I watched the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines from a special vantage point. I was on my couch, recovering from knee surgery 10 days earlier with my left leg elevated, icing it off and on all day. I watched in awe as Tiger Woods put on one of the most amazing shows in sports history against Rocco Mediate. I couldn't help but wince along with Tiger's obvious pain, partly because I was in pain too. Every time I stood up to use my crutches to get somewhere, I couldn't believe how much it hurt. And watching Tiger, we all knew that something wasn't right with him.
Of course, a day later we all knew. Tiger was headed for surgery on his left knee, and then he would be rehabbing it for six to nine months. In the back of my mind, I asked the question: can an injured athlete return to top form? Names that jumped into my head were Tiger, Ernie Els, Joe Namath, Tom Brady and The Shotmaker.
My introduction to the world of sports orthopedic medicine wasn't quite as dramatic as Tiger's. On Wednesday morning, May 28, I was in New York City attending a meeting. When I stood up, I heard a popping or snapping sound from my left knee. I felt excruciating pain and could not walk.
I was told to have an MRI immediately. The results confirmed a torn meniscus. My surgeon, David Altchek, an orthopedic surgeon at the New York Hospital for Special Surgery, advised me that it should be repaired by arthroscopic surgery. The surgery was scheduled for the following Tuesday, June 3, at 7 a.m. With a warm smile on his face, Dr. Altchek said he thought I might be out two months . . . and that my summer would still include golf, but later than usual. Inasmuch as he is an avid golfer, too, I felt like a "brother" was going to be taking care of me.
A LARGE BUMP IN THE ROAD
During surgery, Dr. Altchek found crystals (a preexisting condition) in my left knee. Pathology tests confirmed I had chondrocalcinosis. The next six weeks were the most painful in my life. I was constantly miserable. Getting up to walk to the bathroom each morning was unbearable. At first using crutches, then later a cane, I hobbled along. During my agonizing recovery, my personality changed. I was always depressed. Because of my pain, I didn't want to be around people. Even my friends. I found comfort, almost strangely, by focusing on losing weight. That battle was victorious. As I write this draft I am about 180 pounds (I lost about 25 pounds), my lowest weight in many, many years.
FRIDAY, JULY 18, 6:30 a.m.
(six weeks after surgery) I was watching the British Open. At the time, my friend Greg Norman was surprising everyone by leading the second round at 1-under. Also, Camilo Villegas (who would go on to win the BMW Championship on September 7, and was on the cover of Cigar Aficionado back in August 2006) had just shot a 5-under 65 and was one stroke behind Norman. Neither result was expected. As you may remember, the golf world was watching Norman with bated breath.
But today was an even bigger day for me. Pain or no pain, I was starting my return to the one thing that I had missed so much in the previous six weeks . . . golf. I was going to have a one-hour lesson with Jeff Warne, my golf teacher and the pro at my club, The Bridge, in Bridgehampton, New York. I was nervous and excited. Even though I still had pain in my knee, I couldn't just sit on the sidelines anymore. My physical therapist, Sinead Fitz Gibbon, told me, "It's OK to begin playing golf . . . but go very slowly."
The annual two-day Member-Guest tournament at The Bridge was a week away. Being an optimist, I signed up for it but knowing when the time came I might not be ready. After all, I didn't want to hurt myself further and complicate my recovery. But I wanted to play so badly.
I now know what athletes mean when they say they are "playing through the pain." I felt pain just standing and had trouble keeping my balance. Jeff had me swing at about 70 percent. "Keep your feet closer together," he said. "Ball further back in your stance when you are set up to swing." While I did not hit the ball well, I was encouraged. When the lesson was over, I was so excited I drove home with my golf glove and golf shoes still on. When I realized this, I smiled. I was so hopeful that I would be able to return to my passion that I had missed soooo much!
FRIDAY, JULY 25, AND SATURDAY, JULY 26
I played in the Member-Guest. I can't say much more. This was my fifth year of playing in this tournament with the same partner, my good friend Gene Zuriff. He was a good sport, waiting on standby, depending on if I could play. My game was so-so, but we had fun. I limped around the course for two days in significant pain . . . aided by three Oxycodone pills each day and using a golf cart. Needless to say, we didn't win.
FRIDAY, AUG. 15
(10 weeks after surgery) The Bridge's annual Club Championship was this weekend. I had signed up two weeks before on the hope I would have improvement in my knee and the pain would finally be gone.
The pain was definitely lessening but it had not disappeared. The worst part was at night in bed, when my leg would tighten up. I would wake up in the middle of the night, take two Tylenol Extra Strengths, ice it, and in a few hours finally fall back to sleep. This had been going on for weeks. It had been the worst summer of my life!
I won my first-round match in my bracket of the Club Championship. I played well and much of the day played with little pain. Thank God, I said to myself, I am fully recovered now to enjoy playing golf the rest of the summer. I was soooo happy. No doubt, many of you can relate to this feeling of joy. Or, so I thought.
My next match was the next day. I arrived at the driving range at 8:45 a.m. for a 9:30 tee time. After the third swing of my sand wedge, I was in pain. I could not bend or turn my left knee and began to freak out. I immediately walked to my golf cart and downed two Oxycodones. I told my caddie, Alex, about my condition and advised him I wasn't sure I could play. We went to the putting green, where I practiced putting on one leg while waiting for the pills to kick in. I knew what I should do, but had convinced myself I could play through the pain. In retrospect, I should have looked my opponent in his eye and said, "I must default."
We played. For most of the front nine, I played pretty well without hardly using my legs. I swung my arms and shot surprisingly straight, especially my tee shots. Not long, but straight! On the front, I shot 46, an amazing score for a cripple! Unfortunately, my opponent, Andrew Schwartz, shot lights out . . . a 41. By the turn, the pain in my knee was almost unbearable. I hit into a series of deeply sloped sand traps. I couldn't get out, so I picked up. On hole No. 14, a par 3, I parred it. So did my opponent. The match was over for me. I couldn't take any more pain. And Andrew was playing great golf. Also, he was a great guy. I look forward to playing with him in the future. But it was time to go home.
By Saturday night, I realized I had done a VERY STUPID thing. My leg had swelled and I was in a great deal of pain. I knew I had taken a giant step backwards in my recovery. I knew I was going to pay big-time, and I did. My depression returned. I would not rule out suicide.
LABOR DAY WEEKEND, AUG. 29—SEPT. 1
(three months after surgery) I was finally beginning to feel like a human being again. Physical therapy appointments three times a week had helped a great deal.
Over a period of a week, I played 12 holes at Sebonack with Steve Ross, nine holes at The Bridge with my great pal Tony Bryant and 18 at Shinnecock with Ray Herrmann, John Esposito and his son John Jr. On the final round, I played without pain even though I was still hobbling a bit.
My mind was centered on only one thing: would I be well enough to play in the Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland in early October? I wasn't sure I could walk three consecutive days. At the Dunhill tournament, there are no carts.
SUMMIT MEETING, SEPT. 5
(three months and a week after surgery) At least weekly I had been on the phone with my good friend from South Africa, Johann Rupert. Johann is the organizer behind the Dunhill Links Championship. "How's your knee doing? Are you coming to the Dunhill?" he had asked. All along I had been telling him, "My progress has been slow. I will decide by mid-September, it's up to my doctor."
Well today, I had my appointment with Dr. Altchek to review my knee's recovery. I was brought into one of his private examination rooms where he asked me what was going on with my knee. I told him that the pain was mostly gone, but that my knee felt a little weak and unstable, and while I could walk up stairs, awkwardly, I was unable to walk down steps. He then gave me a few exercises that he said should help take care of this.
I finally asked him about going to the Dunhill Links Championship. He asked when it was. I explained, in one month in Scotland. He then uttered, "I think you could and should go." A big smile took over my face. I wanted to kiss and hug him! My saga of pain, depression and contemplation of suicide was over. In October, I would be off to the Dunhill Cup. The Shotmaker is back!