Long Beach State golfer overcame cancer, now tops national rankings

Golfers aren’t exactly known for their calisthenic prowess, but stretching changed Long Beach State golfer Ian Gilligan’s life.

Gilligan, now 19, was a freshman in high school competing at a tournament in Texas when he felt something strange.

“I tried to stretch but under my left armpit wouldn’t stretch as far as normal, and I was like, ‘That’s kind of weird,’” Gilligan said.

The discomfort turned into pain later that year, and Gilligan went to the hospital for tests that revealed he had lymphoma.

“I was shocked, as anyone would be,” Gilligan said. “I was a little bit scared, but I just wanted to know: What happens now?”

What happened next was the road to recovery and a bright future back on the golf course. Gilligan was eventually deemed cancer-free, and now the Cal State Long Beach sophomore is a top-ranked golfer in the nation.

“There is no doubt that cancer enhanced his love of the game and in enjoying what he does everyday,” said Gilligan’s dad, Grant Gilligan. “We’ve also gotten a lot of feedback that his story has been an inspiration for others.”

Ian Gilligan, a Reno native, started going to the driving range with his parents when he was 2-years-old and quickly fell in love with the game.

“I liked being out and hitting balls,” he said. “I don’t know what it was exactly, but I just enjoyed the feeling of hitting a really good shot.”

“Ian would run back and forth from the range to the green and back,” his father said. “Every time we’d leave he’d be screaming and yelling because he wanted to stay.”

That dedication to practice made the younger Gilligan more confident, and he was entering tournaments before he was 10.

“My short game was always my strong suit,” he said. “In our backyard growing up we had a putting green and I spent a lot of time just chipping and putting.”

Grant Gilligan thinks that his son’s overall demeanor also helped him handle the mental aspects of golf.

“He never has a negative thing to say about anyone,” he said. “He just never goes there. That makes him a natural team player. He’s always been well respected and liked.”

Ian Gilligan flourished at Galena High, where he won three Nevada 5A regional invitational championships while competing in outside junior golf events. He didn’t even miss a high school season while going through six different cycles of chemotherapy over seven months.

“Golf was put in the rear view mirror,” he said. “I stopped playing because I wasn’t able to because of the pain. But being able to swing the club again made me excited, and going back out and playing with my friends helped me feel normal again. Everyday I’m grateful for what I’m able to play golf, and obviously to be alive.”

Much like the way a good golfer won’t let one bad shot or round turn into another, he added that the key to overcoming an illness at such a young age was taking it one step at a time.

“You can get in a bad head space when you’re thinking about survival rate or whatever,” he said. “I did a good job of thinking, ‘What am I going to do in the next hour?’ and just keep yourself doing something. That was golf for me.”

The cancer survivor’s love and dedication to the game earned him a spot at Long Beach State, where he was named Big West Freshman of the Year last season. This year, top tournament finishes earned him the No. 1-ranking golfer in the nation last month, per GolfStat.com. He is currently ranked No. 33.

“It’s thrilling as a parent to see your child orchestrate a plan and execute that plan and have success us great,” his father said. “It’s like the Wright Brothers getting a plane off the ground, like what a relief.”

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