DALTON, Ga. — Turner Fordham’s long, beautiful strawberry blonde hair flowed with the chilling winter breeze as she stood on the practice green at Dalton Golf and Country Club.
She pulled a tuft from her mouth. She brushed the locks from her eyes. She didn’t fight the wind at all; she accepted it.
In a way, she sort of enjoyed it.
Photo by David Uchiyama/Chattanooga Times Free Press Northwest Whitfield senior Turner Fordham has been featured in Golf Digest for fighting and surving cancer.
After all, she’d spent hundreds of hours practicing on the same putting green with no hair at all. That’s what medical treatment for cancer will do to a kid.
Putting on that green, stroking golf balls on the adjacent range, saying hello to members and playing golf — sometimes for a few holes, sometimes all 18 — helped Fordham in beating cancer that doctors diagnosed five years ago.
“Golf was very important because when you’re going through treatments, you can’t go to school, can’t to go movies, can’t go out to restaurants, and you rarely get to have friends over,” she said. “Going to the golf course was one of the very few things I got to do.”
The sport stole her mind. The game temporarily shoved away the depressing thoughts, sad moments and loneliness. Golf requires concentration, and with a Nike club in Fordham’s hand, hitting the ball pure or rolling it true were the only thoughts on her mind.
“It was a chance to get out of the house, see people and be in an environment where I couldn’t get an infection,” said the Northwest Whitfield High School senior. “Without that, I would have been cooped up in the house forever. It was a way to escape everything, and that’s what added to the love for golf.”
When she was a seventh-grader, doctors at the T.C. Thompson Children’s Hospital in Chattanooga diagnosed her with lymphoblastic leukemia. Over the next 30 months she underwent 25 procedures including spinal taps, bone-marrow aspirations and radiation treatments. Her story recently reached a national audience in the monthly Golf Digest feature, “Golf Saved My Life.”
“I went through all of the struggles, and something that looked so bad has turned out good,” Fordham said. “My initial reaction was, ‘My life is about to change for the worse.’
“When I look back, there were hard times and times when I was, ‘I hate my life,’ but a lot of good things came from it, and good things are still coming from my fight.”
Folks around her school and Dalton Golf and Country Club knew of her experience from diagnosis in the fall of 2005 to her remission roughly 30 months later.
With her essay being printed in one of the sport’s premier magazines, Fordham has become a semi-celebrity. Strangers have said hello.
She is pretty strict with her Facebook page, yet dozens of people from across the country either have attempted to “friend” her or have sent direct messages of support.
“I’ve gotten some messages from people who I don’t know and they say, ‘I saw your article and thought it was great,’ and girls who I’ve played against have sent messages,” Fordham said. “People know me, but I don’t know some of them.
“I like the feeling of being able to share my story, my testimony, with other people, and I enjoy when they say something nice.”
She was multisport athlete who loved to pitch softball games and drive the lane as a basketball guard. Golf was just a pastime, something to do with her father and enjoy on vacations to the beach.
Then in middle school, cancer removed the ability for her to compete in team sports. She couldn’t risk getting sick, and medical treatments took a physical toll on her slender frame.
“I went to a few golf camps out here at the country club, but I still loved softball and basketball,” Fordham said. “When I really got into it was when I was diagnosed with cancer. Because of physical limitations, softball and basketball were too demanding. That’s when I got into golf and I really loved it.”
Golf allowed Fordham to continue participating in athletics.
“She’s not a sit-around sort of kid,” said her father, Luis Fordham. “The biggest thing she struggled with was not being normal.”
Golf provided a sense of normalcy — sometimes for an hour, sometimes for the better part of a day.
“I remember that she was out here in January and her hands were just as cold as ice,” said Lowell Fritz, director of golf at Dalton G&CC. “She never complained, and she’s worked at it ever since.”
There were days in middle school when she would wear her team uniform to T.C. Thompson Hospital for treatment in the morning, then head directly to a golf match if she felt up to it.
“I was able to play or practice when I felt like it, but when I had to stay in the hospital or was too tired, I didn’t play,” said Fordham, whose brother, Trent, is a sophomore member of the Bruins’ track and field team. “I got to play during the two and a half years of treatment a lot more than people would think.”
Success on the Southeastern Junior Golf Tour and being able to shoot 80 consistently — her best competitive round is a 76 — opened doors for her to play college golf at NCAA Division III schools.
Instead, she’s decided to attend the University of Georgia, where she’ll be a member of a traveling golf club team so she can play without the rigors and stress of being a varsity player.
But first, there is the senior season of her high school golf career. She already has one state championship, from her sophomore year, and another championship ring would make her jewelry box sparkle even more.
“Turner has done what she’s accomplished on her own,” said Jim McGrew, Northwest’s director of golf. “Because she couldn’t play the other sports, she turned to golf. Now she has a chance to go low and maybe win state.”
Being able to wear her hair in a ponytail is a victory already.
David Uchiyama is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who began his tenure here in May 2001. His primary beats are UTC athletics — specifically men’s basketball and athletic department administration — and golf, which includes coverage from the PGA Tour to youth events. He also covers other high school sports, outdoor adventures, and contributes to other sections of the newspaper when necessary. David grew up in Salinas, Calif., and began working ...