South Africa’s Justin Walters gives a moving account of how he has dealt with adversity throughout his life, including the recent death of his father, in this week’s Player Blog presented by Enterprise Rent-A-Car.
You only grow and learn from tough times. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying I'm unique in experiencing them – everyone goes through sh**. When I was four years old I had a thorn tree needle go straight through my right eye so I'm technically blind after my injury. Growing up as a kid my left eye grew really strong and I was able to still compete in various sports, but I found it easier to hit a ball that stood still – so golf was perfect. I turned pro in 2003 after playing college golf in America, and at first when I came over to Europe I started competing in a lot of EuroPro Tour and Challenge Tour events when I developed double vision. I was at the end of a tournament round when I got over the ball and I saw four feet, two golf balls and two putter heads. I was like 'what's going on here?' Although I've been partially blind for a lot of my life – I have 40% vision in my right eye – it was a huge shock. To look up and see two holes was scary, and it’s safe to say I didn't play my best that day. I pulled out and went back to America for a diagnosis, and after seeing a specialist he said the contact lens in my right eye, that I changed to in my last semester in college, had kicked my eye into gear and led to me seeing two pictures – whereas before I only saw one. As a result, I had to go for corrective surgery. During my recovery period I entered European Tour Qualifying School. I got through First and Second Stage with double vision – I had to close my right eye to get rid of any second image, which hadn’t gone away yet, and it's something that I still have to deal with today in certain light conditions – I still ask my caddie to help me to read a lot of my putts. Regardless of that you just battle through it and carry on as best as you can. I've always tried to take that stance whenever I've faced adversity.
As I was starting to gain momentum this season, after playing well in the U.S. Open and at Valderrama, I got injured. During the second round of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open I was in the top 30 with five holes to play, when I suffered a grade three tear in my calf. I tried finishing, but I could hardly swing the club. The following week, I think I became the first player on Tour to compete with a set of crutches! I mainly went to the Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open to do physio work on the truck, but by Thursday morning they had done such a good job I could swing a club, just not walk properly. So, with the use of crutches and a dose of pain medication, I was able to shoot one under in the first round, but the second round proved too much. Losing out on two Rolex events in the middle of my season changed the whole complexion of the year. Five weeks of rehab and recovery and I was ready to play again at the Czech Masters, but everything had changed after my dad went into hospital. The doctors were against me travelling to go and see him because of the issues with my leg, with it being compressed at high altitude on a plane for a long-haul flight to South Africa, so dad asked me to stay at home and get better.
Tournament golf has been really challenging after losing my dad, but going through that has given me some perspective about what's important. Golf is just a game. I’m guilty of trying to make it more than that sometimes, and I think I lose the joy of why I started playing the game in the first place as a kid. My dad didn't want me visiting him in hospital as he didn’t want it to impact my season, but I promised him that I'd go and see him when I was back playing in Europe after I recovered from my injury. My first week back was in the Czech Republic where I did make the cut but didn't do much with it, then the following week was Sweden – that was the week everything changed. I called him on the Wednesday and I asked 'shall I just pull out of this week and come to see you?' But he responded 'absolutely not, I'm fine'. I made the cut and played well on Friday and he called to ask 'how did you go?'. I told him I had a good day and he said 'that's great, I'm so proud of you.' That's the last time I ever had a conversation with him.
My coach was waiting for me on the 18th to tell me the news on the Saturday morning after my third round. Dad had gone to sleep on the Friday night stable, and on Saturday morning he'd suffered a cardiac arrest while I was on the course. He was put into an induced coma after he flat lined for about 15 minutes, but they brought him back somehow. I faced the daunting question of 'do I play on Sunday in Sweden or not?' I spoke it through with my family and they said I should play as that's what he'd want. I actually managed to shoot three under with no bogeys. Amazing what perspective brings when you don’t care about the result of a shot or putt. I was feeling a lot of pain, but I played for him that day. After that I flew down to see him and he was in bad shape, but I think he knew I was there because his breathing changed when I spoke to him. But straight after I got there his health deteriorated.
1st time in my career I have withdrawn after 1 round. Hard decision but took a round like today to show me my struggles w/ recently loosing dad are still too fresh. Need time to heal, even though Dad asked me to keep playing, I simply can’t. Back @BMWPGA, until then farewell— Justin J Walters (@jwaltersgolf) September 5, 2019
He'd asked me to keep playing no matter what. So that's what I did. I tried to play in Switzerland, but it was really difficult. I actually did okay, I was one under playing 18 on Thursday after dad passed away on the Wednesday morning, but I doubled 18 and I found that in those moments I had no resilience when bad things happened, I would just melt. I knew emotionally I was in no position to play, so I withdrew from Germany. I came back at the BMW PGA Championship and I was stronger, but if I had been fully exempt for next year, I would have taken the rest of the year off and given myself a chance to fully grieve with my family. But because of where I am with my playing status for next year, and because of my dad’s wishes, I’ve just had to keep going, and I've found it hard to play consistently over four rounds.
I shot 63 in the opening round of the Alfred Dunhill Links – that was a really special day as when we lost my mum on the Monday of that event in 2013, my whole family travelled up to watch and support me. They wanted me to still play in her honour, and it felt like there was a symmetry this year being back at St. Andrews after losing dad too. It almost felt like a healing process. But after a good start I placed too much importance on what that week could mean for the rest of my season, how that could give me the chance to finish my season and go home and see my kids. I lost perspective, and in the end, I missed the cut by one. This continued in Spain, but after confiding in my team they helped me implement a new process and it really showed in my game at the Italian Open. I regained my focus. I just had to go 'stop, time to think about something else.' I had to be more present and ask myself better questions. I knew I was still swinging it well, I just couldn't get out of my way for four days, but that changed in Italy and I managed to compete, which was lovely.
I'm not asking for any sympathy, though. I'm still healthy. I have two lovely kids and a lovely wife, and I play golf for a living. Sometimes you need to sit down and remind yourself of that, as there are so many people who are worse off in life. I have a responsibility as a father and husband to provide for my children, and I have a promise to keep for my dad. Most people would be dreading being on the bubble going into this week, but I'm very appreciative to be where I am after the obstacles I’ve faced. I love being in Portugal, and I had an amazing week here in 2013 where I managed to finish second.
Just walking down certain holes here you can draw on certain memories and positive experiences. I've been given an opportunity to walk away with a full card for next season after the trials and tribulations this year. It's not the end if I don't make it this week, I really believe that. I feel like I have a lot more to give and I have a lot more great golf to play, and after the changes I’ve made, and the new perspective I have, I'm excited for what the future holds for this week and beyond.