How Long Beach State beat sophomore cancer to reach No. 1 in the college golf rankings

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It wasn’t how Ian Gilligan envisioned starting his second season; not after a promising freshman campaign that saw him finish second in conference, and certainly not after his landmark win at the NCGA Amateur, held just weeks earlier at the famed Spyglass Hill. But there he was, in his car on an early September afternoon in the Industry Hills Golf Club parking lot. He had just missed qualifying for Long Beach State’s fall opener by a single shot, and he was furious.

“I didn’t say anything,” Gilligan recalled. “I was so frustrated.”

But a few mornings later, Gilligan had refocused. It was still dark outside and Gilligan had just dropped off his teammate, roommate Steven Deutsch, at Walter Pyramid, Long Beach State’s iconic multi-purpose gymnasium where those who made the travel team for the Husky Invitational met before heading to the airport.

By the time the plane left the beach for Seattle, Gilligan was already at the back of the range at El Dorado Park Golf Course.

“The days when the team was gone, I did the work,” said Gilligan. “I knew things would change.”

He was right. About a month later, Gilligan had not only cracked two lineups, but he also had two individual titles to his credit.

When the plane landed in Long Beach after Gilligan’s second win, at Cal’s Alister Mackenzie Invitational, Gilligan and his teammates immediately started up their cell phones and stopped Golfstat. It was the night of the unveiling of the first fall rankings and they were in for a big surprise.

“The guys all look at me and say, ‘Holy cow, Ian’s number 1,'” said Reilly Hegarty, the team’s interim head coach for the fall, who has since returned to his assistant role following the recent hiring of Rob Murray from the state of Kansas.

Gilligan added: “It was pretty cool going from not qualifying for the first tournament to seeing yourself number 1 on Golfstat a month later.”

However, in Gilligan’s case, it doesn’t even come close to being the best comeback story in his 19-year life.

When it comes to adversity, he has overcome much worse.

He beat cancer.

Gilligan

GILLIGAN WAS A PREP STANDOUT at Galena High in Reno, Nevada. As a 15-year-old freshman, he defeated then-SMU-bound Ollie Osborne, a future American amateur runner-up, by a shot at capturing a region title before finishing fifth in the states.

At the same time, strange health problems started piling up – a lump here, a sore there, followed by more serious skin problems. Shortly before the state tournament, a lump popped up in Gilligan’s left armpit. Gilligan initially pushed through the pain by taking Advil, but in early June, during a Junior Worlds qualifier, he had had enough. Doctors would remove what they initially thought was a cyst.

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However, further tests revealed much more distressing news: Ian Gilligan, the 15-year-old son of Grant and Julie Gilligan, had stage 4 ALK-negative large cell lymphoma.

It is a cancer usually found in the elderly and rarely in children – then only about twenty years old, and Ian was one of them.

“As you would expect, if you’re not feeling 100% and all your tournaments are canceled for the summer, your motivation kind of drops,” Gilligan posted on Instagram on July 26, just over a month after he first shared his diagnosis with his followers.

“… It’s going to be a tough five months, but I’m not going to lose it!”

Gilligan underwent seven rounds of chemotherapy and spent more than 50 days at Renown Children’s Hospital in Reno, including 10 days in the ICU with mucositis, a side effect of the chemo, after his second cycle. He lost about 40 pounds.

Gilligan

Gilligan

But if he felt like it, he would play a few rounds of golf between treatment weeks.

“A lot of kids are going to be very depressed,” Grant Gilligan told me Nevada sports net in 2019. “Most of them do, especially if they have no activity. … But being able to swing the club really helped him. He would tell me not to worry. He is that brave.”

When Ian was 2 years old, he had been hitting golf balls with a kitchen spoon, and not long after, Grant Gilligan would have to pull his son off the driving range, kicking and screaming.

But when it came to battling cancer, Ian never complained.

Even when his first post-chemo scans, shortly before Christmas, were inconclusive and a bone marrow transplant might be needed, he remained positive. He wasn’t losing.

At the end of January, he rang the bell.

GILLIGAN’S FIRST TOURNAMENT BACK was at the AJGA’s Sergio and Angela Garcia Foundation Junior Championship in Austin, Texas, in late March. He was tied for 20e. A month later, he lost a high school event in a scorecard playoff. And just a week after that, he hit his final hole to win for the first time since his cancer diagnosis.

“It seemed like I could get back into the flow of things pretty easily,” said Gilligan. “Regionals made me feel normal again.”

Gilligan then successfully defended his regional title, with six shots, then carded eight birdies in the final round at the state championship before bogeying his final hole and losing in a playoff. That summer, he won the Ellie Mae Classic Junior to earn an exemption to the Korn Ferry Tour event in the Bay Area, where he shot 4 over and beat 17 pros, including current PGA Tour player Brandon Matthews.

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It was an impressive stretch, winning regionals and playing with the pros just months away from chemo. But at the time, Gilligan admits, he didn’t realize the magnitude of his accomplishments.

“For me, I was just playing golf,” he says, “and excited that everything was back to normal.”

And like most normal kids with elite golf talent, he signed on to play collegiately, choosing Long Beach State over Illinois. One of the deciding factors for Gilligan? Unsurprisingly, the warm weather appealed to someone who had to worry about overexposure to the sun while battling cancer.

But when Gilligan officially stepped onto campus last fall, it wasn’t all sunny. He was unprepared for the student-athlete balance and was behind on his first semester. Just like this year, he failed to qualify for the season opener. He would play three times in the fall, failing to get a single top-15 finish, and started his spring with three straight showings of T-39 or worse.

However, he would eventually settle in and finish his spring with three top-10s in four starts, including a solo runner-up at the Big West Championship, and was named conference freshman of the year.

Gilligan

Gilligan

NOT MAKE ONE EXCUSES, whether in golf or in life, Gilligan had a valid reason not to play his best in that first qualifying series this fall. It had nothing to do with his health – he still feels 100% with no lasting effects from the cancer, although he routinely sees his doctor every few months for a checkup, with an MRI scheduled every six months. Gilligan and his swing coach, George Gankas, who he’s been working with since 2017, previously tried to make a few changes to Gilligan’s swing. It just took a little longer than expected to catch on.

But when Gilligan stepped onto the first tee for the team’s next qualifier, this time for the Nick Watney Invitational in Kingsburg, California, Hegarty and his players could tell, “Gilly was starting to feel like herself again.”

Gilligan sank a 40-foot eagle putt on the final hole of qualifying to avoid a playoff and lay the foundations for a 14-under tournament, which he finished first to help the Beach as well to win the team title.

The next tournament, hosted by Cal, Gilligan was one stroke better, finishing 7-under 65 to eventually become a five-shot winner at 15 under. Hours later, he was the top-ranked golfer in Division I.

“For Ian, the ranking was a cool way for him to see that all his hard work is really paying off,” said Hegarty. “And it also affected the rest of the team, like Okay, this is someone I want to look up to, and if I work hard I can reach that level.”

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In the weeks that followed, Gilligan’s teammates would yell at him every time they beat him during a drill or practice round, “I just beat the No. 1 player in college golf!” Gilligan has also noticed increased outside attention, whether it’s recognition from his classmates, more interview requests, or awards — last week, Gilligan received the monthly CalHOPE Courage Award, which honors student-athletes at California colleges and universities that having overcome stress, anxiety and mental trauma associated with personal hardship and adversity.

“It’s always nice to be recognized,” said Gilligan, who would earn a $5,000 donation to his school’s mental health system if he won the annual award, which he would present at the end of the school year.

But accolades aren’t what fuels Gilligan. He still has a lot of goals to accomplish this season. Now number 33 in Golfstat, Gilligan is still comfortably within his top-50 target he set at the start of the fall, just behind notable names like Ben James, Derek Hitchner and Caleb Surratt. And team-wise, Long Beach State sits at No. 65, sitting firmly on the bubble after just missing the postseason last season.

“I’d be shocked if we didn’t make regionals this year,” said Gilligan, who heads a roster that includes sophomore Isaac Rodea and freshman Jack Cantlay, the younger brother of the world’s fourth-ranked pro, Patrick Cantlay .

However, no one is quite like Gilligan, a six-foot-tall economy major who wears black-rimmed glasses that he often swaps for black aviators on the track.

Hegarty recalls a funny story from the team’s early morning bus ride to the most recent event at Cal Poly. While everyone else on the charter slept, Hegarty noticed a bright light and music emanating from Gilligan’s chair. Hegarty’s star player had been playing Pokemon for four hours.

That’s Gilly, standing on a tee box by the way and hitting drives on a string.

“He’s a 19-year-old kid just enjoying life and golf,” Hegarty said. “When you think of young golfers who just love the game and want to see how good they can get, Ian is the best example I can think of.”

And when it comes to backstories, few are as inspiring as this one.

“I’ve been through so much,” Gilligan wrote earlier this fall, “that it gave me a perspective that many people know but don’t really understand: to be thankful for life; living every day, moment by moment, being in the present and focusing on the task at hand and the task alone. So if there’s anything I hope someone reads, let it be this:

“Be kind, be present and keep moving forward.”