I thought I was dying. How golf kept me going

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The EMT said I was OK, although it was unclear if he was trying to reassure me or himself. He told me we were going to the emergency room, then asked my name and if I knew the day’s date and where I was. It was about this time the pain in my upper body emitted a panic that swallowed me whole.

Holy s***,” I thought. “Am … am I about to die?”

I’ve done my best to distance myself from this day and the week that followed. But there’s a moment I keep returning to, when the ambulance makes a fierce left turn. I remember looking out the back window and seeing a two-story, cream stucco building with a red tile roof fading from view. I knew where we were, for that house is across the street from the local muny.

Until that day I didn’t think much of that muny, Brennan Golf Course. Its routing is odd, the conditioning is brutal and the rounds are slow. But at that moment I was happy to know it was there, because Brennan is next to the hospital. For an instant, after drowning in doubt and fear and unbearable discomfort, I was distracted.

Two months ago I would have told you golf is my passion. I play it, watch it, read it, write it, think it, breathe it. It’s what I do and defines who I am. There’s a good chance that description describes you, too. Golf has a tendency to do that.

Now? Now those sentiments still apply, mostly. Only the past two months have made golf into something more.

On the morning of Sept. 8, I was preparing to walk my dog, a little long-haired, ball-of-rage chihuahua, when a crushing sensation radiated from the middle of my chest. I had a sleepless night, at one point moving to the living room in hopes a change of scenery would help. I figured that uncomfortable feeling was a strain from laying on the couch in an odd position. Or, hey, I had just turned 36. Maybe it was the pangs that come with aging. I shook it off, and the dog and I proceeded out the front door for our usual two-block stroll. I made it just 30 yards before turning around. With each step that crushing sensation worsened. By the time I returned to my couch it seemed like someone was attempting to embed a bowling ball in my sternum.

Over the past decade I had a number of similar episodes where I felt pressure around my heart, ranging from sore and achy to a stabbing intensity. However, every test, X-ray and ultrasound showed a healthy heart and lungs, so these incidents were chalked up to panic attacks. I never accepted this answer, not truly or fully. I didn’t feel anxious or overly worried, and couldn’t shake the idea something else was spurring these events. But there was no evidence of anything wrong. The pain, visceral as it felt, had to be in my head.

I told myself this over and over and over as I was bent over on the couch that morning. You’re fine. You’re FINE. Only I leaned back and, boy, I didn’t feel fine. I felt like I was going to collapse. I called my doctor’s office, located just three streets away, and told them I thought I was having a mean panic attack. I labored into the building and must have looked like hell because I was immediately brought back and hooked up to an EKG.

It wasn’t the doctor’s expression, one I could read through her surgical mask, that signaled something was wrong. Nor was it the pitch in her voice when she called for EMTs and yelled to nurses to find aspirin now. These observations, obvious as they should have been, needed to be spelled out, which the doctor calmly did when I not-so-calmly asked what was up: “You may be having a heart attack.”

I sat frozen with electrodes uncomfortably hanging from my chest, those words too surreal to process, until two very nice men swooped in and placed me on a stretcher, rolling me out of the doctor’s office and into an ambulance en route to the hospital. When we reached the ER, I was lifted and placed on a cold, stainless-steel table as a dozen doctors and nurses converged on me like a pit crew. I was stripped down and shaved, a number of IVs and lines jabbed in my arms. “You’re where you need to be,” one doctor told me with confidence. “We’re going to act fast.” A cut was made on my right wrist, allowing the doctors to insert a flexible tube through the artery that would see where a potential blood clot was located. Through the crowd I could see my wife, who had been called from work by the doctor’s office. Next to her was a priest. Man, this really isn’t good. I was wheeled into another room, conscious but confused.

Space and time tend to stop when laying naked in a sterile room with strangers poking your body as your chest feels like it’s going to explode while staring directly into bright lights. I do remember thinking this predicament likely meant I was going to miss a tee time I had with my neighbor for the following day. I also remember praying. A lot. I prayed for the pain to stop. I prayed not to die. I prayed that if I did die for my wife to find happiness and strength to move on …

“Bridge! You see that, right there? It’s a bridge!”

The pit crew of doctors and nurses seemed relieved, and within a minute nearly all but two of them left the room. As I was beginning to think I was coming out on the business end of a brutally coordinated lunch break, the head doctor leaned in. “Good news, you’re not having a heart attack,” he said. “You have a heart defect. It’s the best possible outcome.”

The doctors discovered I had a myocardial bridge. It is a condition where a coronary artery tunnels through or under the heart rather than sitting on top of it. The defect is present at birth, but it doesn’t reveal itself on X-rays or echocardiograms or ultrasounds. In fact, it’s unknown how many people have a myocardial bridge since it’s only discovered through heart catheterizations (which is what I had done with the tube up my wrist) or, um, autopsies. That squeezing sensation I had was the heart “trapping” the artery. Why it hurt worse than usual this day was unclear, although low potassium and magnesium levels likely contributed to the magnified pain.

While it sounds serious, a myocardial bridge is relatively manageable and shouldn’t affect the quality of life. Eventually, some drugs kicked in and my chest pain subsided. I was taken to a private room and had several other tests administered, all coming back normal. I was kept in the hospital overnight for observation and released the next afternoon, a Friday. I would be taking beta blockers to help with blood flow to prevent similar trapping incidents going forward, but crisis, I thought, had been averted.

Has your love for golf ever been unhealthy? Not in an ironic, cheesy, “I played 45 holes this weekend because 36 wasn’t enough!” way, but in a manner that genuinely had an adversarial affect on your life? Because that was the question I chewed on that night in the hospital.

I wasn’t kidding when I said golf consumes me. I love that it does, and I’m lucky enough that I have a job that allows me to channel that spirit into my work. Yet, potassium and magnesium levels aside, I wondered if this incident was related to my career. On the list of stressful occupations “golf writer” ranks pretty low, but this year was filled with existential questions and fraught with a complicated schism made worse by some of the characters (and threats!) associated with it. Plus, the relentless cycle of writing for a website, paired with the fact that your work is always public, creates a type of pressure one might not expect from such a fun-sounding job. That pressure is a privilege, no doubt … but it is pressure. The last 15 years, that has been the life I’ve known.

I wondered if I needed to recalibrate how I viewed golf as a recreation, too. The spare time I did have was devoted to hitting balls or sneaking in an emergency nine. Same goes with reading golf literature. I loved these activities, but when you think you’re about to die you tend to evaluate if you’re making the most of life. I worried if totally ingratiating myself into one thing—thus blurring the line between work life and real life—was healthy.

The catheterization meant I couldn’t use my right hand for some time, which meant no writing or playing. From a schedule standpoint it was a fortuitous respite; there was no professional golf that weekend and the next tour stop was the season opener in Napa, an event I wasn’t heartbroken over missing. Forget answering email or checking the company’s Slack channel; I promised myself not to watch or read or listen to anything about golf because the temptation would be too great to somehow bring it back to work. To do this right I needed a cleanse. For the first time in what felt like forever I would be unplugged from the game.

The first night at home was rough. Two hours of sleep, generously. It wasn’t unexpected. My chest was sore—I was told my heart was racing at 150 beats per minute in the ambulance—and I had to lie awkwardly in order to stabilize my right wrist. But I figured I could grab a few naps over the weekend and be right by Monday morning. Only in spite of feeling emotionally and physically spent, I couldn’t doze off on Saturday. Not during the day, not into the night. Not one single hour of sleep.

Sunday I felt like a zombie. Remember, I hadn’t slept the day before this mess started, and the night in the hospital wasn’t exactly a peaceful snooze. I started to physically feel sick from being so alertly awake. It felt like I had 20 venti lattes surging through my veins, except I hadn’t had coffee in days. When the sun went down Sunday night and reappeared Monday morning I remained up. I went to a general practitioner on Monday morning, this time with my wife in tow. I hadn’t slept in four of the past five nights. Forget zombified; at this juncture I was having trouble moving. My appetite was shot, and what I did manage to get down didn’t stay for very long. Everything hurt. I relayed this to the doctor, asking if there was any chance the beta blockers were causing insomnia. I was sent home with more medicine. And it was one thing that my chest remained on fire and my head was thumping and my body throbbed, but now it felt like my psyche was under attack, the insinuation being this was all in my mind and I needed to toughen up. In reality it already took so much strength just to keep going.

Not helping matters was I no longer had my outlet. When I would normally feel cooped up or burdened I would hit a few buckets at the driving range. Even if I wanted to break my golf sabbatical I couldn’t, still too weak to grip a club. Same goes with putting on my basement green. Suddenly this happening on one of the few PGA Tour off-weeks didn’t seem so serendipitous. Days before I was worried golf was distracting me from other things in life and now would have done anything to have that problem back.

I was up until 4 a.m. that Monday night/Tuesday morning, and somewhere between 4-to-6 I got some shut-eye because it was the only stretch I didn’t see the clock on my phone staring back at me. I had an early appointment, this time with the cardiologist for a follow-up, and renewed my questions about the beta blocker. The cardiologist replied in the affirmative, that insomnia can be a side effect of the drug. He recommended I shelf it until getting the sleep under control. I felt heard. Probably because I had been seen: the mirror reflected the image of a haggard, ghostly figure, a person I did not recognize, yet knew was me.

Another sleepless night followed. I thought this could be the beta blocker working its way out of my system. I think. Who knows. For the life of me, what life I had left in me … I could not sleep.

At that point I envisioned the worst, and the rumblings it would cause. Yeah, did you hear how he went? Sleep deprivation. I didn’t know you could die like that, either.

It had been a week since I was rushed to the hospital and now I was somehow in worse shape, failing to sleep in six of the previous seven nights. That day, Wednesday, Sept. 14, my wife and I were hosting a prayer group from our church. Despite the state I was in we had people over; I figured, well, if I’m about to die, probably not the worst thing to get an extra Bible study in. Before the group departed for the night I asked our pastor if he could pray for me. At the time I wish I could say it was because I solely believed in the power of faith. Truth be told, it was because I was broken. I did not know where else to go. The pastor and the group prayed over me. If it sounds weird that a group of people would pray for someone to get sleep, know it was just as weird to ask. When the meeting departed, I told my wife I was going upstairs to see if it worked, tucking myself into bed and closing my eyes.

When I opened them it was light out. I checked my phone. It was 7 a.m. I was out for nine hours.

I went into the shower, and cried.

I felt armed with science and faith, but to make sure this sleep wasn’t an aberration—to put the past week into the past and keep it there—I needed to do my part. In the honest, sober reflection of morning, whatever harm the beta blockers were doing wasn’t helped by my own anxiety. It was a vicious self-fulfilling prophecy: I wasn’t sleeping, I would get agitated why I wasn’t sleeping, I would catastrophize what it could mean, repeat. I needed something to take my mind off things.

To hell with unplugging. Like a McDonald’s salad it was good in name only. I decided to do the opposite and lean into my love for the game. I just had to love it differently.

I had grown accustomed to viewing the sport through the prism of a scribe. I didn’t consume it for myself; I consumed it with the thought of contextualizing what I had seen and heard and observed and felt for a larger audience. In that lens, every round, every tournament, every win is framed as a validation or statement of some sort. They are all pieces to a larger puzzle. Fans can have that outlook, too, which I get, because knowing the touchstones of a journey makes for a richer, more compelling story. But now I wondered if we are in such a rush to see that bigger picture we don’t appreciate the individual pieces for themselves.

When Max Homa won the Fortinet Championship, I didn’t try to arrive at some broader storyline about what it said about Homa the player and where that player might be going. I appreciated it for what it was, which was a shocking, dramatic finish. That’s how I watched the Presidents Cup, too. Maybe Tom Kim really is the next big thing. If he isn’t, so what? Because I can’t tell you how much fun I had watching him have fun, and not once did I extrapolate what it could mean for his trajectory. They might not be pieces to a larger puzzle. Sometimes it’s just golf, something to keep your mind off real life. That sounds like a knock, but it’s a pretty damn good compliment.

I went back and watched the final rounds from this year’s majors. I covered all four on-site yet watching their broadcasts revealed how, at times, I was blind or ignorant to smaller moments that in reality stood large. When Mito Pereira’s alligator-armed swing sent his ball and hopes into that creek at Southern Hills, I was too worried about preparing for a likely playoff that I missed Pereira’s expression, a look that said he knew this might be the only chance he’d ever get and that chance was now gone. At Brookline I was with a group of writers less than 15 yards away from Matt Fitzpatrick’s final approach from that bunker. Then I was too focused on his lie and the precarious position he was in; now I focused on Fitzpatrick’s eyes, which belied a conviction that was the undercurrent for such an audacious play. In April I laughed at Scottie Scheffler’s struggles with his bubble vest, yet on rewind it was a reminder that the guy who had looked so robotic in dismantling Augusta National was, indeed, human. Somehow, the broadcast failed to do justice to the rapport between Rory McIlroy and the crowds at St. Andrews, for that week he not just entertained but galvanized those that followed and they in turn returned the favor.

I had marveled so much at what these players were able to do that I was forgetting about the person who was doing the performing.

TV wasn’t the only storyteller. Because the only thing I had the strength to do for a month was walk, I took my dog for long treks three or more times a day, and most of those times I would fire up a golf podcast. I read all the feature pieces I saved from competitors that I never had time for in the spring and summer. I devoured Michael Bamberger’s “To the Linksland” and a number of James Finegan books, and heroically tried and desperately failed to get through “Golf in the Kingdom.”

Impressive, educational and entertaining as all the different avenues were, and successful as they were at keeping my attention diverted, the most cathartic story was delivered at the driving range.

About three weeks after the hospital visit I was driving to the pharmacy when I decided to make a detour to Sterling Farms, the other muny in town. I still couldn’t swing a club, but, well … I missed the range. I missed the feeling of hitting a perfect draw after fighting a hook the previous five attempts. Missed being alone with others, that often-unsaid acknowledgement from strangers when you glance up from your stance and see someone else doing the same. I missed the voice over the loudspeaker asking the upper deck bays to stop hitting drivers over the net, a message that is always ignored. When I parked myself on a bench I expected those feelings to come back.

Instead, I was struck by two things. The first was how cool it is that one game can speak to so many different folks of different ages and backgrounds. Seriously, you don’t exactly see grandmas working on their jumpers next to middle schoolers on the playground. The second was a bit more profound. To me the range had always been synonymous with work, improvement. Trying to squeeze a few more yards out of the 3-wood. Trying to flight the 7-iron through the right window. Trying to dial in your wedges. Trying. Thing is, I always had my head down at the range so I never truly saw what others were doing, and on this day I didn’t see any trying. What I saw were people doing their best to wail away at highlighter-colored golf balls and fully immersed in the task. The belief that amateurs shouldn’t predicate their enjoyment off scores or shots is not new, but something that day—watching ball after ball after ball after ball sail, and sometimes shank, into the sky without an outcome attached to its destination—rooted a principle deep in my subconscious.

I had always viewed golf as a demon that can never be caught, its joy found not in its capture but in its pursuit. To an extent that is true, or can be true. It’s fun to shoot lower scores, to better your best, to work towards a goal. But at its essence, golf doesn’t need to be chased. It wants to be caught. All it takes is seeing it for what it is, a game. And games are meant to be enjoyed.

I had gained perspective, and unlike a tour pro I didn’t need to have a baby to get it.

Since that week from hell my life has stabilized. Progression hasn’t been linear; there were plenty of bad days, mainly from battling some nasty side effects from medicines that are now part of my daily routine. I lost close to 20 lbs. and haven’t gained it back. But I’m sleeping well, I’ve leveled out, I feel confident about the plans I’m on and where they should take me.

Lest I give you the wrong idea, golf wasn’t the only thing I did over the downtime. I read a ton of Patrick Radden Keefe and contributed to a friend’s book project. I watched football and “Parks and Recreation” and Stanley Tucci’s tour through Italy. On some of those long walks I made it a point to listen to nothing at all in order to appreciate the fall foliage in all her glory. I’m trying to build and diversify my interests, attempting new things for both adventure and appreciation of what I already know to be good.

Yet, if there is a throughline, what got me from there to here, it was golf.

My relationship with it has changed. I’ve been able to play a few times since I regained the use of my right wrist, and lost count of how many range visits I’ve made. I still want to improve my game, to shoot the lowest scores that I can. But those are distant aspirations that are not allowed to contradict the simple comfort of getting to swing a club. Appreciation has to be practiced, and when I’m at the range now, that’s what I’m doing, not focusing on my takeaway or hip action but realizing how good I’ve got it.

I’m back to work, trying to infuse more joy and color and life into what I write. I still take what I do seriously, but I’ve been covering it with the delight I think a reader would have if we swapped places. I still marvel at the players, yet am more enchanted with what it says about them as people. Adam Svensson won the RSM Classic with a final-round 64, yet it was the Canadian coming undone afterwards—knowing the bet he had made on himself had finally paid off—that will stick with me longer than any shot he hit.

At the end of each day, I make a point to remind myself how lucky I am to do what I do.

Part of me thinks saying golf saved me is hyperbolic and blasphemous. It’s a disservice to my wife and parents, to my faith. Those people and that power did the hard work. And yet we all have our callings, and I hear mine loud and clear. Golf is what I do, and it defines who I am. I just didn’t know it could be something more. Despite how I found out, I’m thankful that I did.

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