Since his college years, Joe Cano followed a winding path that eventually brought him to Occidental as the men’s and women’s golf teams’ swing coach. Cano’s faith in his natural golf talent and his calling for teaching steered him through his spontaneous journey.
“It’s like I’m going in one direction like a stream, but there’s a big boulder in the way so the stream veers left,” Cano said. “I just kind of rolled with the punches. I went with my gut feeling, and it’s done me OK.”
Growing up in the Pasadena area, Cano learned golf from his father through many evenings at the Arroyo Seco Golf Course — but his heart belonged to America’s pastime. His father also taught him baseball, and years later the younger Cano became a baseball standout at Pasadena City College.
“Baseball was my first love,” Cano said.
In his second year of college, Cano realized he would never be able to play Major League Baseball. At that time, he had a summer job as a ramp agent with American Airlines at the Bob Hope Airport in Burbank and was asked to relocate to either the Dallas, Raleigh-Durham or Los Angeles airports to work the graveyard shifts. Although he put aside his dream of playing professional baseball, Cano would not surrender the rest of his prime to a nocturnal existence.
Fortunately for him, one of his co-workers was an avid golfer and recognized Cano’s untapped talent when they casually golfed together. He entered Cano into the lower-level professional Golden State Tour.
“I actually played pretty good,” Cano said.
His coworker saw strong potential in Cano and suggested he try going pro. Although Cano initially did not expect that he would be good enough to play professionally, he got in touch with a PGA Master, Hal Wray. Cano felt a strong connection with Wray, who also played professional baseball in his day.
“He thought that I would be good enough to make golf a career,” Cano said. “He took me under his wing, made me his apprentice and one thing led to another.”
Cano competed in small-scale PGA tours 1987–1999. Though he did not play in the highly publicized North American PGA Tour, his success in open qualifying competitions and invitations allowed him to participate in tours in Hawaii and Latin America.
During his years as a professional golfer, Cano married and had two children — a daughter in 1994 and son in 1998. But he found it tough to carry his weight in his marriage and support a young family while constantly traveling and earning an unsteady income.
“There is a lot of pressure because you’re not getting a guaranteed paycheck,” Cano said. “You’ve got to win or you’ve got to play at a really high level in order to earn money.”
Cano had a few sponsors but not enough to make a comfortable living. He paralleled this part of his life to coming across another boulder in the stream — but this time it veered him towards steadier waters.
When he was not competing on the PGA course, Cano instructed amateurs on local golf club courses. He attracted a good number of students, started earning a comfortable income and found gratification in instructing young golfers. Some of his fondest memories of competing involved helping amateur golfers during PGA Pro-Am events.
“I decided that teaching was where I was meant to be,” Cano said.
As a history and social science major in college, Cano originally planned on coaching college-level baseball and teaching. Although his life took him in a different direction after college, he eventually meandered back to his original plan. Cano coached baseball at Pasadena City College and currently teaches golf at Arroyo Seco Golf.
Cano began coaching at Occidental in 2012 when his former student recommended he do so. Tori Leon ’11 took lessons from Cano at Arroyo Seco Golf until she went on to play for Occidental and eventually ranked second in women’s NCAA Division III golf. She told women’s and men’s head coach Andrew Larkin about Cano.
“She thought I could help Oxy build our program because I’ve won a few championships with my junior team at Arroyo Seco Golf Course,” Cano said.
Larkin and Cano were on the same page in terms of how to invigorate the small golf program. They began an aggressive recruitment strategy for players who had the skill to potentially win a national championship as well as handle Occidental’s rigorous work load.
When Will Morris took over as head coach this year, he and Cano continued the program’s momentum. Morris said that the team is lucky to have Cano.
“He is very dedicated to the school and the players in our program,” Morris said via email. “He is kind and very giving of his time and expertise. We are beneficiaries of his wisdom.”
Cano has high expectations for the young team. With a strong foundation of first-year and sophomore standouts in addition to further aggressive recruiting, Cano believes the talent will snowball each year.
The men’s team has already broken its single-round school record three times this season.
“We are definitely on our way and I’m excited about the future of Oxy golf,” Cano said.
Although he strives to coach an unbeatable team, Cano prioritizes supporting his players on and off the course.
“The parental side of me kicks in,” Cano said. “I want them to have their independence to do things on their own, but I like to watch over them to make sure they know they always have somebody who will be there for them. I hope that they feel like they can always come to me.”
According to first-years Samantha Rocha and Jack Peden, Cano follows through on that hope.
“He’ll work with you as much as you want,” Peden said. “Or he might just be emotional support for you — like he is for me because I’m an emotional whoopee cushion on the course.”
Rocha said that Cano is easy to talk to since he has children around her age and therefore does not expect overly polite and professional correspondence.
“I think it’s cool that he knows how to interact with us,” Rocha said.
She said Cano acts as a mentor during competition and sticks close by the players on the course. When players are off their A-game in a tournament, Cano offers pep talks, strategy and focus.
Cano’s care for the well-being of his players extends off the course — sometimes he calls players just to check in.
“I’ve had a swing coach before,” Peden said. “But never one that I would go eat a meal with, or who would call me asking how I’m doing academically.”