He lost an eye after an errant tee shot. Now this Arizona high school golfer is back on the course


QUEEN CREEK, Ariz. — Riley Wortman was less than a year old the first time he picked up a golf club.

While he couldn’t hit off a tee, he watched his dad play on the putting green in the backyard of their Queen Creek home.

“Dad went outside all the time, and when I was 10 or 11 months old, I started crying at the back door and he finally let me out,” Riley said. “I started getting into golf like that.”

The Wortman family lives across the street from a golf course, aiding Riley’s passion for the sport. He first played a round of golf when he was 7 and today, he is a member of the Queen Creek High School golf team. He participates not only in tournaments locally but across the country and internationally.

But last year, Riley’s future on the course was in doubt, after an errant shot during a local high school tournament hit 16-year-old Riley, causing him to lose his left eye.

He needed to relearn how to read, drive and golf with his right eye doing all of the work.

A shot gone wrong

Riley didn’t know exactly what was wrong when he was hit in the face with a golf ball on Sept. 23, 2021.

At the time of the errant shot, Riley said he was leading a high school golf tournament by four shots at Dobson Ranch Golf Course in Mesa.

“I think after the second hole that day, he looked at me and he was like, ‘I’m gonna win the tournament, coach,’” said Alex Lobeck, who was in his first season last fall as coach of Queen Creek’s boys’ golf team. “Obviously, I had no doubt that he was gonna win because. … that’s the best golf I think I’ve seen him play.”

Riley made it to the 13th hole, still leading the tournament. He stood next to a tree on the right side of the fairway, waiting for one of his opponents to hit. The competitor teed off and his ball ricocheted off a tree, striking Riley in the face.

“I thought I broke my nose at first,” he said. “There was a lot of blood, so I put my towel on my face. And the EMS came over and they’re like, ‘Well, it’s not your nose.’ And it turned out that it was my eye.”

At the time, Riley’s mother, Kimberly Wortman, was sitting in a golf cart and setting up her phone to film his next shot. Lobeck was at the tee box, checking in on his other golfers. After they heard someone yell “Help!” they rushed down to the fairway.

The paramedics on the scene didn’t think the injury was going to be severe, Lobeck said, because the wound on Riley’s face was below his eye.

But after Riley and his mother got to the hospital, they learned the injury was more serious than they anticipated.

“The paramedics looked at it and were like, ‘OK, as bad as the situation is, it could have been worse,’” Lobeck said. “It was making it seem like it was just gonna be a couple stitches and some pain meds and things could be OK. And as the day prolonged and his mom was communicating with me, the news got worse and worse.”

While Riley’s mother was on the scene, his father, Matt Wortman, was dropping off Riley’s sister Faith at school.

Riley Wortman

The Wortman family at their home in Queen Creek, Arizona. (Photo: Chloe Peterson/The Arizona Republic)

Matt couldn’t join Kimberly and Riley in the emergency room of the hospital because COVID-19 rules at the time only permitted one parent per patient. So, Matt had to keep up with Riley’s condition through texts and phone calls.

“I was taking care of our daughter while [Kimberly] was taking care of all the other stuff with Riley and everything and it was tough. It still is tough to this day,” Matt said.

Deciding to remove the injured eye

Riley had three surgeries over the course of two weeks.

Initially, he had surgery that attempted to repair his left cornea. He was referred to a retina specialist after that surgery, who told him the best option would be to remove his eye.

“We saw roughly three different specialists with Phoenix children’s hospital to get a second and a third opinion to make sure that we were making the right decision,” Kimberly said. “But we all knew, based on them saying that there wouldn’t be any vision in the eye and that it was so badly damaged, keeping a damaged eye could damage the good eye, so we made that decision to remove it.”

Riley’s second surgery removed his left eye. Almost a week later, Riley said, he had plastic surgery to fix his fractures.

He had to wear an eye patch for a couple of months after his surgery and received a prosthetic eye on Jan. 13.

“I have three titanium plates and six screws,” Riley said. “And I mean, I look good because of plastic surgery, but if plastic surgery was not an applicable option, I would be screwed up physically.”

Riley’s parents help him put eye drops in his prosthetic three times a day. Because Arizona is so dusty, Riley said, he takes the prosthetic out one to two times a week to thoroughly clean it. Every six months, he’ll go to a professional to get the prosthetic cleaned.

Returning to the course

Riley was cleared to golf again in December 2021, but he was still having problems with depth perception. That didn’t stop the avid golfer from helping his teammates.

Lobeck said that, soon after his injury, Riley rejoined the team to watch practices.

“He helped me out a lot as an assistant coaching role,” Lobeck said. “So he would travel with us to matches and just watch from the cart, and his overall just presence there, I think, uplift our team and help everyone out even when we’re, you know, having a bad day.”

His parents, who weren’t sure if he would return to the sport at all, made sure not to push him.

“We didn’t know if he would ever pick up a golf club again,” his mother said. “But we just left it up to him. And whatever he decided is what we were gonna go with. And so, we didn’t force him. We would ask him, ‘Do you want to go practice? Do you want to go play?’ Until the day he said yes, then we were like, ‘OK, let’s go.’”

Riley started hitting balls again soon after he was cleared, Lobeck said, but he didn’t return to play any holes until March.

That month, Riley said, he started playing in tournaments and won two of the first three he participated in since his injury. He traveled to Scotland in June as part of a USA high school golf program, playing six different courses. During his trip, he shot a 68 at the Brora Golf Club.

But as he gears up for his senior year of high school golf this fall, Riley is still working through some anxieties related to his injury. On the golf course, he avoids standing anywhere near trees, he said.

“Golf is fine, but the tree is what had the ball hit me in the first place,” Riley said. “If the tree wasn’t there, the ball wouldn’t have hit me.”

He also has not returned to the Dobson Ranch Golf Course. He said he will refuse to play any tournaments there for the foreseeable future.

Queen Creek High School is getting a new athletic director and golf coach ahead of Riley’s senior year. Lobeck left to become Chandler-Gilbert Community College’s head golf coach.

His parents said they talked to Queen Creek’s new athletic director about limiting the number of times Riley’s high school team will play this fall at Dobson Ranch.

“We understand that matches and tournaments need to take place there,” Kimberly said. “We’re just going to leave that up to him whether or not he chooses to go there. At this point, the answer’s no.”

Although Lobeck doesn’t make the Queen Creek golf team’s schedule anymore, he said he’s planning to communicate with its new coach to make sure Riley’s wishes are heard.

“[I want to] make sure that he feels comfortable,” Lobeck said. “Because, I mean, it’s obviously just accommodating one player, but I think as traumatizing as the situation was, you want to make him feel as comfortable as possible returning to golf.”

Golf still in future plans

Riley was supposed to get his driver license soon after the day of his injury. But as he worked through navigating life with just one eye, driving was put on the backburner. Now, he’s preparing to get his license after he learned how to drive without sight from his left eye.

“So, when you’re driving and looking straight ahead, I can’t see anything to the left, because my nose is blocking it,” Riley said. “So, when I look to my left, the farthest I can see is the edge of the mirror. So, the entire left window can’t see anything. So, I have to constantly be looking everywhere.”

He also missed his junior year of golf, a prime year for college recruiting, because of his injury. He’s planning to be a full participant on his high school golf team this fall and hopes to field some local offers during his senior year.

“Last year would have been a good year for me, as I was on track to be top 10, top 15 at state and I would’ve got some offers last year, but as of right now, it’s nothing,” Wortman said. “But I would like to go to community college for one year and then transfer to a bigger school.”

Lobeck, a freshly minted college coach, said recruiting Riley has been in the back of his mind. Lobeck said Riley has the talent to be a Division I golfer.

Riley said he would love to be a professional golfer following college. But if he can’t make it onto a golf circuit, he wants to stay in the golf industry — whether it’s as a coach, broadcaster or analyst.

He’s also noticed that his comeback from injury has inspired others, and hopes to continue his encouragement.

“I don’t take anything for granted anymore, and I shouldn’t have before,” Riley said. “But I think about everything positive these days, and it really changed because what happened to me, I noticed made others feel happy and encouraged by what I’m doing.”