ST. LOUIS — Mark Calcavecchia can move forward now. He tied for 73rd at the Ascension Charity Classic, played three rounds at 10-over par. He had 37 pars, five birdies, nine bogeys, three doubles.
He’s done better, a lot better. Calcavecchia has finished first in four PGA Champions events and 13 PGA Tour events. He won the 1989 British Open at Royal Troon and has six other top-10s in major championships. No question, scoring-wise, the week was not his best.
Spiritually, it was a significant win.
Over the past year, by his own assessment, Calcavecchia has been to hell and back. The troubles began with him contacting Covid-19 late last August. The virus hit him like a Callaway Big Bertha hits an acorn. He had chills, aches, no taste or smell, and spent some seven hours in a hospital getting treatment. He finally went home to ride it out.
When he returned to play golf in late September, his strength and energy levels were depleted. In October, he was competing in the Charles Schwab Cup Championship when back spasms put him on the ground, pain shooting down his leg. He finished the second round — barely — but had to withdraw after.
In December, he sucked it up and played with his son Eric in the PNC Championship. But on Jan. 4, Calcavecchia bit the bullet and underwent back surgery — double fusion, L4 and L5 vertebrae. His recovery of the past eight months has been something less than smooth.
Calcavecchia experienced back problems for several years before things came to a head. He can deal with discomfort. But post-surgery recuperation proved much more difficult than he imagined. Because of his low blood pressure, Calcavecchia was prone to dizziness and nausea as he tried to get back on his feet. On one occasion, he blacked out entirely, fell to the ground and slammed his head on a tile floor. It became necessary for him use a walker to remain mobile.
“My doctor said I’d be miserable for a month — I was miserable for four months,” Calcavecchia, 61, said. “I broke my wrist in high school and was out three months, and five years ago I went through a window and severed a tendon and was out three months. I mean, I’ve recovered from surgeries but I’ve never felt anything like this.”
A return to golf was never a certainty, and the process has been painstakingly slow. It began with him rolling short putts. Next, he tackled hitting a wedge, a few yards at first, then 40 yards, then 100 yards. “It tried to extend it by 10 yards at a time,” he said. “It was little steps. The funny thing is, the driver was probably the club I had the least trouble swinging.”
Last week, Calcavecchia decided to take the plunge. With his wife Brenda on the bag. he entered the Champions field for the Ascension Charity Classic at Norwood Hills Country Club in St. Louis. Calcavecchia also was playing in St. Louis — at the WGC American Express — 20 years earlier, when the terrorist attacks took place on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001.
Strangely enough, on Tuesday of last week, he got some personally upsetting news again. Brutus, a Jack Russell terrier who had been with Calcavecchias for almost 17 years, on the road and off, passed away unexpectedly.
On Wednesday morning at Norwood Hills Country Club, Calcavecchia’s voice was choked with emotion as he talked about it. “It’s tough,” Calcavecchia said. “We had him since he was a pup. He was a part of the family, you know.”
All of a sudden, playing a golf tournament became even more than an important hurdle in his recovery. As dog owners might relate, it also was about grief. “I knew I wanted to come out and play,” said Calcavecchia, who later explained an autopsy revealed Brutus died from a ruptured tumor. “We knew he didn’t probably have more than a year to live, but it’s never easy.”
And so, with brittle back and heavy heart, Calcavecchia did what Calcavecchia has done since before he turned pro in 1981 — he soldiered on. The aesthetics weren’t particularly pleasing. He hit only 28 of 54 greens, needed 89 putts and averaged a modest 254 yards driving distance over the three days. Those numbers won’t go on the wall. But 54 holes later, he was still standing.
“Yeah, I don’t have much speed,” Calcavecchia said after his 3-over 74 on Sunday. “I played with Rocco (Mediate) the first day and he said, ‘Your swing looks the same; you’ll get some speed back once you start feeling a lot better.’
“So I’m not hitting it very far. But I did hit some good irons. I know what I need to do. It’s a little painful to do it the way I want to, so …”
Jay Williamson played with Calcavecchia in the final round on Sunday. Williamson spent a number of years on the PGA Tour, where he made 377 starts and shared company with Calcavecchia on numerous occasions.
“He’s the same old Calc,” said Williamson, a native St. Louisan, competing at Norwood Hills on an exemption. “He didn’t, obviously, have his ‘A’ game today, you know. But he grinded. He gave it 100 percent on every shot. He made a lot of good putts, and his chipping was really good. It was great to see him. Good guy, same guy.”
Calcavecchia knows recovery remains a work in progress, and the jury remains out in some aspects. He drove a cart “every step of the way” at hilly Norwood. In the Sanford International at Sioux Falls, next week, he plans to split the difference — walk nine, ride nine. In the Pure Insurance Championship at Pebble Beach the following week, he will have to walk … and he knows it.
He also knows when you’re 61 and less than a year removed from spinal fusion, you can’t force the issue. You can’t take a second step until you take the first, even if it’s in a cart.
“It’s the first time I played three days in a row,” Calcavecchia said, with a smile. “My surgical area feels great. My rib hurts a bit, but the chiropractor and the guys in the trailer did a good job getting it as loose as it can get. I think every week should be a little bit better and better.
“I’m super glad I played. Yeah, it was good stuff in places. It was good to be back out.”
And good to have Mark Calcavecchia back.