The only way back from a life-altering medical emergency on the course was to tee it up again
Words by Zach Kahl Art by Geoffrey Cunningham
Light / Dark
The drive from Portland to Hood river is through the sprawling woods of Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge. The clouds hung low on this damp early September morning, and the leaves were already exploding with color. For a 9:05 tee time at Indian Creek Golf Course, I left at 7:15 with my clubs loaded into my truck and a podcast speaking to me about feeling worse for the wear. My thoughts wandered: Is three one too many swing thoughts? Would the caffeine my primary care physician recommended help this pesky headache that I’d had for going on two weeks? Could the sun poke through by the time we teed off? I was excited to play with some of my closest friends, so when I couldn’t use my right hand to pick up my coffee mug halfway through the drive, I passed it off as my body waking up.
I got to the parking lot and timidly strapped my bag onto the passenger side of the cart. I pulled driver at the first and hoped a breakfast ball would correct a badly missed fairway. It didn’t. I faked my way through the front nine, pulling everything left, resigned to the fact that I was posting a big number and determined to just enjoy the good company. Half of our foursome peeled off after nine holes, so it was just me and Chuck for the back. No. 10 is a short, elevated par 3, and I thought wedge would be perfect, but I had to keep it to chip from well off the green. Two putts and yet another bogey. Frustrated and out of ideas, I pulled out my green Sharpie on the 11th tee box and doodled some abstract shapes on my Pro-V1. That didn’t work either.
Chuck is 60, my favorite golfing partner and a close friend. We approached a bridge on the way to No. 13 and stopped to play a game that we’d learned at his home club, Pumpkin Ridge, during last year’s member-guest: Whoever gets the ball closest to the end of the bridge without going over gets a pop on the next hole. I expertly bowled my ball across the 60-foot incline to win—easily the best shot of my day.
At the 13th tee box, Chuck hit first, then I stepped up and went to retrieve a tee and ball from my pocket. Similar to the coffee mug incident, my right hand felt asleep. I looked down to see if it was even in my pocket. It was. With a strange, rigor mortis grip, I managed to extract a ball, tee and, for some reason, a repair tool. But my brain could not make my hand open again. I used my left hand to pry open my fingers and kept the fact that I couldn’t feel my right hand—and now part of my right arm—to myself. I pegged it with my left hand and gripped my 4-wood the best I could. As I stared at the green scribbles on my ball, the right side of my face went numb. I pulled the club back and swung meagerly, dribbling a shot 40 yards to the left. I was no longer deflated about my round; I was scared. Chuck looked at me and asked, “What is going on with you, man? You don’t seem right.” I told him my arm was completely numb and my face and lips were starting to tingle. I picked up my ball and told Chuck to keep playing and that I would keep him company in the cart. He finished the hole and kept me talking. He would later tell me he did this to monitor my condition because he suspected what was really happening.
Words began to escape my brain. I could not get them out. Chuck would ask me a question and I would mutter nonsense, then give up. Something was very wrong, and I had no clue what. As he hurried me back to the parking lot, I remember thinking about the passing holes and how I would play them. We went straight to the emergency room at the nearest hospital. I told the nurse what I could and she had me in a gown and a room in less than five minutes. There, sitting alone, I heard an intercom blare the news: “CODE GRAY—STROKE. CODE GRAY—STROKE.”
The door swung open and soon I was on a gurney rushing toward the CT scan room. I remember the technician instructing me through a speaker, “DO NOT MOVE.” I let my breathing slow and tried to relax, but my ears began filling up with tears that were uncontrollably rolling out of my eyes.
“Hey, babe! How was golf?!” I couldn’t answer my wife. “Babe?” I just laid on the bed of my hospital room, meekly holding my phone and staring at the point where the ceiling met the wall. I croaked a small cry. She heard it. “Zach. Are you OK? What’s going on?” Then, finally, I got out something like, “I’m ’kay—need you to call Mom. I’m having a stroke.” She was panicked, but held strong. I stammered that I needed an MRI at a bigger hospital in Portland to get a full diagnosis. A nurse said they had an ambulance waiting for me, but for cost reasons there was no way I was taking one through multiple counties, and my foot was down about that. Since we shared our truck, Megan would have to drive me there. I ordered an Uber; it would be at the house to pick her up in a few minutes. It was the most difficult call of my 35 years.
Megan and I met in 2009 in Los Angeles and moved to Chicago months later, very much in love. During her last semester at Columbia College, in 2013, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Since then, I have been by her side for countless MRIs, appointments and twice-a-day injections of what she describes as “hot sauce into my veins.” Multiple sclerosis is a confounding, frustrating disease that concerns the thin layer of myelin sheath around the nerves and halts communication between the brain and parts of the body. It has no cure; life for those with MS revolves around managing the disease’s physical and mental effects. Her doctors explained that meant reducing stress as much as possible and living in a place that doesn’t have extreme high or low temperatures. Three months after her diagnosis and one week after her graduation, we rented a minivan and drove to Portland. Now, after years of protecting her as best I could, I had to make a call that could very easily spark another episode.
The nurse understood my ambulance concerns and tearfully said how sorry she was that this was happening. Her emotion had the opposite effect: I became even more terrified. Then Chuck appeared in my room, somber but smiling. He had a book under his arm and explained that he ’d had a nice hour and a half of reading in the waiting room. To this day he still loans me books, mostly with spines well over an inch wide. He gave me a hug and I melted into it, buried my cheek into his shoulder and sobbed. He eased into a chair, I went back to the bed and we just sat in each other’s company. I knew I’d be indebted to him for the rest of our years.
Chuck gave way to Megan and more tears. But the doctors explained that every minute counted in a stroke situation, so we got in the truck and launched onto I-84. I was not able to speak much, but Megan comforted me and told me that my mother had the first flight out to Portland from Indianapolis the next morning. I watched the Columbia River and its endless trees go by. I remember looking at Multnomah Falls and the sheer energy pumping water over its edge. Nature slowly turned into homes, then to boxy warehouse buildings, then apartments and public-transit trains, and I knew we were near Providence Hospital.
I put Golf Channel on the hospital room TV and just stared at Megan. We communicated with our eyes, and she made me smile. I wondered if this was the way we would interact for the rest of our lives. At least we knew our way around the place: I’d taken Megan to this same floor of this same hospital for regular MRIs of her brain and spine over the past six years.
After my MRI, there was nothing to do but wait. For the next hour, waves of mini-strokes slammed into me. My right hand would go numb and this ghost feeling would travel up to my shoulder and then to my right cheek and lips. I tried to explain them to Megan.
“I can’t feel my arm.”
“My fingers sting.”
“I feel like a fishhook is in my lip.”
“My face feels dead.”
Finally, five neurologists entered the room. They didn’t have good news; they were unsure what was causing the headaches and mini-strokes. Despite dealing with strokes every day, they had never encountered what was happening to me. They could see the blood clot in my brain, and put me on IV blood thinners and pain medications, but they needed more time for a diagnosis. I wiggled my toes under a knitted throw blanket, just to prove I could do it. Later that night, I was admitted to a room on the eighth floor—the stroke floor. My nurse was temporarily puzzled listening to my heartbeat, until she realized that nearly every other patient up there was decades older than me. She divulged that I was the youngest person she had ever seen on the floor as she Velcro’ed my legs into booties that circulated air to keep my blood from clotting while in bed. I crashed into a deep sleep. It had been a hell of a day.
I woke the next morning to a prick in the arm as a nurse drew blood into a rainbow of colored vials. My mom burst into the room a few hours later, in time to hear the good news. The neurologist assigned to my case, Dr. Rontal, had arrived at a diagnosis: I had a central venous sinus thrombosis (CVST). The blood in the main artery of the brain, the one separating the right and left hemispheres, was clotted and couldn’t move from the heart to the brain and vice versa. He explained that it’s a rare condition affecting just 5 in 1,000,000, from infants to the elderly. The chances of a male my age having it were even smaller. Between the diagnosis and the fact that I hadn’t had a mini-stroke for five hours, Dr. Rontal felt confident that I could be discharged. We were pleasantly stunned. So, flanked by my two favorite women, I limped out to the truck.
We should have kept that parking spot.
Our first stop was the supermarket to pick up food and prescriptions, and it was like a dream sequence. So many people were going about their normal day, and I was struggling to put one foot in front of the other. I ran into my friend we call Fro in the frozen-food aisle. We had played in a tournament together just three days prior, and it was obvious he’d heard the news.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
He hugged me hard.
I went to bed early and tried to ignore the numbness returning in my arms. By 3 a.m., the pain in my head was too much. My mother heard me stumbling around the house grasping for Tylenol and got to see me crash into the bathroom, throwing up uncontrollably. So, eight strange hours after leaving, we waved hello to the same nurses as I reentered the hospital. I was in much worse shape than on my first visit, so they introduced me to the frightening power of fentanyl. I told myself that the pharmacist wasn’t actually wearing a Venetian death mask from the cover of Medeski, Martin & Wood’s album, but in my state I couldn’t be 100% sure. By the third dose I wanted no more, but it didn’t seem like I had a choice. Before losing consciousness, I made peace with never seeing Megan again or playing another round with Chuck.
Hours stretched into days. Doctors and nurses pulled me back from the brink and off the fentanyl, but Dr. Rontal still couldn’t determine what had gone wrong. Between his maddening visits, I began working with a speech therapist. She was relentlessly positive, and she needed to be. We started from the beginning.
“Give me as many animals as you can in 60 seconds,” she said, hitting her stopwatch on a string that took the place of a stethoscope. “Go.”
I started off strong, firing off four quick ones. But the blood in my brain quickly went to concrete.
“You got seven.”
The devastating reality hit me that, whatever the diagnosis, it would be a long road back.
On day five, Dr. Rontal appeared with an unfamiliar look on his face: a smile. He announced that he had solved the puzzle. I had kept myself entertained by trying to track the number of times nurses took my blood. I was currently at 60 vials. Turns out the blood was the problem. Dr. Rontal said I had factor V Leiden, a hereditary condition that is essentially a mutation of red blood cells. It can go largely unnoticed for many who have it. Others, like me, can have their lives unexpectedly torn apart. (Friendly advice, dear reader: Get your blood checked.)
Dr. Rontal had a detailed plan of action, including a roster of medications and blood thinners along with speech therapy and no work for 60 days. Then he asked what physical activities I enjoyed. “Cycling and golf,” I told him. He nixed all bike riding for the foreseeable future, then paused and smiled again.
“Play as much golf as possible.”
Seeing that I had experienced some legitimate hallucinations over the past week, I looked around to make sure this was real. Megan was grinning. No death masks. Dr. Rontal explained that so much of what goes into golf—walking, simple addition, problem solving, hand-eye coordination—lined up perfectly for stroke rehabilitation. Recovery would be grueling, he warned, but I could get there. We scheduled my next MRI for December 17. The next few months would be critical, so it was imperative that we follow his instructions. After the avalanche of pain, confusion and fear, suddenly I catapulted to the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, gifted with every die-hard’s fantasy: Stop working. Play golf all day. Doctor’s orders.
On the first day home, I filled up my weekly pill tray and assessed the new normal. The hot water from the shower still made my hands and arms tingle like electricity was coursing through them, but, rather than panic or cry, I let the anxiety wash into excitement about what was ahead. I had permission to drive, and hit Powell’s City of Books in downtown Portland. My speech therapist recommended crossword puzzles and literature that could keep my attention. I left with by Will Shortz, a fancy new mechanical pencil and a dream threesome of golf books from Tom Coyne, Harvey Penick and Tom Doak. I got home, put them down and began plotting my first round back.
I wasn’t ready—my walk was more of an exaggerated limp, and I was constantly groggy from the daily cocktail of meds—but Dr. Rontal said the process would start slowly. So, on the morning of my fourth day out of the hospital, I drove through a light but persistent drizzle and pulled into my local muni, Eastmoreland Golf Course. I didn’t have the energy to be giddy, but it felt so good to resume the golfer’s routine of paying for my round and heading out to roll some practice putts.
Flashbacks from Indian Creek flooded my head as I reached down into the bag to grab three balls. My right hand was still pins and needles, but, hey, at least this time it opened. My unsteady putting stroke looked like the spikes from my heart-rate meter, and I could already feel my body flagging. Joy turned into trepidation as I walked to the first hole. With the obvious truth of the round ahead, I took the scorecard out of my back pocket and slid it into a side pocket of my bag.
I put a ball on a tee and took a cautious practice swing. Thankfully, I was alone. I was briefly buoyed when I struck it well. Not great, but certainly better than my last tee shot with Chuck. Still, it was obvious from the first steps off the tee that I had bitten off too much. It felt like I was lugging an overstuffed backpacking bag rather than my clubs. By the time I reached my ball, I’d developed an exit plan: I would play Nos. 1 and 2, then reroute to the seventh and literally limp my way back in. My 130-gram shafts felt heavier with each swing. It was a relief to drag my ball out of the ninth hole; I just wanted to go home. Megan was excited to hear about how it went, and all I could say was that I was hungry and tired. Defeated. I suggested using pushcarts for awhile, until I had the strength to carry my bag. She said I should make an appointment with my instructor and try the range. She is a brilliant woman.
Robert Randall out of RedTail Golf Center is my dude. We had worked together for about a year; there’s nothing like vibing with your instructor. I took some swings while he finished up with another student, and I immediately felt better. Not having to limp around a course with my unwieldy bag freed me up to concentrate on my swing. I had new feels and a new swing thought:
It was a lot. But it helped. I quit thinking about the unfair hand I’d been dealt and just hit golf balls. Robert made his way over and dove in with the regular small talk: “How ya playing? Anything in particular you’re working on? How was your last round?” I shook my head and came right out with it. “Man, I had a stroke last week and just got out of the hospital.”
Robert just stared back for a beat. Then he admitted that I looked different. I gave him my practiced, much shorter version of the news. Bottom line: nothing but golf for the next couple of months. He reacted the way I’d hoped everyone would: He just nodded and asked me what club I had and where my aim point was. I pulled 8-iron and began hitting balls toward an electrical pole in the distance. Robert aligned TrackMan and off we went. It felt like a beginning.
He was usually quick to give his thoughts, but this time he kept his head on the screen and had me keep hitting. I switched to 6-iron and banged balls at the same target in the distance until he finally called me off. “Alright. This is crazy: You improved your path and face dramatically. I have never seen anything like this.” Somehow, my new normal now included hitting a beautiful cut.
“How do you feel?” he asked. Usually when players have a breakthrough of this magnitude, it’s cause for champagne and high-fives.
“I’m just really tired,” I confessed.
We kept talking as I took my glove off, signaling that my one-hour session was done after 25 minutes. We stood there in the hitting bay and talked about my newfound appreciation for life. I told him I would never take this game for granted. We talked about swinging easy and just playing when I was able. He suggested that I use a pushcart to help with the walk and weight. I gave him a hug and booked my next session.
The conversation continued when I got home. Megan and I discussed golf, but really we were talking about recovery. About how it felt to connect my brain down to my hands when I hit the ball. Then I told her about my new theory that if I could drop 35 grams from each club and convert from steel shafts to graphite, my body would thank me. I’m not sure she entirely got that part, but she happily gave me the green light to buy whatever I needed to get it done.
So began my career as a club builder. I hopped online and found a starter kit. I bought a hand torch, a shaft puller, epoxy and a vice. I ordered a 5-PW set of 95-gram SteelFiber shafts. I went to Home Depot and got a belt sander, a workbench and a pancake air compressor. I reached out to Patrick Boyd at Boyd Blade & Ferrule and placed another order of ferrules, except this time I’d be putting them on and turning them myself. I fell instantly in love. I understand that some players are less particular about what’s in their bag. I am not one of those people. Golf is extremely visual for me, from the landscapes to the tools. I spent hours on a stool working at my makeshift bench, gobbling up golf podcasts and feeling my brain emerge from the mire.
Gearhart Golf Links claims that its 1892 opening makes it the oldest course west of the Mississippi River. More immediately for me, at 6,200 fairly flat yards, it’s approachable and fun—perfect for my 18-hole return. My buddy Hayes and I left in the early morning haze and hopped on I-26 West. It had been two weeks since the stroke. This time, I was giddy.
We rapped about life. I was moving forward with mine; he was moving to Florida. His father took warfarin as part of his daily regimen; so did I. At mile marker 28, I pulled off to get 5 gallons of water from the spring tap to bring home. I’d always filled up here prior to the stroke, and doing it again felt like a reminder that my life was on track. I tossed the blue camping jug into the back of my Tacoma—another victory—and drove on.
On the Gearhart practice green, my putting stroke was noticeably leveled out. And the pushcart for my bag was a revelation. We both found the fairway off the first, and I took immense pleasure in simply walking with both hands on the cart, the wheels ahead of me. Instead of technical thoughts or strategy, my time between shots was spent concentrating on things like walking normally again and my next club build. I was exhausted after 12 holes, but had no problem finishing the final six. Hayes and I laughed all round. He’s a tough guy, a former hockey player, so I was surprised to see him tearing up when he took his hat off to shake hands after the last putt dropped. He gave me a big hug and welcomed me back to the game. I said I would miss him.
For the next few weeks, I stalked the fairways of Eastmoreland. Exhaustion and tingles were part of the deal, but I could feel both improving. Physically, I was trending in the right direction for the December MRI. The mental side was a different story. That thing your parents said when you were a kid about how you really don’t want it to be Christmas every day? They were right. In between shots now I found myself longing for the pace of a working life. I loved being a freelance sound mixer in the commercial and TV world, and I still physically couldn’t go back. News of my condition had flashed through the tight-knit Portland film community; I worried about getting any work in the future and if I could even handle it if I did. On top of that, I desperately missed my family in Indiana. I found myself blinking through sudden tears before tee shots. Something had to be done.
Once again, Megan to the rescue. She rearranged schedules and we booked flights to Indianapolis. I was still thrashed on the inside, but nostalgia and love enveloped me from the second we arrived. I didn’t bring my clubs, but my father had more than enough to fill a light carry bag with a short set and a driver. My parents lived across the street from Bear Slide Golf Club, a hidden gem that I can’t count how many times I’ve played. Portland’s rain followed me east, and the parking lot was as empty as the tee sheet. No one in the house wanted to play, but I had to. The club pro, Mark Wisman, found me in the pro shop, and one look at his face told me my dad had already let him know what happened. He smiled, wouldn’t accept any money and sent me out. Bear Slide is an awesome design, with the front playing on a linksy, open plot of land similar to the surrounding cornfields, with heathered rough and fun, long holes. The back brings some elevation changes and a long creek that meanders in and out. I went off the back and did my favorite rerouting at the course: Start with Nos. 10 and 11, then take the maintenance path to 15 tee and play through 18. This six-hole run has five par 4s and a short, elevated par 3. During my long weekend, I trekked the loop as much as possible. When I got greedy, I’d mix in Nos. 1 and 9—two great par 4s separated by a large pond. When I wasn’t at Bear Slide, my mom, dad and brother Brady kept me near. We also saw my close friends Eric and Stacey and David and Lindsey. The trip gave me a shot of medicine better than any fentanyl.
It was time to finish what we’d started. I called Chuck and told him I was ready to play 18. He made us a time at his club. Pumpkin Ridge is where Tiger Woods won his third consecutive U.S. Amateur title, in 1996, his last event before turning pro. It also hosted the Korn Ferry Tour’s WinCo Foods Portland Open, where in 2019 Brendon Todd earned his PGA Tour card with a comeback story I appreciated more than ever. For me, it was where things got back to normal. Chuck and I pushed our carts and joked about how I was hitting it a little better than during our round at Indian Creek. We talked about regular, non-stroke things. My swing thoughts and stuttering were improved. Chuck remarked on how well I was playing, then proceeded to thump me 15-and-3. Again, pretty normal.
Over the coming weeks, more time at Eastmoreland and in my makeshift club-building garage pulled my handicap into the single digits. I thought about my brother and how it was finally time to beat his ass in a money game. (Brady, if you’re reading this, pick the place and set it up right now.) Golf strengthened my body to the point where in early December I began picking up small contract work. Mentally and emotionally, I was also changed; I treasured my new friendships within the golf world and was grateful for all of the positives in my life. Still, I was nervous as hell walking into the hospital on December 19, two days after my MRI. Dr. Rontal entered the room with the same smile he had the last time I saw him. He congratulated me for the progress made: The blood clot in my brain was still there, but it was subsiding significantly, and the likelihood of another catastrophic event was low. He shook my hand and told me to keep up the good work and keep playing golf. The appointment took just a few minutes. This time, I couldn’t call Megan fast enough.
Then I called my parents. They had recently retired to South Carolina, and we were going to spend the holidays with them. Megan and I had already planned several rounds together at Seabrook Island, my parents’ new home club. Brady and I had a time at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island on New Year’s Day. The morning we left Portland, I threw our bags in the back of the truck. As we headed to the airport, the sun poked through the clouds.