LINKS LETTER, FEBRUARY 2002

UNDER CONTROL

By Bob Gilder with Jeff Hopper

It might be bittersweet for some guys to make the move to the Champions Tour. After all, it forces you to admit that you’re growing older. But as I moved toward my 50th birthday on that last day of 2000, I certainly wasn’t feeling old. My body was in good shape, and my game was tuned up too.

In my final season before heading toward the Champions Tour, I played 14 events on the regular Tour and 13 events on the Buy.com Tour. I had no intention of slowing down. I had held my own against these young players on the tours, so I felt confident that I could keep up with the guys that I had been playing with through the years. Everything seemed to be under control. And if there’s one idea that appeals to everyone who has ever played the game of golf seriously, it is just that—control.

But less than 24 hours before I was to tee off in the National Qualifying Tournament for the 2001 Senior Tour, I found myself crumpled in pain on the floor of the locker room. The pain was so consuming that I could barely hear anyone around me—and believe me, there were a lot of people encircling me. Most of them were probably pretty sure that they would have one less competitor to deal with in those four grueling rounds. And at that moment, I could have given them no argument!

Where had all this trouble so suddenly come from?

I really had experienced very little physical difficulty throughout my career. I had been quite fortunate in that way. But maybe my body was facing the reality that I wasn’t—the reality that I was about to turn 50. Two weeks before the Qualifying Tournament, floating around my house in Oregon, my ankle started to swell up on me. Even now I cannot recall doing anything out of the ordinary to that ankle. I didn’t flop it over on anything or step off a curb wrong, nothing like that. It just started swelling up, as if I had a sprained ankle. Within three days, I could not walk on the thing. I thought, Why is this happening to me right before the q-school?

The sports medicine staff at Oregon State looked at it for me, but there was no easy fix-it. I simply had to wait for the swelling to go down. This meant that I missed a lot of warm-up time and I could only head to Florida for the qualifying with the hope that everything would be all right.

The tournament started on Tuesday and on the Friday before, with God giving me strength, I was able to walk on my ankle fully again. Saturday and Sunday my game started to come around, and by midday Monday, I was ready to go. I started to walk out of the practice bunker and I said to my caddie, “OK, Tony, that’s it. We’re done. Let’s go.”

No sooner had I uttered these simple words than my side started hurting. I told Tony we would drive over to the car and put my clubs in, and by the time we got there I was feeling pretty bad.

I said, “Tony, I don’t feel very good. Why don’t you take me up to the clubhouse?”

We took the cart up, and I headed straight for the locker room, but immediately I thought, I’ve got to get out of here! It felt like something was closing in on me, grabbing me right at the kidneys, and squeezing as hard as possible. In fact, it was getting harder and harder.

I slumped to the ground, surrounded by some folks who had to be pretty scared. But I heard one voice in the background saying, “It looks like kidney stones.” The next thing I knew, I was off to the hospital.

Along the way, the paramedics gave me some morphine, which instantly cut the pain. Unbelievably, I said, “Guys, I’m fine. You can take me back to the golf course.” They were kind enough not to laugh, but they kept driving me to the hospital.

I don’t know if the guy in the locker room was a doctor, but his diagnosis was right. I had kidney stones.

At the hospital, the doctor gave me two choices: I could have an operation that night to remove the stones, or I could do nothing and take my chances.

The first option was no option. How could I play the next morning?

But the second choice wasn’t much better. If I had an attack on the course, my group would have to leave me behind.

Either way, I would have missed my chance to qualify, and I would have had no regular place to play in 2001. So I pressed the doctor for a third option. “If you can give me something like that morphine to take with me on the golf course, I’ll just do that.”

He responded, “I think we can fix you up.”

So there I was on the first tee the next day, really just a matter of hours after being wiped out by pain and arriving at the hospital in an ambulance.

But I shot 69. And I felt fine all week. Of course, anyone who wins the Qualifying Tournament would feel just fine, and that’s exactly what I did. Injured or not, I was headed to the Champions Tour.

With some time on my hands, I went home and had that operation the next week. I was out of commission for two-and-a-half weeks. All this for a guy who had never spent a day in his hospital in his life before that December!

But crazily there was still more to come. Working out the week before the Royal Caribbean Classic at the start of the season, I tweaked my right knee pretty good. Somehow, though, I found myself in contention going into the last day. Really, I had no idea why I was there, because my game was sloppy. Surprised, I made some mistakes the last day and fell to ninth. The next week I was tied for fourth going into the last hole and made triple bogey.

But faltering this way wasn’t all bad. Because I had been close, I caught myself saying, “Wow! I can get up here a little easier than I thought I could.” It caused me to work a little harder at overcoming those mistakes.

The year’s third tournament was the Verizon Classic, and with a 67 on the last day, I won. It was my first Tour victory since the 1983 Phoenix Open on the regular Tour.

The fields may not be as deep on the Champions Tour, but if you find yourself in the hunt on the last day, you’re right there with a lot of guys who can really play. They all want to win too, so it’s difficult to make it happen for yourself. You’ve got to get yourself in position, then you’ve got to do the right things at the right time. You either have to make a birdie or not make a mistake.

Perhaps that makes it sound too easy. Because of my knee, though, I was not really expecting anything so positive that soon. And while I had a great rookie season, I didn’t win again until the last tournament of the year, the Tour Championship.

That gap between victories was partly due to the knee troubles—I eventually had surgery in May to repair a torn meniscus—but a lack of control on my part was also to blame.

By the time of The Tradition in April, I was growing more impatient with my physical troubles. And my game was not in the best of shape either. So when I missed four chips in a row horribly, I jammed my club back into the bag in anger. I caught my finger between two clubs and split the bone on the end of my right middle finger.

It was not a visible outburst. In fact, my caddie did not even know I had hurt myself. But it was a lack of self-control all right, and I was so embarrassed that I kept right on playing. The last day of the tournament, I was having to aim so far right just to keep the ball in the left rough that I thought 80 would be a good score. I shot 74.

I thought, Oh man, you’re at your low point now. You’ve injured yourself.

Eventually, after I had the knee operation and my finger healed, my game recovered, and I started to hit the ball well again. But God had taught me a big lesson. I had to keep control.

I normally do not get very upset on the golf course. If I do, it’s just for a minute or so. But this time I had let a series of shots get to me, and with a quick little boom of the club into the bag, the course of my season had changed. I had never done anything like that in my life. It was competitiveness, and God had to say, “You know, you really need to have patience with yourself.” That is God’s way. He keeps teaching you all the time.

When you’re highly competitive, control is a big issue. Your faith is tested in this way because people are watching you. You’re in the spotlight. But at the same time, you’re still human. God knows this. And He knows you make mistakes.

When I broke my finger, the only person who knew it right then besides me was God. The strange thing is that while God doesn’t want me getting angry over simple things, He also doesn’t want me hiding the fact that I’m not perfect. I can’t be perfect. If I were perfect, I wouldn’t need His help. And if I pretend to be perfect, you might think that I have no need for God. But I am human, and I do need God.

Before I play each day, I try to get some quiet time where I can be by myself mentally. In those moments, I turn the control over to God. I ask Him for guidance, and I ask Him to help me control my emotions. I know, too, that He has a plan for my game that day, so I ask for confident faith in that plan. Then I go out and do the best I can on every shot. This way, it’s so much easier to accept whatever happens.

If you try to control golf yourself—or life, for that matter—then you just end up getting upset. But if you give it to Him, there’s nothing to worry about.

COPYRIGHT 2002 LINKS PLAYERS INTERNATIONAL

  • Bob Gilder

    6 PGA Tour wins: 1976 Phoenix Open, 1980 Canadian Open, 1982 Byron Nelson Classic, 1982 Manufacturers Hanover Westchester Classic, 1982 Bank of Boston Classic, 1983 Phoenix Open

    9 PGA Champions Tour Wins: 2001 Verizon Classic, 2001 Tour Championship, 2002 SBC Senior Open, 2002 FleetBoston Classic, 2002 Allianz Championship, 2002 Kroger Senior Classic, 2003 Emerald Coast Classic, 2005 Constellation Energy Classic, 2011 Principal Charity Classic