Mark Rolfing could not imagine anything keeping him away from a golf tournament at Kapalua.
Not even cancer.
“I cannot believe how good it is to hear my voice,” Rolfing said Monday evening, repeating a standard greeting. That voice was filled with so much enthusiasm it sounded as though it could have been coming from the television instead of a telephone.
“And I cannot believe what kind of miracle I received.”
Five months after he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, Rolfing returns to his broadcasting duties for Golf Channel on Jan. 7 for the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, the winners-only event that kicks off the new year on the west tip of Maui.
Paradise for Rolfing is in front of the camera, even in Hawaii, where he has homes on two islands.
“It wouldn’t feel like the Tournament of Champions or the Sony Open without him,” Golf Channel executive producer Molly Solomon said. “He’s so happy. He sends me pictures once a week showing how healthy and happy he is. I do worry that he’ll overwork himself, but he assures me this is the healing he needed.”
Kapalua was his motivation even when the diagnosis — Stage 4 salivary gland cancer — seemed dire.
Rolfing, who for three decades has been the face of golf in Hawaii, played in the Kapalua International tournament from 1982 until 1997, when it switched from an unofficial event at the end of the year to the official start of the PGA Tour’s new year. Then, he was in the broadcast booth calling the action and explaining how the Plantation course plays in the Kona and trade winds.
All these years, he worried about the future of the tournament when Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods stopped going, and when it changed title sponsors.
Suddenly, he had to worry about his own future.
Rolfing discovered a small lump on his cheek just below his ear on July 1 and figured it was part of a sinus infection. By the end of the month, he was diagnosed with salivary gland cancer, and even more frightening was the advanced stage.
Because he loves his work, Rolfing was part of the Golf Channel crew at the PGA Championship. He left the day before the final major began, drove two hours to Chicago and had a 7½-hour operation — five more hours than expected — to remove the malignant tumor.
“It was a jolt,” he said. “I look back on it now, I don’t even know how I really coped with at the time. Debi (his wife) was a rock at that moment and has been ever since. She helped me through the diagnosis.”
Three days after surgery, he was watching the final round of the PGA Championship when Jim Nantz of CBS Sports wished him a speedy recovery. Only then did Rolfing appreciate the gravity of his illness. The support he received from television, players and through the world of golf, was more than he could count.
He needed it. Rolfing endured six weeks of proton radiation at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, a sophisticated treatment aimed at a tiny target on his face to avoid damage to his mouth and his brain. He was done working for the year at the FedEx Cup playoffs and the Presidents Cup. His contract with NBC was up for renewal.
What pushed him along was Kapalua.
“It was huge for me,” Rolfing said. “I was motivated not to do anything but get better. I was worried. ‘What if this was the last Kapalua for me?’ One thing I would never want to have happen is to not be able to go up there.”
Rolfing is a rarity among golf analysts at major networks because he never played on tour. He got his break at — where else? — Kapalua.
“The first year we had Isuzu as a sponsor, to create some excitement they put up a car for closest to the pin on the 17th hole, and I won it,” Rolfing said. “They brought me to the booth. Don Ohlmeyer was the producer and he had me back as a guest for three days. In those days, if you hadn’t won a major championship … those were the only analysts. They offered me a tryout the next week in Palm Springs in the World Cup.”
NBC hired him two years later, and he is approaching 30 years at the network.
Rolfing still has a PET scan in Houston after the Hawaii swing, and he hopes there is no evidence of cancer. On his immediate mind is the first round of the new year, which starts with a traditional Hawaiian blessing on the first tee.
For Rolfing, it will take on a special meaning this year.