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'It saved my life.' How golf helped ex-Nevada baseball star Adam Whitt battle cancer

Adam Whitt has turned to golf as his main athletic focus. (Handout)

Adam Whitt's life was turned upside down a couple of years ago after being told he had cancer.

“It definitely puts things in perspective pretty quick,” the Nevada baseball alum said. “I went from being a professional athlete playing pro baseball being super healthy to basically not knowing what the future held as far as if I was going to make it another week or another day or what type of cancer I had.”

Whitt was told by doctors he was battling Chronic Myeloid Leukemia, a type of cancer that starts in certain blood-forming cells of the bone marrow.

"I was having a tough time, like most people being done playing baseball and getting back into real life, figuring out what I was going to do after that and all those worries,” Whitt said. “Everything kind of went by the wayside. When you get diagnosed with leukemia and you're just trying to make it to the next day, it literally went from, ‘OK, what am I doing? You know, what's my five-year plan, my one-year plan, my 10-year plan’ to 'I'm just trying to make it to the next day.'"

According to the American Cancer Society, roughly one in 526 people will get CML in their lifetime. In the United States, the average age at diagnosis is 64 years. So for Whitt, 28 years young, a professional athlete, to be diagnosed with CML, the chances of being diagnosed was rare.

“The every day grind can get kind of tough, whether it's work or relationships or whatever it is,” Whitt said. "It just put all those things into perspective. (But) there's always someone that has it a little bit tougher. And it's the same with me. I mean, when I go up to the Huntsman Cancer Institute and do my blood draws and everything like that, I get reminded of that every day that I'm lucky, even with the side effects that I'm dealing with. I'm lucky to be responding to the chemo that I'm doing.”

While Whitt made his name in Northern Nevada first as a star baseball player for Carson High before going from walk-on to lights-out closer for the Wolf Pack, it's been another sport that has helped him get through his cancer diagnosis. Golf has been one of Whitt's respites in recent years as he's become one of the nation's longest drivers.

“Golf was kind of the first thing that I picked up right after baseball,” said Whitt, who played for two seasons in the Astros organization. “I'd always kind of messed around with it, go into the range when I was younger, maybe getting out and playing one or two rounds here and there. But I never really took it seriously. I never really knew all the full rules of golf, how to actually play holes and all that type of stuff. I just messed around. But after I got done and moved out here to Salt Lake City, I went out, played, got hooked up with a couple of guys that had turned local tour pros around here.

"They took me under their wing and started teaching me the game and I fell in love with it. And my dad's always been a really big golfer, so that was something pretty easy to bond over getting me back into it. My brother played golf in high school instead of baseball, so everyone else in my family was already on board with it and I was just a little bit later to it. It’s definitely something that has a longer life span than baseball. I guess you could say I can play and do this for basically the rest of my life where baseball and basketball, some of those other sports, they kind of have a limited time to get into that.”

Whitt's longest drive is 427 yards, which ranks in the top 20 in the country, and his ball head speed sits between 190 and 200 miles per hour, an elite range, especially for an amateur. It was a long-drive qualifier that put Whitt on the map, and now he's trying to go pro in the sport.

“From the first time I went to the range after I got done playing baseball, I always had the distance,” Whitt said. “I hit it really far. I knew that it was further than most people, but I didn't know how far it really was. I was playing with other baseball players, and baseball players are notorious for being able to hit it pretty far. So I was like, 'Yeah, I hit it farther than some of these guys, but I don't know how far that really is.'"

That's when one of his friends in Salt Lake convinced him to go to a long-drive competition. Whitt showed up with his normal driver and was cranking the ball 375 to 380 yards.

"One of the other guys that was sponsored by Krank, which is the main sponsor for long drive, they make long drive drivers and all that stuff, he came over and was, like, ‘Dude, you got to use one of these long drive drivers. It's 48 inches. It's a little longer, a little bit stiffer shaft, four degree face and you'll get some extra distance.’ I said, ‘OK.’ On the next round, when I went out there, the first one that I hit, it was 427 right out into the middle of the grid and no one else had hit one over 400 yet. It was my first instinct of maybe there's more to this golf and kind of long drive than I originally thought of just going out and playing with my buddies once a week.”

Whitt admits getting a late start in golf comes with challenges, but he said with lessons, the right mentors and his competitiveness will to persevere, he’s confident in his ability to succeed.

“I've been able to kind of pick up things a little bit easier than most people would, which I've been super grateful for all the help," Whitt said. "It's exciting. I think my experience with baseball, at least on the competitive side and being able to take lessons I've learned from there has really helped me as far as seeing where I can go with golf. I always tell people there's a lot better golfers out there still, and I completely understand. I've been on the pro side of sports before, but I think that my competitive edge and mental state that I've been put in those situations before and a lot of these other guys coming out of college don’t. That's where I have my advantage is the mental side of the game for sure.”

Whitt said golf has "helped save my life." He's had to adjust to life with cancer, which is no easy transition. But his chemotherapy sessions are going well and he's feeling good despite being told he'd have to battle the deadly disease for the rest of his life.

“The beginning stages, it's literally just life and death type of scenario,” Whitt said. “Whatever they told me I had to do, whether it was bone marrow biopsies and blood tests every day and taking more aggressive chemotherapy, just stuff like that, I was willing to do whatever it was because I knew I wasn't done yet. I'd just gotten married, just getting ready to start my real life outside of baseball. And so that first little bit, it was tough. I was down to about 165 pounds from my normal 215 pounds. That was during baseball. And now I've got that weight back and stuff. But, you lose a lot of strength, a lot of energy. It's tough to go from working out five to six days a week to, 'I'm trying just to get out and walk around the block with my wife just to get some physical activity.' And most days, I didn't even want to do it, but she still got me out there to do it."

Whitt had tried to keep a positive attitude after the diagnosis, adding his wife, Sara, has been one of the main reasons he's been able to stay optimistic.

“She's been amazing,” Whitt said. “She's been the number one supporter. She went to pharmacy school and got her Doctor of Pharmacy. This was all during her last year of pharmacy school that I was getting diagnosed and going through this. And she was able to take care of me and still get it done at school and finish her goal, which I'm so proud of her for accomplishing that. To be my caregiver when I'm not feeling good, having a really tough day, still getting me out to go on that walk because she knows it's going to be good for me. She knows I need it, whether it's mentally or physically and just every day little things around the house."

In addition to his wife's support, golf has been there for Whitt, too. He has become an instructor at Golf The Round, a course in south Salt Lake. And Whitt isn't putting limitations on what he can accomplish in the sport as he tries to get into Korn Ferry events, the minor-league tour in the U.S.

“I decided to join the PGA of America and become a teaching professional at a golf course,” Whitt said. “So I turned pro, took the qualifying test for the PGA and got into the PGA program. Now I'm working at the golf course teaching during the week and some of the weekends, just helping grow the game and get more people involved because golf is amazing. It's helped me save my life, and I want other kids and other people to be able to do that, too."

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