“You Have to Keep Working”: The Life and Legacy of Heather Farr

You remember her smile.

We lost former LPGA Tour player Heather Farr to breast cancer in 1993. She was 28, which means she’s been gone more years now than she was with us. For those who knew her, the impression Heather made still sticks – a 5’1” firebrand with a shock of thick, black hair, an impossibly genuine laugh, boundless grit and the dichotomy of a sweet disposition and irascible determination. But you could not forget that smile, broad and natural, with cheekbones so high they bent sunlight.

As time passes, certain moments hit you. When Liz Nagel made her impassioned acceptance speech after winning the Heather Farr Perseverance Award at the Rolex LPGA Awards in November – “Our struggles do not define us, but they do prove how strong we are” – it dawned on me that none of the recent recipients ever met Heather. She is a name and an art-directed face on bas-relief. There are ideals outlined in the award description – hard work, determination, fighting spirit – all traits Heather displayed in full. But they aren’t the whole person. She was so much more.

It is up to those of us who knew her to keep the rest alive.

“I never met (Heather) but I know a lot of people who knew her,” said 2017 Heather Farr Perseverance Award recipient Tiffany Joh, now the assistant women’s golf coach at the University of Southern California. “I know her sister, Missy Farr, who is coaching at Arizona State University now. I know Missy really well. And even though I didn’t know Heather I feel like I did. I know how beloved she was.

“The things that people who knew her say about her are the things you hope that people will say about you. Her attitude, her positivity, her outlook on life, how fiercely competitive she was: she’s the kind of person who, character wise, you aspire to be.”

She was all of that and more. As a kid, Heather had a maturity and a mindset that set her apart. Perhaps it was where she grew up, the desert of Arizona when towns like Scottsdale and Tempe were whistle-stops on dusty train lines. Her father, Jerry, was an Air Force veteran and rodeo cowboy, so terms like “rough stock,” “rank bull” and “buckin’ bronco” were as much a part of her vocabulary as “birdie putt” and “backspin.”

Cowboy kids get old young. Most can tie a lasso before their shoestrings. They also toughen up by the time they can walk. Heather fit her time and place perfectly.

She won the first of her record 10 Arizona Women’s Amateur titles at age 13. That same year, she also made the cut in the LPGA Tour’s Phoenix stop, putting her on the map as one of the best up-and-coming players in the game.

Her attitude also caught a lot of people’s attention. When she was 11, she and Billy Mayfair were paired together in a local junior event. Mayfair was not at all pleased about getting stuck with the girl. At one point, he made the mistake of walking in front of Heather as she was in the middle of her backswing. The ball nailed Mayfair in the stomach. He never ignored her again.

In the infancy of the American Junior Golf Association, she would travel across the country on her own, finding her seat in coach and catching a courtesy shuttle like a seasoned pro. At a junior event at Innisbrook Resort in Tarpon Springs, Florida in the early 1980s, a young Billy Andrade attempted to impress Heather with his basketball dribbling skills in the hotel. She smiled and shook her head, having none of it. Finally, she told Andrade to pass her the ball, which she promptly spun on her index finger. Anything you can do I can do better.

“Early in the days of the AJGA, I put together this program called Kids Involving Kids, or KIKs,” said former University of South Carolina golf coach Puggy Blackmon, who was one of the first wave of employees at the AJGA in the late 70s.

KIKs was a precursor to entry-level junior programs like LPGA*USGA Girls Golf and PGA Junior League. “I kicked the program off out in Arizona at an event with Heather and (her younger sister) Missy,” Blackmon said. “The idea was to get kids who were Junior All-Americans (which Heather was) engaged and encouraging younger kids to get into the game.”

Blackmon and his wife stayed with the Farr family where Puggy and Jerry drank Red Stripe beer and solved the world’s problems.

“We had 300 kids show up for that event,” Blackmon said. “Heather and Missy put on a show for them. They were young, too. Heather was in her teens, but Missy couldn’t have been more than 9.”

Heather graduated from high school a year early in 1982. She would later be inducted into the National High School Hall of Fame. Only two other golfers were in that Hall – Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. That summer, she captured the U.S. Girls’ Junior, defeating Caroline Kreggi 2 and 1 at Greeley Country Club in Colorado.

“Our ‘little sister’ was as mighty with her fight against cancer as she was on the course,” said LPGA Hall of Fame member Hollis Stacy. “She and I were U.S. Girls’ champions, so we shared that bond as well. Then my mom, Tillie, served on the USGA Girls’ Committee so our sisterhood was enhanced. I still keep in touch with her sister, Missy, the head women’s golf coach at ASU.

“Heather was a fierce competitor. You could see it in her walk. She was sweet as heck, but a fierce competitor.”

It wasn’t quite a swagger, although you could be forgiven for calling it that. Long strides with a bullseye determination, Heather didn’t so much walk as stalk, a mountain lion in pleated shorts and a high-brimmed visor.

At 18, she was low amateur in the 1983 U.S. Women’s Open at Broken Arrow Country Club outside Tulsa, Okla. She finished 11th overall in that championship.

Then in 1984, she won the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links and was the leader of the U.S. squad in the Curtis Cup.

The Americans traveled to East Lothian, Scotland that year for the Curtis Cup’s second playing at historic Muirfield (site of the 2022 AIG Women’s Open). Great Britain and Ireland fielded its strongest team in a generation, led by a wily Englishwoman named Laura Davies.

Heather won two of her three matches, including a foursomes victory over Davies and a 6-and-5 thumping of Beverly New. In the closest Curtis Cup in 26 years, the USA defeated GB&I 9½ to 8½. If a “Player of the Match” had been recognized, no one doubts that it would have been Heather.

“She didn’t hit the ball that far, but she would grind you down,” Juli Inkster said when remembering her friend. “I played with her quite a bit and she was always feisty. She never gave up. She kind of had a little bit of Rosie Jones in her in that she was like a little gnat, always buzzing around and never quitting. And boy could she really putt.”

At 20, Heather was the youngest player in her rookie class on the LPGA Tour.

“A great competitor with a lot of spunk,” Nancy Lopez said. “She added a lot to the LPGA Tour.”

Maybe it was being a cowboy’s kid. Or perhaps it was being the shortest in both stature and off the tee. But Heather always played with a chip on her shoulder. A more modern comparison might be Stacy Lewis. There was nothing spectacular about any one part of her game, but she exuded intensity inside the ropes. Heather looked like the kind of competitor who would slice you open to see if your blood was red. Then, the second she walked off the final green, the smile came back, and she would be the best friend you’d ever have.

“I wish I had met Heather, because I’m sure I would have loved her,” Joh said. “In her pictures, it’s either in the middle of competition where the focus and intensity are unreal, or the other side of things, it’s like she lights up the room. You can tell that she had such a deep affect and impact on those around her, you can’t help but be drawn to her.”

Heather played three and a half seasons on the LPGA Tour before her cancer diagnosis in July of 1989.

“It was not a very diversified tour back then,” Inkster said. “We all sort of knew each other from college and amateur days on up. Everybody knew everybody else. So, when Heather first got diagnosed, we all thought that, knowing Heather, she was going to kick this thing in the butt and be on her way. That’s just who she was. She was fiery all the way. That always showed, especially after she started the chemo and stuff.”

Lopez said, “I remember when I had breakfast with her for the last time. She convinced me that she was going to make it; that she was going to beat it.”

Lopez wasn’t the only one convinced. In 1991, a golf course operator in the Phoenix area named Henry DeLozier put together a celebrity pro-am fundraiser for Heather. I flew out from Atlanta to support my friend. After lunch and before the shotgun start, I went out to the chipping green. There was Heather, her beautiful dark mane replaced by a red bandana and floppy hat. She had just come out of chemo. She was hitting chip shots.

“Heather, what are you doing? You just had treatments,” I said.

The smile jumped out, bright as ever even through hallowed eyes and pale, tightened skin. “This part (of the game) goes away quick,” she said. “You have to keep working.”

That was our last conversation.

Heather passed away on November 20, 1993.

Two years prior, Nancy Lopez gave birth to her third child. She named her daughter Torri Heather Knight.

“That’s something I aspire to,” Joh said. “Making my environment better by being in it. I think (Heather) was such a great example of that.”

 Inkster agrees, but she also wants everyone to remember something else.

“Heather fought to the bitter end,” she said. “That was her mantra throughout her career and throughout her life.

“Never give up. Keep fighting.”