Strange to say, but when Benn Barham started suffering bad stomach pains last summer it turned out to be one of the luckiest breaks of his life.
Wind forward several months to early 2011 and the 35-year-old is continuing his return to full fitness after having a cancerous right kidney removed - the existence of which only came to light because of his stomach problems.
Sitting in the clubhouse at London Beach Golf Club, close to where he now lives in Tenterden, Ashford-born Benn looked back on the turn of events which so nearly turned his life upside down.
“I had to pull out of a tournament in Germany in August because of stomach problems, which I put down to food poisoning. Then, after I had been back home for a couple of days, I was in absolute agony during the night and I was taken in an ambulance to William Harvey Hospital (in Ashford) where they gave me an anti-acid tablet.
“I then went up to Gleneagles to play in the Johnnie Walker Championship but again I ended up in hospital with stomach pains and one of the European Tour doctors suggested going for an ultrasound scan when I got home because no-one seemed to know what the problem was.
“So I went for a scan and a few days later I had a phone call from my doctor while I was practising at Chart Hills. He said, ‘I need to see you pretty quickly, can you come in today?’, which of course was a bit scary. I went and saw him and he said that the scan had revealed a shadow on my kidney.
“I was then sent for a CT scan and afterwards a kidney specialist, Mr Choi, confirmed that there was a tumour on the kidney. They didn’t know if it was malignant but he suggested taking out the whole kidney to be on the safe side.
“He gave me a few possible dates for the operation and I decided to have it done as soon as possible. I then went and played in a tournament in Austria and, considering everything, I didn’t play too badly and finished 23rd. But the good thing was that I now had a plan, and I could put my health issues in a box for a while and just concentrate on playing golf.”
Barham also played in the Vivendi Trophy in Paris and afterwards he received an invite to play in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at St Andrews, the lucrative pro-am tournament which always attracts an array of celebrities and Benn found himself paired on various days with soccer legends Bobby Charlton, Johan Cruyff and Alan Hansen.
“I had a great time and, although I missed the cut by a couple of shots, I played nicely around the Old Course. But walking up the 18th at St Andrews, in what I knew was going to be my final round of golf for some time, was the first occasion that the health issue hit me emotionally, and I thought, ‘This is my last round with two kidneys’, and ‘how long will it be before I can play again?’
“I went into the press conference afterwards and it took quite a long time because I was feeling a bit choked up, I was thinking about my family and my career.”
His operation took place at Kent and Canterbury Hospital in early October and he recalls being “by far the youngest person on the ward because it’s so unusual to have this particular form of cancer when you are only 34.”
“After the operation I went to see Mr Choi again and he said that, because the cancer had been contained in my kidney, I wouldn’t need any chemotherapy but that I would need to have regular check-ups.
“As for the stomach pains which started all this off, the doctors think it was probably a virus and totally unconnected with the kidney problem. But if I hadn’t had them, I would never have gone for a scan and the tumour wouldn’t have been detected, so I just feel incredibly lucky at the way things have turned out.”
And if you want to find someone who has always been very grateful for how his life has panned out, then you don’t have to look a lot further than Barham. Witness his popularity on the golfing circuit, or the fact that he has raised thousands of pounds for Demelza House, the children’s hospice in Sittingbourne, through his “Birdie Challenge” and charity golf days.
But first and foremost he remains a dedicated golf professional and, until 2010, Barham had been Kent’s leading player for several years, earning over one million Euros in prize money alone and achieving a career-high position of 89th on the European moneylist in 2007.
Now, however, he has been dislodged from the county No1 spot by the “new boy on the block”, Chatham’s Matt Haines who is playing full-time on the European Tour this year after finishing runner-up on the Challenge Tour Rankings last year in what was his rookie season as a professional.
And while Haines is already up and running on this year’s European Tour, Barham is still carefully planning his return to action on the Challenge Tour.
One of the consequences of his operation was that Barham was unable to compete in the European Tour Qualifying School in December in a bid to regain his full playing card, which he lost at the end of 2009 after finishing 133rd in The Race to Dubai – his lowest position since 2005.
Yet it could have all been so different if the cruel hand of fate hadn’t intervened. Playing in the 2009 Austrian Open, Benn looked set to win his maiden European Tour title after leading going into the final round.
But he had to settle for the runners-up spot after Spain’s Rafael Cabrera-Bello robbed him of the title with a stunning final round 60, one of the lowest rounds in European Tour history.
Barham admits he took a long time to come to terms with that disappointment, especially as victory would have given him a one-year extension from qualifying for the European Tour.
Then, after missing out at the qualifying school, Barham played in only 15 full European Tour events last year, winning just under 50,000 Euros.
Little wonder then, that he says: “It’s been a tough couple of years, both playing-wise and with the operation, and I have got to ask myself whether what was going on inside my body was effecting my golf in terms of patience and clarity of thought.
“Last year, I felt I was hitting the ball really well and my short game was good, but again my results on paper look extremely average and I just wonder whether, because of the cancer, I have been swimming against the tide a bit.
“And mentally, that’s probably a good thing for me to think because now, fingers crossed, I can move on and concentrate on getting my game flowing again.
“Golf-wise, I still feel the best years of my life are still ahead of me and my coach, Rob Watts, is very determined to help me to get back to playing at the level I was at a few years ago.
“It’s also been amazing the amount of support I have had from other people all through this, my family and friends, other golfers, and also from people who have suffered from the same problem.
“London Beach Golf Club have also been great. They have let me use their excellent swimming pool and gym to help regain my physical fitness, and I am also very grateful to Chart Hills and also to my sponsors, Hugo Boss, who told me just after the operation they were going to extend my contract..
“At a time when I was getting a lot of bad news, to have someone say, ‘We are going to stick by you,’ really touched me and helped me to get back on my feet.”
In view of what he went through in 2010, Barham is understandably to reluctant to make any firm plans or predictions for 2011. But he admits there is one date that is already looming large on his radar: July 14, the day of the opening round of this year’s Open Championship at Sandwich.
He said: “One of my goals this year is definitely to try to qualify for the Open. It’s massive for Kent golf that it’s being held at Royal St George’s again and I would love to be there.”
Barham played in the 2002 and 2007 Opens but narrowly missed out on qualifying for the Championship when it was last held at Sandwich in 2003. “I was absolutely gutted and it took me a few days to get over it, being an East Kent lad and having played St George’s so many times. So I really want to play there this year.”
If Barham does indeed achieve that goal, it’s a fair bet that there will be plenty of his fellow Men of Kent around the first tee wishing him well as he bids to put the events of the past two years firmly behind him.
This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Sporting Kent magazine.