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

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Long Beach State Athletics

This is not how Ian Gilligan imagined the beginning of the second season; not after a promising freshman campaign in which he finished second in the conference, and certainly not after his landmark victory at the NCGA Amateur, held just a few weeks earlier at the famous Spyglass Hill. But here he was, sitting in his car on an early September afternoon in the parking lot of the Industry Hills Golf Club. He had just missed qualifying for first place at Long Beach State with one shot and he was furious.

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

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However, a few days later, Gilligan focused again. It was still dark outside, and Gilligan had just dropped off his teammate, roommate Steven Deutsch, at the Walter Pyramid, Long Beach State’s iconic multi-purpose gym where those who made up the Husky Invitational touring team gathered before heading to the airport.

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By the time Beach’s plane took off for Seattle, Gilligan was already at the end of the course at the El Dorado Park golf course.

“In the days when there was no team, I put in the work,” Gilligan said. “I knew things would turn around.”

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

When the plane touched down in Long Beach after Gilligan’s second win at Cal’s Alister Mackenzie Invitational, Gilligan and his teammates immediately turned on their cell phones and called the golfstat. It was the evening of the announcement of the first fall rating, and they were in for a huge surprise.

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

Gilligan added, “Going from not qualifying for the first tournament to seeing myself #1 on Golfstat a month later was pretty cool.”

However, in Gilligan’s case, it’s not even close to being the greatest comeback story in his 19 years of life.

When it comes to adversity, he overcomes much worse.

He beat cancer.


GILLIGAN WAS A GREAT PREPARER at Galena High in Reno, Nevada. As a 15-year-old freshman, he passed then-SMU member Ollie Osborne, future U.S. amateur runner-up, by a single shot to capture the regional title and went on to finish fifth in the states.

At the same time, strange health problems began to pile up – a bump here, an ulcer there, and then more severe skin problems. Shortly before the state tournament, Gilligan developed a bump under his left armpit. At first, Gilligan overcame the pain by taking Advil, but by early June, during the Junior World Championship qualifiers, he had had enough. Doctors removed what they initially thought was a cyst.

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

This is a cancer that usually occurs in older people and rarely in children – only about 20 years old at the time, and Yang was one of them.

“As you might expect, when you don’t feel 100% and all your summer tournaments are cancelled, your motivation drops a bit,” Gilligan wrote on Instagram on July 26, just over a month after he first shared his diagnosis with by their followers.

“… It’s going to be a difficult 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 intensive care unit for mucositis, a side effect of chemotherapy, after his second cycle. He lost about 40 pounds.



But when he felt ready, he played a few rounds of golf between weeks of treatment.

“Many kids get depressed,” said Grant Gilligan. Nevada Sports Network back in 2019. “Most of them do it, especially if they are not active. … But being able to swing the stick helped him a lot. He would tell me not to worry. That’s how brave he is.”

When Ian was 2 years old, he hit golf balls with a kitchen spoon, and soon after, Grant Gilligan had to drag his son from the driving range, kicking and screaming.

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

Even when his initial post-chemo scan, shortly before Christmas, failed and a potential need for a bone marrow transplant arose, he remained positive. He didn’t lose.

By the end of January, he was already ringing the bell.

GILLIGAN’S FIRST TOURNAMENT IS RETURNING was at the end of March at the Sergio and Angela Garcia AJGA Foundation Junior Championships in Austin, Texas. He tied for 20th. A month later, he lost his high school playoff competition. And just a week after that, he won his last hole, the first time since he was diagnosed with cancer.

“It seemed like I was able to get back into the flow of things pretty easily,” Gilligan said. “Across the regions, I felt normal again.”

Gilligan successfully defended his regional title with six shots and then hit eight birdies in the final round at the state championship before losing his last hole and losing in the playoffs. That summer, he won the Ellie Mae Classic Junior to gain an exemption from the Korn Ferry Tour in the Bay Area, where he hit 4 shots, defeating 17 pros, including current PGA Tour player Brandon Matthews.

It was an impressive stretch, winning regionals and playing against the pros just a few months before chemo. But at that moment, Gilligan admits, he did not realize the magnitude of his achievements.

“As for me, I just played golf,” he says, “and I’m glad that everything is back to normal.”

And, like most normal kids with elite golf talent, he signed up for the team game, choosing Long Beach over Illinois. One of the deciding factors for Gilligan? Not surprisingly, the warm weather attracted a man who had to worry about excessive sun exposure while battling cancer.

But when Gilligan officially entered campus last fall, the skies weren’t all sunny. He was unprepared for student-athlete balance and fell behind his first semester. Like this year, he failed to qualify for the season opener. He played three times in the fall, failing to hit the top 15 once, and then started his spring with three consecutive T-39 performances or worse.

Eventually, however, he settled in, finishing his spring with three top 10s in four starts, including a solo runner-up at the Big West Championships, and was named Conference Freshman of the Year.


Long Beach State Athletics

NOT ONE TO DO APOLOGIESWhether in golf or in life, Gilligan had a good reason for not showing his best result in that first qualifying series this fall. It had nothing to do with his health – he still feels 100%, he has no lingering effects of cancer, although he regularly visits his doctor every few months for check-ups, and an MRI is scheduled every six months. Rather, Gilligan and his swing coach George Guncas, with whom he has been working since 2017, have been trying to make a few changes to Gilligan’s swing. It just took them a little longer than expected to gain a foothold.

But when Gilligan stepped on the first jersey for the team’s next qualifier, this time for the Nick Watney Invitational in Kingsburg, Calif., Hegarty and his players could say, “Gilliy started feeling good again.”

Gilligan hit a 40-foot eagle on the last hole of qualifying to avoid the playoffs and set the stage for the under-14 tournament, which he finished with a tie for first place, which also helped Beach win the tag team title.

In the next tournament organized by Cal, Gilligan was a shot better, closing out at 7-under-65 to eventually emerge as a five-shot winner in 15th. In a few hours he became the best golfer in the first division.

“For Ian, the rating was a great way to see that all of his hard work is really paying off,” Hegarty said. “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.“.

In the weeks that followed, every time teammates beat Gilligan in a drill or practice round, they yelled, “I just beat the number one player in college golf!” Gilligan has also noticed increased attention from outside, whether it’s recognition from his classmates, new interview requests or awards – last week Gilligan received the monthly CalHOPE Courage Award, which honors California college and university student athletes who have overcome stress. anxiety and mental trauma associated with personal difficulties and hardships.

“It’s always nice to be recognized,” said Gilligan, who will earn a $5,000 donation to his school’s mental health services if he wins the annual award he presented at the end of the school year.

But awards don’t feed Gilligan. He still has a lot of goals that he has not yet reached this season. Now ranked 33rd by Golfstat, Gilligan is still comfortably within his top 50 goal set in early fall, just behind big names like Ben James, Derek Hitchner and Caleb Surratt. And in the team plan, Long Beach State is ranked 65th, firmly on the bubble after narrowly missing the playoffs last season.

“I would be shocked if we didn’t compete in regionals this year,” said Gilligan, who tops a list that includes sophomore Isaac Rodea and freshman Jack Cantley, the younger brother of the fourth-place pro.


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