How Long Beach State sophomore beat cancer to reach No. 1 in college golf rankings
It wasn’t how Ian Gilligan envisioned starting his sophomore season; not after a promising freshman campaign in which he was runner-up at conference, and certainly not after his landmark victory at the NCGA Amateur, held only weeks earlier at famed Spyglass Hill. But there he sat, in his car on an early-September afternoon in the parking lot of Industry Hills Golf Club. He had just missed out on qualifying for Long Beach State’s fall opener by a single shot, and he was fuming.
“I didn’t say anything,” Gilligan recalled. “I was so frustrated.”
A few mornings later, though, Gilligan had re-focused. It was still dark out, and Gilligan had just dropped off his teammate, roommate Steven Deutsch, at Walter Pyramid, Long Beach State’s iconic multi-use gymnasium where those who made the travel squad for the Husky Invitational were meeting before heading to the airport.
By the time the Beach’s plane took off for Seattle, Gilligan was already on the back of the range at El Dorado Park Golf Course.
“Those days when the team was gone, I was putting in the work,” Gilligan said. “I knew things were going to turn around.”
He was right. About a month later, Gilligan had not only cracked two lineups, but he had two individual titles to his credit as well.
When the plane landed in Long Beach after Gilligan’s second victory, at Cal’s Alister Mackenzie Invitational, Gilligan and his teammates instantly fired up their cellphones and pulled up Golfstat. It was the evening of the first fall rankings reveal, and they were in for a huge surprise.
“The guys all look back at me and they’re like, ‘Holy cow, Ian’s No. 1,’” said Reilly Hegarty, the team’s interim head coach for the fall who has since returned to his assistant role following the recent hire of Rob Murray from Kansas State.
Added Gilligan: “To go from not qualifying for the first tournament to a month later seeing yourself No. 1 on Golfstat, it was pretty cool.”
In Gilligan’s case, however, it’s not even close to being the greatest comeback story in his 19 years of life.
When it comes to adversity, he’s overcome much worse.
He’s beaten cancer.
GILLIGAN WAS A PREP STANDOUT at Galena High in Reno, Nevada. As a 15-year-old freshman, he edged then-SMU bound Ollie Osborne, a future U.S. Amateur runner-up, by a shot to capture a region title before going on to finish fifth at states.
At the same time, strange health issues had started to pile up – a lump here, a sore there, followed by more serious skin problems. One lump popped up in Gilligan’s left armpit shortly before the state tournament. Gilligan initially pushed through the pain by taking Advil, but by early June, during a qualifier for Junior Worlds, he’d had enough. Doctors would remove what they initially thought was a cyst.
Further tests, though, revealed much more harrowing news: Ian Gilligan, the 15-year-old son of Grant and Julie Gilligan, had stage-4 ALK-negative large cell lymphoma.
It's a cancer usually found in the elderly and rarely in kids – just 20 or so at the time, and Ian was one of them.
“As you might expect, when you don't feel 100% and all of your tournaments for the summer have been canceled, your motivation falls off a bit,” 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 over 50 days at Renown Children’s Hospital in Reno, including 10 days in the ICU with mucositis, a side effect of the chemo, following his second cycle. He lost about 40 pounds.
But when he felt up to it, he’d play a few rounds of golf between treatment weeks.
“A lot of kids will get very depressed,” Grant Gilligan told Nevada Sports Net back in 2019. “Most of them do, especially if they don’t have an activity. … But being able to swing the club really helped him. He would tell me not to worry. That’s how brave he is.”
When Ian was 2 years old, he’d hit 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 initial post-chemo scans, shortly before Christmas, came back inconclusive, and there was the potential need for a bone marrow transplant, he remained positive. He wasn’t losing.
By the end of January, he was ringing the bell.
GILLIGAN'S FIRST TOURNAMENT BACK was in late March at the AJGA’s Sergio and Angela Garcia Foundation Junior Championship in Austin, Texas. He tied for 20th. A month later, he lost a high-school event in a scorecard playoff. And just a week after that, he eagled his final hole to win for the first time since his cancer diagnosis.
“It seemed like I was able to get back into the flow of things pretty easily,” Gilligan said. “By regionals, I felt like I was normal again.”
Gilligan went on to successfully defend his region title, by six shots, and then carded eight final-round birdies at the state championship before bogeying his last hole and losing in a playoff. That summer he won the Ellie Mae Classic Junior to receive an exemption into the Bay Area’s Korn Ferry Tour event, where he shot 4 over, beating 17 pros, including current PGA Tour player Brandon Matthews.
Ian Gilligan, 16, spent last summer enduring chemotherapy in a battle vs. anaplastic large-cell lymphoma.
This summer, he won the @EllieMaeClassic junior qualifier to earn a tee time @TPCStonebrae.#LiveUnderPar pic.twitter.com/d9AJsxSJhn
— Korn Ferry Tour (@KornFerryTour) August 2, 2019
It was an impactful stretch, winning regionals and playing with the pros just months removed from chemo. But in the moment, 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 was enticing to someone who had to worry about sun overexposure during his cancer battle.
But when Gilligan officially stepped on campus last fall, it wasn’t all sunny skies. He was unprepared for the student-athlete balance and got behind his first semester. Like this year, he failed to qualify for the season opener. He’d play three times in the fall, failing to notch a single top-15 finish, and then kicked off his spring with three straight showings of T-39 or worse.
Eventually, though, he’d settle in, capping his spring with three top-10s in four starts, including a solo second at the Big West Championship, and was named the conference’s freshman of the year.
NOT ONE TO MAKE EXCUSES, whether in golf or in life, Gilligan had a valid reason for not playing his best in that first series of qualifying this fall. It had nothing to do with his health – he still feels 100% with no lingering effects from the cancer, though he does routinely see his doctor every few months for a check-up, with an MRI scheduled for every six months. Rather Gilligan and his swing coach, George Gankas, whom he’s worked with since 2017, were trying to implement a few changes to Gilligan’s swing. They just took a little bit longer than expected to take hold.
But when Gilligan stepped on 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 himself again.”
Gilligan sank a 40-foot eagle putt on the last hole of qualifying to avoid a playoff and lay the groundwork for a 14-under tournament, which he finished in a tie for first to help the Beach win the team title as well.
The next tournament, hosted by Cal, Gilligan was a stroke better, closing in 7-under 65 to end up 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,” Hegarty said. “And it’s also impacted the rest of the team, like, OK, this is somebody I want to look up to, and if I work hard, I can get to that level.”
In the weeks that followed, any time Gilligan’s teammates would beat him in a drill or practice round, they’d shout, “I just beat the No. 1 player in college golf!” Gilligan has noticed increased outside attention as well, whether it’s being acknowledged by 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 who have overcome the stress, anxiety, and mental trauma associated with personal hardships and adversity.
“It’s always nice to get recognized,” said Gilligan, who would earn a $5,000 donation toward his school’s mental health services should he win the annual award, which his handed out at the end of the schoolyear.
But awards aren’t what fuels Gilligan. He has many goals still yet to accomplish this season. Now No. 33 in Golfstat, Gilligan is still comfortably inside his top-50 target set at the start of the fall, just behind notable names such as Ben James, Derek Hitchner and Caleb Surratt. And team-wise, Long Beach State sits No. 65, firmly on the bubble after narrowly missing out on the postseason last season.
“I would 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 fourth-ranked pro in the world, Patrick Cantlay.
No one, though, is quite like Gilligan, a 6-foot-3 economics major who wears black-rimmed glasses that he often switches out for black aviators on the course.
Hegarty recalls a funny story from the team’s early-morning bus ride to its most recent event at Cal Poly. While everyone else was sleeping on the charter, Hegarty noticed a bright light and music coming from Gilligan’s seat. Hegarty’s star player had been up playing Pokemon for four hours.
That’s Gilly, who, by the way, will then go step on a tee box and hit drives on a string.
“He’s a 19-year-old kid who just enjoys 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 went through so much,” Gilligan wrote earlier this fall, “that it gave me a perspective many people know of but don’t truly understand: To be grateful for life; living each day, one moment at a time, and being in the present and focusing on the task at hand and the task at hand alone. So, if there is anything I hope someone will take away from reading this, let it be this:
“Be kind, be present, and keep moving forward.”