Told to take a mulligan, Dan – who had been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) a few months earlier – came back with another idea: He’d like to walk a round of golf with Tiger Woods.
Mind you, this was 1999 and everyone wanted a piece of the 23-year-old Woods.
He was ranked No. 1 in the world. In a two-year span, he’d win 17 PGA Tour events and four majors. He was on the verge of signing a five-year $80 million contract with Nike.
While hard to imagine Tiger had the willingness or time to hang out with a kid, a Bond movie title soon applied: “Never Say Never.”
Thanks to a lot of people around here – Special Wish, Dr. David Roer, Lee Rinker, then the pro at Country Club of the North and the Miamisburg Fire Department, who raised the funds – Dan and his parents ended up at Firestone Country Club in Akron, where Dan spent a hard to fathom day not only with Tiger, but several other of the Tour’s top names.
Dayton Daily News photographer Bill Reinke and I were the only media members who got advance notice of the meeting and were allowed inside the ropes on the course. We got to see Tiger let his guard down and show a playful and caring side he rarely revealed in public.
He and Dan walked nine holes together talking and teasing and finally they teamed up for a still memorable golf moment.
On the seventh green – which was encircled by fans – Mark O’Meara, Tiger’s practice partner and good friend, was facing a 35-foot putt. And that’s when he handed his putter to the 4-foot-9 Herchline.
Tiger went up, pulled the pin and called out: “OK Dan the Man! Time to show ‘em what you got.”
Dan didn’t flinch. He adjusted the white golf glove he wore, pulled his blue Nike cap down a little tighter on his hairless head and stepped up to the ball.
After two practice strokes, he showed he had read the downhill break and curved his putt a foot and half so that it ended just inches from the cup.
The crowd roared, O’Meara showed Dan how to do one of Wood’s trademark double pumps of the fist to celebrate and Tiger just threw both arms to the heavens in exaltation. Off to the side, Dan’s mom and dad, Marylynn and Tom, both were teary eyed.
I thought about that moment this past weekend as Tiger – now 42 – returned to glory for the first time in over five years and won the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta.
During the long drought, he had been hobbled by injuries and four spinal fusion surgeries since April of 2014. He also had stumbled through personal scandals and embarrassment that included charges of infidelity, a very public divorce and finally last year a DUI arrest. He was found dozing at the wheel with various pain killers in his system. Soon after, he admitted himself into a rehab program.
Just 18 months ago he needed help getting out of bed because his back hurt so much. Just standing left him in pain, never mind the torque that comes with a golf swing. Last December the former No. 1 player in the world was ranked No. 1,999.
Tiger Woods walks to the 18th green as thousands of fans follow during the final round of the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
As he walked down the 18th fairway in Atlanta on Sunday, thousands of gleeful fans stampeded past the marshals on the course until they were following their beloved Pied Pier.
This embrace was different from those of years past. More than the “You the man!” testosterone amped shouts that rose up from the galleries in Tiger’s heyday, this embrace was more about love.
Tiger was now more human to them. A fallen star rising back up. His was a comeback story for the ages.
Dan Herchline watched all this unfold from a Philadelphia Hospital.
But he wasn’t there as an ALL patient, he’s a 30-year-old doctor now.
His is a miraculous comeback story itself.
After that 1999 day with Tiger, came nearly three more years of chemo and other debilitating medications.
He soldiered through it all, remained in remission, went to Carroll High School, played golf for the Patriots, appeared in school plays and then got a premed degree at Xavier.
He went to medical school at the University of Cincinnati, spent three years of residency at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and now is on a fellowship at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, while also working on his master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania.
“I had to work at the hospital over the weekend, but my gosh, I was riveted to Tiger’s comeback,” he said. “I watched on my phone and it was awesome.
“He was someone I idolized as a kid growing up and even now, no matter what was going on in his personal or professional life, I always rooted for him.
“I mean, he gave me one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had in my life.”
‘Soft spot in our hearts for Tiger’
Dan’s parents being doctors – Marylynn a pediatrician, Tom specializes in infectious diseases – they knew what their son was facing when he was diagnosed in January of 1999.
Marylynn said they wanted to try to keep his life as normal and positive and possible, so they stressed to him going to school unless he was just too nauseous from the chemo or worn down from some 50 trips to the hospital in those first nine months of ALL.
And Dan was the Man. He continued to get all As in school, won an age-group golf tournament and then that day in Akron, he wowed the pros.
There were heavy rains the morning he arrived at Firestone. Tiger’s flight to Akron was delayed and it was feared the whole Special Wish might get washed out.
That’s when other pros stepped in. Payne Stewart – who would die two months later in an airplane incident – brought Dan to the practice green and talked to him about school.
Payne Stewart meet Dan Herchline at the Firestone Club in Akron..Dan, from Beavercreek, received a special wish.
Credit: BILL REINKE
Credit: BILL REINKE
Ernie Els, Greg Norman and Jose Maria Olazabal all fussed over him on the practice tee.
Els wrapped an arm around him and said: “Well, you must be able to take pressure if you won a tournament.”
Finally, just after noon, Tiger arrived and greeted Dan with: “Hey Stud, what’s your name?” Soon after, it was “OK Dan. Let’s have some fun. “
They walked side by side along the fairway talking about school, movies and golf.
Soon Tiger had Dan picking his clubs for him
When Reinke came up and started shooting photos, Tiger razzed: “Mr. Hollywood!!! Let me get out of the way!”
After the round Dan pronounced the day “five times better than Christmas.”
Marylynn still marvels at what she witnessed that day:
“When you have a child with leukemia, you’re not sure if they are going to make it or not. This meant so much to Dan – it brought him such joy during a tough time — and because of that it meant so much to us.
“Tiger was in his early 20s. A lot of people that age wouldn’t take the time or have the empathy that he showed that day. We got a true sense of the goodness in his heart that day. That’s why we’ve always had a soft spot in our hearts for Tiger.”
AKRON, OHIO, AUGUST 25 ----- Helping Tiger Woods line up his putt on his round today in Dan Herchline (11) of Beavercreek. It was Dan's special wish to walk a round with his favorite golfer, the Tiger, at the Firestone Country Club that is hosting the NEC Invitational.
Credit: BILL REINKE
Credit: BILL REINKE
‘I’ll never forget that’
Although he now lives in Philadelphia, Dan still has “a shrine,” as his mom calls it, in his bedroom back home.
“He’s got the signed gloves, the balls and the photos from that day all up there,” she said.
She said that day with Tiger was the best medicine her son could have gotten at a time when he needed it most.
“That whole day was one of the most powerful experiences in my life,” Dan said the other day. “It’s something I used to motivate me the next couple of years. I’ll never forget that.”
It’s why he rooted so hard last weekend and will again Friday as Tiger begins Ryder Cup play for the U.S. team at Le Golf National in Paris.
“To see him turn things around after everything that happened and make a comeback was awesome,” Dan said. “I’m certainly excited to see more of that over the next couple of years. I think some good things are ahead.”
The same could be said about his future.
As for looking back, he was asked about that one wish that never materialized.
Dan the Man never did stand cufflink to cufflink alongside 007.
The thought made him laugh, then sigh: “I had some big ambition back then.”
Really, he still does.