Feeling Fine, Finally

Hawaii offered hope to a group of PGA Tour veterans trying to come back from chronic injuries
January 23, 1995

Sports fans who like their competitions to resemble splatter movies tend toward incredulity when they hear how professional golfers get injured. "Whaddya mean he hurt his wrist swinging in deep grass? Where was he, at the city dump? You sure there wasn't an old carburetor in there or somethin' ?"

And, in truth, injuries on the PGA Tour can seem invisible. With all the obvious mental pain being inflicted, it's rare to catch a professional limp, wince or flinch. But, in fact, nearly all pros with any years on them have some chronic physical malady to deal with. And a problem that in another sport might call for a little tape and some ice could effectively end a career in golf.

Last year the PGA Tour was particularly injury-laden. Beyond the non-golf-related maladies of Paul Azinger and Phil Mickelson, back problems sidelined such prominent players as Fred Couples, John Daly and Vijay Singh. For an idea of how beset some players are, 1994 was one of the healthiest seasons of 34-year-old Bill Glasson's 11-year career, yet it still included elbow surgery.

At last week's United Airlines Hawaiian Open, at Waialae Country Club in Honolulu, the injury onslaught continued. On Tuesday the longtime caddie of Peter Jacobsen, Mike (Fluff) Cowan, went chasing after Curtis Strange to avenge a prank and pulled both his hamstring muscles. Explained Jacobsen, "The last time Fluff stretched was when he got pulled out of the womb." On Wednesday, Singh was playing with his son in the Pacific surf when he fell on some coral and cut his left forearm so severely that he had to wear bandages for the entire tournament. "Vijay's inner gyroscope is not yet aligned," commented Mac O'Grady, Singh's new swing guru. Then on Friday the 13th, defending champion Brett Ogle lent some gore to the proceedings. On the follow-through of a recovery shot, the shaft of his five-iron hit a tree and broke. Part of the shaft cut Ogle's left forearm, while the head of the club flew back and hit him near the left eye, bruising his left temple and putting a deep scratch in the lens of his sunglasses. "I'm shaking like a leaf," said Ogle after getting to his feet. "I thought I had lost my eye."

But Hawaii is nothing if not therapeutic, and as 36-year-old John Morse was getting well with his first Tour victory, there was a lot of other healing going on, particularly among a group of long-suffering veterans: Steve Jones, 36; Dan Pohl, 39; Andy Bean, 41; Jerry Pate, 41; and Don Pooley, 43. In recent years all five have spent more time in physical therapy on the sidelines than on the golf course, and all have had to consider calling it quits because of serious injuries to parts of the body where pro golfers are most vulnerable—hands (Jones), elbow (Bean), shoulder (Pate) and spine (Pohl and Pooley).

Yet they all came to Hawaii professing to feel better than they have in years and eager to rejoin the battle as full-time players. All but Pate made the 36-hole cut of one-over-par 145, with Pohl and Jones showing they still may have the game to win.

"I feel so encouraged, because coming down the stretch my body held up like it had never been injured," said Pohl, who finished in a three-way tie for fourth, with Azinger and Glasson, five shots behind Morse. "I think each one of us that's been hurt has gone through an awful lot, but I also think that with our perseverence, we've got a lot of golf left."

While their names haven't been on the public's lips a lot lately, these guys are far from nobodies. Before their injuries this fivesome won a total of 27 events on the PGA Tour. Bean, with 11 victories, has the most, while Pate, with eight, has the most noteworthy, the 1976 U.S. Open and the 1982 Players Championship. Pohl was on the 1987 Ryder Cup team, with Bean, and won twice in 1986; Jones won three times in 1989; and Pooley took the 1987 Memorial, as well as the 1985 Vardon Trophy for low scoring average on the Tour.

But all five fell prey to the kind of injuries that hit many pros right around the prime of their careers. "The problems often occur because golf pros are peaking between the ages of 35 and 40, when most people are most susceptible to injury in the back and joints," says Dr. Peter Mackay, a chiropractor who has worked extensively with Tour players. "The postures and repetitive action of a Tour player's golf swing create a lot of wear and tear, but players tend to get so caught up in the demands of playing competitively that they don't maintain the kind of fitness it takes to keep their bodies from breaking down."

Certainly Pate, Bean, Pooley and Pohl fit that profile. Their problems flared up during the 1980s, when Tour players were just beginning to engage in stretching and strengthening the body parts most at risk. The veterans now serve as cautionary tales for younger pros, who as a group are more fit than their predecessors.

Since getting hurt, all five players are in much better overall condition (Pohl is considered one of the kings of the fitness trailer), but the seriousness of their injuries is such that none of them is quite the same golfer he was before. They are all shorter off the tee than they used to be, they can't practice as much, and each has been forced to change his swing to lessen the strain on his joints. Jones's lingering ligament damage in his left ring finger spurred him to change from a conventional overlapping grip to one in which his left index finger overlaps his right pinkie. He calls it his "reverse overlap Vardon-Jones." And each player is all too aware that his next swing in competition could be his last.

It's a reality each of the five veterans has made peace with, and they're all thankful that they still have an opportunity to compete. The most visibly enthusiastic in Hawaii was Pate, perhaps because he has been written off the longest. A dwindling number of people remember Pate as one of the smoothest swingers the game has ever seen and, next to Francis Ouimet and Jack Nicklaus, the youngest winner of the U.S. Open.

The effusive Pate had just won the TPC in 1982 when he suffered a severe rotator cuff injury in his left shoulder. He had three operations to repair the damage, the last one in 1987. He has maintained a good living by designing courses and working as a television commentator for ABC, but the itch to play never went away. He intends to play in 18 tournaments this year on sponsor's exemptions.

"I go brain-dead now and then, but I can still play," said Pate while striping shots on the practice tee at Waialae before a second-round 76 that sent him down the road. "I really think I can finish in the top-50 money winners."

Bean's slide started after he developed tendinitis in his right elbow, which caused a chain reaction of complications. He dropped from fourth place on the '86 money list to 120th in '87 and struggled for the next seven years. Now the pain is gone, and the 6'4", 225-pound Bean is full of confidence as he plays on a one-year Tour medical exemption, granted at the discretion of the commissioner.

"It's been six or eight years since I felt this good," says Bean, who shot five-under-par 283 to finish 47th in Hawaii. 'T can swing it again."

Pooley's neck and lower-back problems predate his 1980 win at the B.C. Open, and he finally opted for surgery on his neck in 1992 and on his lower back the next year. He, too, has a medical exemption this season and intends to use it to play a full schedule. He was particularly encouraged by a third-place finish at the Texas Open last October and finished 36th in Hawaii.

"I'm eager," he says. "I have a rookie's enthusiasm, with the experience of a veteran. That's a good combination."

In 1989 doctors thought Pohl had a common herniated disk and recommended surgery to repair it. But during the operation they discovered a bone chip that was inflaming nerves inside his spine. It required a six-hour operation to rearrange his nerves. Doctors told him it would be four to five years before the nerves would fire in the proper sequence. Pohl didn't swing a club for a year but went back to competition 17 months after surgery. For the last three seasons his biggest problem has been one of distance control, particularly when his back tires late in a round.

"Under pressure, the muscles in my back tighten, and that affects the way the nerves react," he says. "I really have to keep as calm as I can, but that's tough when you haven't been in competition very much."

Although his swing still looks compact and powerful, Pohl is no longer the aggressive player he was in the '80s, when he was one of the Tour's longest drivers. "If I have to hit a two-iron off the tee, even if it makes me look like Joe Wuss, I'll do it," said Pohl. "I've had to realize there are shots I just don't have."

Pohl is using the 10-year exemption he earned with his 1986 World Series of Golf victory to play in about 20 events this year. He has also signed with NBC to be an on-course commentator in six events, including the U.S. Open and the Ryder Cup. Beyond that he only knows one thing for sure. "No more surgery," he says. "Not until the mortuary."

In contrast to the massive repair to Pohl, the 6'3" Jones has had the most minor but also most maddening injury of the group—damaged ligaments in his left ring finger that wouldn't allow him to swing a club without excruciating pain. Jones hurt himself in November 1991, when he wiped out on a dirt bike and jammed his hand trying to break his fall. At first he was more worried about having separated his shoulder, but that soon healed. Unfortunately his finger wouldn't.

"I kept trying to rehab it, but it would just get worse," says Jones. "Every time I would change a diaper or hit it against something, it was like an electric shock. I was going crazy, and the only thing that kept me sane was that I'm a Christian. Finally a doctor told me that where I was hurt is the hardest area of the human body to heal."

With that knowledge Jones put his finger in a splint for several months. When he took it out, he still felt pain but found that his new grip made it tolerable. After playing respectably in Europe last fall and in two Tour events late in the year, Jones decided to use his medical exemption this year.

"It's like I'm a new person, a different player," says Jones, who unconsciously protects his hand by keeping it in a fist or holding it against his stomach. "It's hard to explain to people how such a small thing could change so much, but maybe that's what this game is—small things that make a huge difference."

TWO PHOTOSJACQUELINE DUVOISINFirst-time winner Morse (inset) made the most of his chances in Hawaii, while Pohl, now a fitness fanatic, got a big lift from his tie for fourth place. TWO PHOTOSJACQUELINE DUVOISINPate missed the cut but was still able to marshal some optimism for his prospects this season. TWO PHOTOSJACQUELINE DUVOISINJones (below) has a new grip on his game, and Pooley has found a new enthusiasm for his. PHOTO

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)