Back on course after accident, DiGirolamo looks to give back

By Al TaysNovember 18, 2012, 1:24 pm

Life was good for Greg DiGirolamo on May 22, 2007 – a sun-splashed day on the water off Pensacola, a boat full of friends and plenty of liquid refreshments. It was a day made for partying, but once it was over, he had plans to get serious. It was time to find out once and for all whether he could make a living playing golf. He had all the physical requirements: A natural athlete, he could drive the ball 300 yards and his short game was decent. Only a combustible, club-throwing temper stood in his way, but he was getting better at controlling that. And he had taken a lower-paying job that afforded him more time to work on his game. 

But now nature was calling, and he dove into what he thought was 10 feet of water.

Greg DiGirolamoWhen Greg's parents, Michael and Marie DiGirolamo, showed up at the hospital, Greg's prognosis was not good. One doctor told them their son would never move again. They refused to believe it, refused to pass that medical opinion along to their son.

'We're a pretty faith-based family, and that's what we clung to, especially in the beginning,' said Michael DiGirolamo, a retired Navy veteran and as avid a golfer as you'll find. 'There really isn't much else you can do when the doctors tell you your son is done, he'll never move anything below his neck again.'

Greg was thinking the worst anyway, telling his father it looked like his luck had run out. 'I said, 'Nothing's been determined yet,'' Michael said. ''Nobody knows. What you need to do is start praying, and you need to get right with your heart.''

This wasn't the first time Greg had hit his head on the ocean bottom. It was a frequent hazard for anyone who surfed in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico, as Greg loved to do. He was a thrill-seeker, willing to take the risks to get the adrenaline rush. This hit was definitely harder than most he had experienced, but he managed to climb back into the boat and sat down. Thinking he merely had a bad 'stinger,' he gingerly tested how far he could move his neck.

That's when he collapsed onto the deck.

'Once I moved my neck, that was it – instantaneous paralysis,' he said.

While someone called 911 and DiGirolamo's girlfriend held his head to keep it steady, the boat took him to a nearby resort, from where he was airlifted to Baptist Hospital in Pensacola.

To prevent him from moving and possibly causing further damage, he was placed in a medicated coma. He was unconscious for his 22nd birthday. 'When I woke up I had nothing,' he said. 'No sensation below my neck.'

He would eventually spend five weeks in the intensive-care unit, but he was slowly regaining feeling. He was transferred to West Florida Rehabilitation Center, where he spent two more months re-learning the simplest tasks, starting with sitting up.

As he improved, thoughts of golf began creeping back into his mind. Being able to stand up and take a few halting steps marked the turning point. He was ready to try to play again, whatever 'play' now meant.

A couple of months before the accident he had gotten a brand-new Titleist driver. 'I was so stoked about it.' The club had gone untouched for months, but now it was time to renew acquaintances. He asked his father to bring it to him. 'I put it in my hands,' he said, 'and the flashback of having a golf club in my hands ... it was just like second nature for me.'

Having moved back in with his parents, Greg began taking a club out to their acre-plus back yard and hitting balls, just as he had done as a child. With little sense of balance left, he would sometimes fall down, but he kept getting back up.

As he slowly got better, he contracted the universal golfing disease – raised expectations. His temper, long dormant, began to reawaken. 'It's not like I could break anything, though,' he joked. 'I'm not strong enough.'

He enrolled in the Golf Academy of America's facility in Apopka, Fla., something he had planned to do even before the accident. The next step was returning to the course. With his tee-shot distance reduced to about 170 yards, he shot 110 in his first round.

'I've tried to play 6,000 yards,' he said, 'but I'm taking driver/3-wood to every par 4. It's not fun.'

So he put ego aside and moved up to the forward tees, now playing courses in the 4,900- to 5,300-yard range. His best score is an 81, a number that gave him a bigger thrill than shooting in the low 70s used to.

His father had worked as a golf course superintendent after he retired from the Navy, giving Greg the opportunity to spend up to 10 hours a day in the summer practicing and playing. They had played many times before, but their first post-accident round together was unforgettable. 'I cried,' Michael said. 'It was something I didn't think I'd be able to do with him ever again.'

Stamina has been one of Greg's major challenges. Even the relatively small amount of walking he has to do from a handicap-flag-equipped cart to tees and greens quickly exhausts him.

'If you saw the exertion it takes for him to hit a single shot, you'd be like, 'How does he do it?'' said Ron Jones, an instructor at Golf Academy of America.

Greg sees the world differently now, realizing how many things he used to take for granted.

'I got a lot of help from a lot of people,' he said. 'I never realized what a nurse actually does' until he was hospitalized. 'All my therapists, I'm very close with still.''

He also takes full responsibility for the cause of his accident.

'I'd just been drinking way too much, and that was my downfall prior to hurting myself,' he said. 'Being 22, (you think) you're bulletproof.

'That's one thing I've learned over time is moderation. I don't drink like that anymore.'

He'd like to forge a career in the golf industry. 'It's time to get going with life again,' he said. 'You can't do therapy for the rest of your life.'

He thinks he'd be a good instructor, for the able-bodied as well as the disabled.

'You don't see a lot of disabled people in the golf industry. My goal is to show even people who aren't disabled, that are normal, who think the game is so difficult, that if I can hit a golf ball . . .

'My goal is just to give back. I've been given so much from so many people.'

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Airlines lose two sets of Olesen's clubs in 10 days

By Grill Room TeamAugust 15, 2018, 7:50 pm

Commercial airlines losing the golf clubs of a professional golfer is not exactly a groundbreaking story. It happens.

But European Tour pro Thorbjorn Olesen is on quite the roll, losing two sets of clubs and five suitcases in the span of 10 days.

Olesen, the reigning Italian Open champ, claimed his primary set of golf clubs were lost last week. Having little faith they'd be found before this week's Nordea Masters, he decided to bring his backup set for the event in Sweden.

A veteran move by the 28-year-old, unless, of course, those clubs were lost too. And wouldn't you know it:

After pestering the airlines with some A+ GIFs, Olesen was reunited with at least one of his sets and was back in action on Wednesday.

He also still plans on giving his golf bag away to some lucky follower, provided it's not lost again in transit. Something he's no longer taking for granted.

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Podcast: Brandel compares Tiger and Hogan's comebacks

By Golf Channel DigitalAugust 15, 2018, 6:48 pm

Tiger Woods on Sunday at Bellerive recorded his seventh runner-up finish in a major and his first in nine years.

A favorite guest of the Golf Channel Podcast, Brandel Chamblee joins host Will Gray to compare and contrast Tiger's return to competitive golf with that of Ben Hogan and Babe Didrikson Zaharias in the 1950s.

Chamblee also discusses Brooks Koepka's major dominance, Bellerive as a major venue, Tiger and Phil as Ryder Cup locks, and who else might be in line to receive Jim Furyk and Thomas Bjorn's remaining captain's picks.

Finally, Brandel shares what it was it was like to qualify for the Senior Open Championship and compete for a major title on the Old Course at St. Andrews. Listen here:

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Lexi: I need to figure out who I am away from golf

By Randall MellAugust 15, 2018, 5:56 pm

Lexi Thompson says her month-long “mental break” from golf was not triggered by any new event, but it was a respite she needed to deal with the cumulative struggle that came from trying to show strength and “hide” the emotional pain she felt in the challenges she faced last year.

Thompson opened up in a heartfelt fashion Wednesday in her return to the game at the Indy Women in Tech Championship, where she is the defending champion.

“It was honestly just a buildup,” Thompson said. “The last year and a half, I have honestly been struggling a lot, emotionally, and it's hard because I can't really show it.

“It was just so much to deal with, and I had to show that I was still OK and still play golf. And I don't even know how I played that well, honestly. And I think it just kind of all hit me coming into this year.”

Thompson, 23, was candid about the challenges she has faced as a golf prodigy, telling reporters she spent some of her break from the game speaking to therapists about building a life that isn’t all about her golf.

“I would say it's just figuring out what really makes me happy off the golf course, as well, figuring myself out,” Thompson said. “I have transformed myself around this game for such a long time, ever since I was 5 years old.”

Thompson said she has always poured herself into the game, into practice and training.

“That's what I grew up knowing,” she said. “Didn't know much different.

“I was always a very determined person, and coming to this age, a little older, I realize I do need to make time for myself and enjoy life, because not a lot of 23-year-old girls are doing what I am. People need to realize that. I'm not just a robot out here. I need to have a life.”

Thompson qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open when she was 12, the youngest player at the time to do so. She won the U.S. Girls’ Junior at 13, won her first LPGA title at 16 and her first major at 19.

Full-field scores from Indy Women in Tech Championship

Last year might have been the best and worst of Thompson’s career. She endured a wave of emotional highs and lows.

At the start of 2017, she lost the ANA Inspiration in a playoff after being controversially hit with a four-shot penalty in the final round. She watched her mother wage a second battle with cancer, and she dealt with the death of a grandmother.

At year’s end, Thompson missed a short putt that could have led to her ascending to world No. 1 for the first time and being named player of the year. Amid all of that, she won twice and finished second six times, prompting the Golf Writers Association of America to give her its female player of the year award.

“You can only stay strong for so long and hide it,” Thompson said. “I am a very strong person, but at times you just need a break.”

Thompson was asked what she has figured out about the life she wants outside golf.

“It's still a work in progress,” she said. “I truly love being home and around my family and friends. I really enjoy that time. Even if it's two days, I get the most of it. Just being home and being a regular person, it's nice.”

Thompson announced after the Marathon Classic in mid-July that she was skipping the Ricoh Women’s British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in England. It is the first major she has missed since joining the LPGA.

“It was definitely a hard decision for me,” Thompson said. “The British Open, I never want to skip that event. It's just a very prestigious event. But with how I was, just mentally and emotionally, I wasn't ready to compete there. I was struggling with my game. Besides that, I was just struggling with myself.”

Thompson said she has been dealing with a hand injury, and it flared up during the Marathon Classic, but it wasn’t a factor in her decision to take a break. She said she is feeling fine now. She begins defense of her Indy title this week ranked No. 5 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings. She is winless in 13 starts this year, but she has given herself chances, with five top-10 finishes.

“I think overall I have had a little bit of an up-and-down year,” Thompson said. “I have had some great tournaments, but obviously haven't won yet. But you just have to take the positive out of everything, realize that I have had a great year. I haven't won, but I'm trying my best in every tournament, that's all I can do.”

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Tiger's major goal: Tame the driver

By Jaime DiazAugust 15, 2018, 5:26 pm

We’ve seen it before. Especially in the late summer, at PGA Championships in humid Middle American locales like Chicago, Louisville and Tulsa. Last Sunday in St. Louis, there was Tiger Woods glistening with sweat, his mental gears meshing, the body flowing. In the hunt, and in the zone.

Amid the steam rising from Bellerive’s zoysia fairways, it seemed something that had been stuck within Woods loosened and fell back into place. Through some mix of remembering and discovering, he made a breakthrough toward the goal of solving the most prolonged and perplexing puzzle of his career – the way back to being a major championship closer.

Woods reached a longed for and special mindset in the final round of the 100th PGA. He hadn’t had it at Bay Hill in March, where after climbing to within one stroke, a drive pulled out of bounds on the 70th hole ended his challenge. He came closer at Carnoustie last month, putting together a near flawless front nine that got him tied for the lead, only to almost immediately make the kind of killing mistakes he never made in his prime.

Many began to wonder whether what Nick Faldo calls the 15th club – nerve – had left Woods forever. But on Sunday at Bellerive, he proved that his mastery under pressure is still accessible.

First, a scrambling, lemonade-out-of-lemons front-nine 32 got him within a stroke of a temporarily faltering Brooks Koepka, who Woods began the day trailing by four. “I was hanging in there with my mind, basically,” he later said. “And it got me through.”

Then on the back nine, Woods figured out his swing and homed in on the flags, immersed in a fierce focus that amid the thick humidity revived memories of his four previous PGA victories.

Revived, but reprised. For all of the brilliance Woods exhibited down the stretch, he made two crucial errors. On the par-4 14th, a pushed iron off the tee and an indifferent chip led to a bogey. And, most fatally, the pushed drive into the hazard on the reachable par-5 17th, when he had to have birdie to answer a resurgent Koepka.

Woods, whose sheer fight in his 42nd year might even exceed what it was in his 21st, bounced back from both holes with birdies. When he holed a 20-footer on the 18th for 64, his celebratory uppercut was partly about getting within two of Koepka. But mostly it was the deep satisfaction of confirming that his golfing head – the biggest key to all his success and most of his struggles – is healthy again.

Of course, Woods won’t truly be back until he wins. Which means his latest breakthrough at Bellerive will have to be followed by one more. Which will have to come in the part of the game where Woods has most declined – the tee shot, especially with the driver.

Woods and the big stick have had a volatile relationship. In his early years on the PGA Tour, much of his domination was built on distance. He wasn’t the straightest, but he wasn’t wild. And he had a knack for piping important drives down the middle.

Woods knew as a teenager that being long and straight has always been the most efficient way for a gifted player to separate from the pack. It was Jack Nicklaus’ advantage for much of his reign, why Greg Norman stayed at No. 1 in the world for so long, why Dustin Johnson is No. 1 now, and how Koepka won at Bellerive. Woods in his mid-20s, when he played the most explosive golf of his career, was a devastating driver. In 2000, he led the PGA Tour in total driving, achieving a career best rank of 54th in driving accuracy.

But those numbers started to decline, in part because Woods never really quite felt as comfortable with oversized titanium heads and lightweight shafts as he had with a smaller metal head and heavier steel shaft.

Butch Harmon, as well as the instructor who followed him, Hank Haney, have said that Woods was always preoccupied with distance, ultimately to the detriment of his technique. The goal of producing more speed and having more power from the rough (along with ostensibly preventing injury) is why Woods began intensifying his work in the weight room. Tellingly, both Harmon and Haney both wanted Woods to swing with less force and more control, sacrificing a bit of distance for increased accuracy. But they couldn’t convince Woods.

With age and injury, Tiger gradually lost some distance in his 30s. But while he became a better iron player, he did not get straighter with the driver. Still, even through his embattled last 10 years, he continued to play a power game. At the moment, he ranks 34th in distance on the PGA Tour with an average of 304.7 yards, and an impressive 16th in clubhead speed with an average of 120.46 mph. But he’s 176th in driving accuracy, 120th in total driving, and 127th in strokes gained: off the tee. In the obscure but telling category of consecutive fairways hit, Woods ranks 305th with a best of only nine fairways in a row.

But at Bellerive there was an indication that Woods may be changing his approach. In his post-round interview on Sunday, he twice – unprompted – pointed out that there is a level of drivers above him – not only longer, but straighter.

“He’s a tough guy to beat when he’s hitting it 340 in the air,” Woods said of Koepka. “Three-twenty in the air is like a chip shot. And so that’s the new game … Dustin’s done it now, Rory’s doing it … Those guys, if they’re driving it well, they have such a huge advantage because of the carry.”

It was a rare concession from Woods. In former days, if another player was better than he was at some part of the game – be it distance control with short irons, bunker play, lag putting – he would quietly make that strength a target to match or exceed. After the 2000 season, he only half-kiddingly told driving accuracy leader Fred Funk that he was coming for him. 

The younger Woods may have invested his pride in being one of the longest hitters, but I suspect the 42-year-old version is wise enough to be open to any adjustment that will help him beat people in the time he has left. And he’s too smart to try to beat them at their own game.

The evidence from Carnoustie and Bellerive is too stark (along with his rank of fourth on Tour in strokes gained: approach the green). Woods is now at his best when he plays to his greatest strength – iron play. And though he is still strong enough to make things happen from the rough, there’s a good argument that he is the best in the game with an iron from the fairway. The only thing holding him back are untimely drives like the one on 17 at Bellerive.

Ergo, to use a term Woods favored when he was fresh out of Stanford, put the driver in the fairway. Not the 3-wood or driving iron, which will cost Woods even more distance against the Johnsons and Koepkas of the world. But a slightly dialed down driver. One that he can hit with less psychic “all or nothing” stress that comes from the small margin of error he leaves himself with a hard driver swing. Accepting that he can no longer be among the biggest hitters and adjusting accordingly gives him his greatest chance of still being the best player. In short, take the advice offered by Harmon and Haney.

Now that the major season is over, developing a new, more controlled game for himself in 2019 would be my hope for Tiger Woods. He’s figured out a lot lately, in particular at Bellerive clearing the mental hurdle that was blocking him from performing down the stretch on Sundays. That was a big one, and now it seems like the wind is at his back. Yes, the clock is ticking, but it feels like there’s plenty of time.