In this most serious of endeavors called golf, every once in a while we’re offered proof that life is more important than sport.
|After suffering a stroke on March 31, The Woodlands' |
Steve Gilley is 36 holes awy from playing in the U.S. Open.
In his 16 years as a professional mini-tour player, the 40 year old from The Woodlands has an impressive list of accomplishments. He once shot a record-setting 55 in a practice round prior to a U.S. Open qualifier.
Only two other pros have shot 55s, and one of them is Texas Golf Hall of Famer Homero Blancas. Gilley’s came in 2004 on a par-71 course in Virginia. He eagled the 10th hole and birdied in from there to shoot 25 on the back nine. He once shot a 60 on the same course as a teenager.
You get the point: the man can play. He’s won 25 mini-tour events and owns no less than 20 course records.
But none of it quite compares to what Gilley did earlier this year.
Just 45 days after suffering a stroke, he advanced through local qualifying for the U.S. Open with a 3-under 69 at Miramont Country Club in Bryan. Catch that? He had a stroke and a month and a half later made it through a U.S. Open qualifier. He shunned the doctors who said he’d never play again at a high level and was one of eight out of 132 professional golfers to advance to sectionals June 4 at Lakeside Country Club in Houston.
He’s 36 holes away from playing in the U.S. Open. The man who crumbled to the grass as a stroke seized him in March could be playing in June for a national championship at The Olympic Club in San Francisco.
“I signed up for the local qualifier on a whim. It was the last day of registration,” the soft-spoken Gilley said. “I basically had no preparation, but it gave me something to look forward to. I got pretty depressed after the stroke.”
At the Lakeside sectional qualifier, about 40 golfers—including PGA Tour players like Tom Kite and Bob Estes who haven’t otherwise qualified—will compete for two or three spots in the U.S. Open. Gilley is one of them. Whether or not he realizes the dream and qualifies, Gilley already is a major champion.
He is a champion in life because he now realizes that golf isn’t life or death. Things like family and health are more important.
It wasn’t an easy lesson.
Gilley and his wife Kelly, a Class-A PGA Member and the marketing manager with Sequoia Golf, which owns and operates Canongate Texas and The Woodlands Country Clubs, along with daughters Cameron (10) and Liza (8), moved from Atlanta to The Woodlands in 2010. Gilley gave up the mini-tours for a bit and helped support the family with a gig as the assistant superintendent at The Woodlands Country Club’s Palmer Course.
Even though he worked 50-plus hours a week and stayed engaged in the lives of his family, Gilley sneaked in time to practice his golf game, too. He never quit on his dream.
He’d practice and play in the late afternoon, often teeing it up alone. In the early evening hours of March 31, Gilley hit about 30 balls at The Woodlands’ Player Course and noticed the first tee was open. He decided to get in a quick nine.
“I hit my tee shot,” he said, “and as I drove the cart to my ball, I started to get dizzy. I was spinning. I figured, ‘What in the world is this?’ I pulled over to collect my thoughts. When I got to my ball, I felt a little better.”
Not for long. Still steadying himself against the dizzy spell, Gilley striped an iron shot that finished in the middle of the first green. The next thing he knew: panic. His body seemed to shut down.
“I couldn’t walk back to the cart,” he said. “I had to crawl. It was awful. My first thought was that I was going to pass out and no one would find me till the next morning. There was no one out there.”
He inched his way back to the cart on his hands and knees. It took a few minutes, but felt like hours. That’s when the nausea kicked in.
“My only goal was to get back to the clubhouse,” he said. “I couldn’t see. I felt sick to my stomach. I had to stop every few minutes. As soon as I got back to the clubhouse, I started vomiting everywhere. I thought it was heatstroke or something. I thought it would pass.”
It didn’t. The next thing Gilley remembers is losing the feeling in his right arm and leg. He called Kelly and she rushed to him. They went to the emergency room, where Gilley was diagnosed with vertigo. They gave him some anti-nausea medicine and sent him home.
The following day was Saturday, and Gilley slept the whole day away. He went back to work on Sunday and Monday, but still had trouble feeling his right hand. His motor skills weren’t normal, and he started to worry.
On Tuesday he got in with his family doctor, who insisted on a CAT scan. Three hours later, the results were in.
“He called and said I had a stroke and had to get to the ER right away,” Gilley said.
Gilley spent the next four days in the hospital hooked up to IV and oxygen machines. The doctors and nurses poked him, prodded him, injected him and ran every test possible to try and determine what caused the loss of blood flow to his brain. Everything came back inconclusive.
“They still don’t know what caused it,” Gilley said.
He asked about regaining full feeling of his right hand and arm. He asked about playing golf. One of the doctors asked, “You don’t play golf for a living, do you?” Gilley told him playing golf was all he had done for almost 20 years. The doctor frowned and told him he probably wouldn’t play at a high level again.
A highly competitive golfer who lived and died with every shot, Gilley dismissed that prognosis out of hand without a second thought.
“That doctor didn’t know me,” he said. “He didn’t know what kind of player I am or what kind of drive I have.”
Gilley spent the next several weeks in rehab. The therapy was grueling. It took two weeks for him to build enough strength in his right hand to grip a golf club. It was a week later that he could actually start to feel the club in his hand.
“At first I had trouble writing and couldn’t shave,” he said. “But every trip to therapy I started feeling better.”
In spite of the progress, Gilley’s spirits were down. The stroke not only atrophied the strength of his right side, it robbed him of his natural, God-given talent to hit a golf ball and make it go where he wanted. But rather than stay in bed and wallow, he pressed on. He worked harder at his rehab. After a few weeks, he started hitting wedge shots.
“Once I got to where I could hit full shots, three or four days later I was fine,” he said. “The doctors told me I needed to play golf. I needed to train my body to play again. I had to wear a heart monitor for a month, but everything seemed normal there, too.”
All along, Gilley knew about the U.S. Open local qualifier at Miramont. He needed a carrot to dangle. Even though he knew he wasn’t ready, he signed up. That wasn’t like him.
In preparation, he played four rounds of golf. One was a charity scramble event. He didn’t even keep score in the other rounds. That wasn’t like him, either.
“Once I sent a text to Kelly that said, ‘I made it to the third hole, so things are looking up,’” Gilley joked.
Having a sense of humor was just one sign of personal growth. Another was a fresh perspective on golf and life. Previously, Gilley obsessed in his preparation for competitive tournaments. His wife saw it more than anyone.
“In the past, he seemed to base his whole self-worth on how he played,” said Kelly, who was a high-level junior golfer back in Georgia. “I think the stroke helped him realize how precious life is and how little a bad shot or a bad round means in the overall scheme of things. I think he also feels God has given him a second chance, and he relishes the challenge of showcasing what he believes is certainly a God-given ability to play.”
Gilley entered the Miramont qualifier with a different mindset.
“For the first time in my life, I was going in with low expectations,” he said. “My plan was just to have fun. Whatever happens, happens. There are more important things.”
He had to remind himself of that after making bogey on the first hole. A birdie on his third got him back to even-par. Another one on hardest hole—a 450-yard, uphill par 4—got Gilley to the turn at 1-under par.
“I thought, ‘I can do this,’” he said.
With Kelly on the bag providing moral support, Gilley colored his scorecard on the back nine with three birdies and two bogeys. When they reached his drive on the 17th hole, Gilley felt the blood start to rush out of his system. He was grinding hard. He was gassed.
“I don’t think I’m going to make it,” he told his wife.
“Yes, you can,” she said. “Come on, you just need one more birdie.”
“No,” he said, “I don’t think I can make it through the round. I’m exhausted.”
That’s when Kelly challenged her husband.
“She told me, ‘If I can make it, you can make it. Let’s go,’” Gilley said. “That motivated me.”
Gilley smoked a 7-iron to a foot and kicked in the birdie. He was 3-under. He made par on the final hole and recorded his 69. He was in fifth place, but the afternoon wave had yet to tee off. With only eight spots available for the sectional qualifier, Gilley waited around for his fate.
He figured they would be a playoff, but he was wrong. No one in the afternoon broke par on Miramont’s challenging 7,174-yard course.
“When they told me I was in, I was shocked,” he said. “It was pure joy. I can’t even describe it. With all that I’ve been through, it’s pretty cool.”
It’s more than that. The ordeal changed him. He’s still working full-time at the Palmer Course but hopes to get into a financial position that will allow him to chase the tours again. The burning desire to play professional golf hasn’t waned. He still pours himself into every shot and practice session.
But there is change.
It’s the results—and how he responds to them—that are different now.
“It’s not the end-all, be-all like it used to be,” Gilley said. “Golf is a very selfish sport. You devote a lot of time and effort into it. My wife knows that and has known it for years. It was neat for her to see me just go out and play. I’ll come home and have a job and my kids will love me. It’s not the end of the world to play bad.”
Kelly sees it. She said he appreciates quiet times with Cameron and Liza more. She sees a renewed passion in his eyes for her as well.
“He has always been a great husband and father, but I’ve noticed extra attention to spend time as a family and make memories together,” she said. “Golf is and will always be a driving passion for him, but he structures his practice so that he doesn’t miss those events the kids have at school or something fun we can do as a family.”
They’ll be a family at Lakeside Country Club on June 4. Kelly is back on the bag when her husband attempts to qualify for the U.S. Open. With all he’s accomplished, he’s never played in a USGA championship. He recognizes it will be an amazing story if he earns one of the coveted spots.
He also knows if he doesn’t, he still has his health and his family’s love.
“It would be one of the biggest thrills in my life,” he said. “But I’m not expecting too much. If it happens, it happens.”
Maybe this is just the beginning of the story.