The inspiring story of Gary Woodland’s return to the Sony Open after brain surgery: ‘Every day it was a new way of dying, new way of death’

HONOLULU, Hawaii – Gary Woodland never feared anything except the fear of failure. That is until he began being jolted awake with the fear of dying.

“I had gone four and a half months of every day really thinking I was going to die,” he said on Tuesday. “Every day it was a new way of dying, new way of death. The jolting in the middle of the night scared the heck out of me.”

It turned out he had a legion on his brain, and on Sept. 18, Woodland underwent a craniotomy, slicing his head open all the way down to his ear and cutting about a baseball-sized hole in his skull to remove the majority of the tumor.

“Then put it back with plates and screws. So I’ve got a robotic head, I guess,” joked Woodland, who required 30 staples in his head.

Woodland is set to make his return to competitive golf this week at the Sony Open in Hawaii at Waialae Country Club, something that even a couple weeks ago he wasn’t sure would be possible.

“I had some people tell me this was a little optimistic to be here this week, but last week my family and I came over to Hawaii early,” he said. “Ramped up practice, ramped up the training and the body responded beautifully. Kept getting better and better.”

Woodland, 39, has won four times on the PGA Tour, with his biggest victory coming at the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links. But in late April, shortly after the Masters, he started feeling some troubling symptoms at the Mexico Open at Vidanta: shaking, tremors in his hands, loss of appetite, chills, no energy. It became so bad that he called his longtime doctor on May 24 and begged for help to deal with his anxiety.

“You think you can overcome stuff. I couldn’t overcome this,” he said. “I was like, ‘Man, I need something to calm me down.’ ”

His doctor said he couldn’t prescribe any medication without Woodland undergoing an MRI. Woodland went to get an MRI that night and it revealed a lesion on his brain, which led to more testing and eventually an appointment with a specialist.

“The lesion in my brain sat on the part of my brain that controls fear and anxiety,” Woodland explained. “He’s like, you’re not going crazy. Everything you’re experiencing is common and normal for where this thing is sitting in your brain.”

Woodland was prescribed anxiety seizure medicine that he took twice daily but his fear of dying only got worse initially.

“It was Wednesday (May 31) or Thursday night (June 1) of the Memorial and I’m laying in bed at 1 (a.m.) grabbing the bed to tell myself I wasn’t falling from heights, I wasn’t dying, for an hour.”

Gary Woodland prepares to play his shot from the fourth tee during the 2022 Sanderson Farms Championship at The Country Club of Jackson in Jackson, Mississippi. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

When the mini-seizures continued, they upped the dosage. As the medicine started to increase, his brain slowed down and the seizures stopped.

“The meds I was on were working for the seizures but were horrible for me as a person,” he said. “I had horrible side effects.”

One of those side effects was short-term memory loss. “I would be standing over a club and forget which club I’m hitting. I would be lining up putts and think, this is taking too long. I’m just going to hit it,” he said. “Didn’t have the focus or the energy.”

Woodland kept playing because physically his game felt fine and competing provided a short respite from the fear and anxiety he dealt with, but after he failed to make the FedEx Cup Playoffs, his caddie pulled him aside and said, “You can’t play this way. You’ve got to go get help. You’ve got to get fixed.”

A biopsy showed that the tumor, which was diagnosed as benign, was up against his optic tract on the brain and it was too risky to remove all of it.

“They removed as much as they could,” Woodland said, noting there had been the risk of losing his vision or even control of the left side of his body, “and believe they cut off the blood circulation to what’s left.”

Woodland spent two days in the ICU. When he was released from the hospital, they brought a wheelchair to the ICU room but Woodland declined using it. “I said, I’m sorry, I walked in this place and I’m walking out,” he recalled. “I got out of bed and I walked straight to my car and got home, and it was amazing seeing my (three) kids. They didn’t come while I was in the hospital. We didn’t want to bring them to see me like that.”

Woodland immediately began plotting his comeback. Full Swing Simulators installed PuttView, its indoor putting green, into the dining room at his house and he began putting two days after surgery. He was cleared to hit golf balls four weeks later but waited an extra week. Woodland played so badly during his first nine holes that he phoned his teacher, Butch Harmon, and asked if he could come see him in Las Vegas. Within 30 minutes, the rust started to come off.

“He was like, ‘G-Dub, you’re right where you’re supposed to be,’ ” Harmon said.

More than anything, Woodland is grateful for the love and support he’s received from his golf family as well as people he doesn’t even know who have been moved by his story.

“I realize there is a lot of good in this world,” Woodland said. “Even being back this week, seeing the guys, haven’t seen many guys. It’s been overwhelming how good it’s been.”

The question remains: Is he ready for seven days of mental focus and stress? Woodland said it is standard protocol to be on medication for at least six months, and he got a good report after an MRI a week and a half ago. He’s ready to prove that he can get back to being one of the best players in the world.

“I want to prove to my kids nobody is going to tell you you can’t do anything. You can overcome tough, scary decisions in your life. Not everything is easy. This came out of nowhere for me, but I’m not going to let it stop me,” he said. “I don’t want this to be a bump in the road for me. I want it to be a jump start in my career.”

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