIS GILDED LIFE ISN’T going to last forever, and Dahmen is the first to acknowledge that competitive reality. He’s a one-time Tour winner who has never cracked the top 50 in the world or reached the Tour Championship. He’s middle-aged, athletically, and possesses a solid-if-unspectacular skill set. He plays a sport that is skewing younger and more powerful. And he competes on an aspirational tour that once catered to the rank-and-file but is now being overrun by swaggering, hypercompetitive, legacy-driven assassins.

“The Joel Dahmens of the PGA Tour, we’re a dying breed,” he says, “and we’re dying quickly out there.”

So why, then, has he stuck around this long – seven years and counting – if he’s supposedly so unmotivated, so uncommitted, so riddled with self-doubt?

“As much as people think I’m self-deprecating and I don’t believe in myself – I almost have a fear of not being on the PGA Tour. I have a fear of losing my job,” he says. “It’s somewhere deep inside me. I want to do this until I’m 45; I don’t want to have to get a real job. I want to be able to provide for my family and don’t want them to ever worry about anything. But I’m going to have to push myself these next five, seven, eight years if I want to last out here.”

That timeline would be just long enough to provide the idyllic family life that he once enjoyed – before things got complicated.

Dahmen says he hasn’t really considered how the loss and trauma that shaped his formative years will affect the way he now parents. But his wife has. “Being through what he’s been through, it makes it even more important to be present and to soak up every moment,” Lona says. “He wants to be super involved. The simplest joy is being with your kids. I think he’s striving for that.”

Now that he’s a parent himself, Dahmen finds himself thinking often about his mom. How amazing of a grandmother she’d be to Riggs. How she’d follow the sun with them on Tour. How much fun he’d have spoiling her with the lavish dinners and fun excursions she never had growing up.

Last fall, Dahmen penned a beautiful tribute to his mom that ran on the Players Tribune website. With his profile growing, he wanted the world to know how special she was and what she meant to him. But the story also read as personal affirmation – a reminder that he’s a helluva lot tougher than he’s often given credit for.

The loss. The trauma. The failure. 

The doubt, fear, love.

All of it.

“Each person was built for this,” Dahmen says. “Life isn’t gonna throw any more at you than you can’t already handle.” 

Back in his living room in Scottsdale, his work-life balance is once again on display: contractors arriving every 10 minutes, Riggs testing out his vocal cords, an afternoon range session during another long year on Tour. Dahmen unhooks his mic and the whole family waves goodbye, little Riggs swinging cheerfully in Lona’s arms. After two hours away, there was much to check on, beginning with the crews outside crafting his desert paradise. His vision for his family’s future was coming together. But it was far from complete.

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