Golf With a Bro­ken Neck

Pure mus­cle mem­ory helped Thomas Tami shoot a 76

Golf Digest (South Africa) - - The Golf Life - By david owen

Cincinnati a cou­ple of years ago I played a round with Thomas Tami, an ear-nose­and-throat doc­tor, who was 60 at the time.Tami had an un­usual swing: Ex­cept at ad­dress and for a brief mo­ment near the mid­dle, he never looked at his ball. I asked one of his friends about that, and he said, “Oh, Tom broke his neck.”

Tami told me: “When I was in col­lege, I woke up one morn­ing and lifted my head off the pil­low to look out the win­dow, and my neck snapped.” It turned out that he had frac­tured his odon­toid process – a lit­tle thumb of bone that sticks up from the sec­ond cer­vi­cal ver­te­bra. “Your neck ro­tates around that lit­tle thing, like a dowel, and my spine was par­tially dis­lo­cat­ing ev­ery time I moved my head.”

At the hos­pi­tal, doc­tors fused his first four cer­vi­cal ver­te­brae, in ef­fect bolt­ing his head and neck to his shoul­ders.They de­cided his in­jury was prob­a­bly the re­sult of a con­gen­i­tal de­for­mity – and as he thought back over his child­hood he re­mem­bered other in­ci­dents. He’d been a diver on his high school swim team, and on two oc­ca­sions at galas he’d needed help get­ting out of the pool: once af­ter fail­ing to break the wa­ter with his hands dur­ing a one­and-a-half from a three-me­tre board, and once af­ter hit­ting his head on the bot­tom of a pool that was too shal­low for div­ing. Both times, he was paral­ysed briefly.

“When they took me to the hos­pi­tal from the gala,” Tami told me, “the doc­tor said, ‘Oh, you prob­a­bly pinched a nerve.’ Yeah, the big nerve. If you in­jure your spinal cord that high you stop breath­ing and all sorts of other stuff, so I’m lucky I never wres­tled or played football, be­cause I think it was al­ways just lig­a­ments and mus­cles that were hold­ing ev­ery­thing to­gether.”

To pay for med­i­cal school, Tami joined the Navy af­ter per­suad­ing the doc­tor who gave him his phys­i­cal that mil­i­tary doc­tors didn’t need func­tion­ing necks. He was on ac­tive duty for 10 years and was sta­tioned at Camp Pendle­ton while his wife went to law school. She was busier than he was, so he bought a set of used clubs and told the pro at the golf course on the base that he wanted to learn to play but couldn’t turn his head. “The pro said, ‘No prob­lem – watch this.’ So he closes his eyes and starts hit­ting balls, and I said,‘Okay, that’s what I want to do.’ ”

Learn­ing even to make con­tact took Tami a long time. “When I take the club back,” he said, “I com­pletely lose the ball, and I never pick it up on the way down. My swing is purely mus­cle mem­ory, or pro­pri­o­cep­tion, and when I’m play­ing well it’s be­cause I have this im­age in my mind of what my swing should look like.” His game didn’t re­ally come to­gether un­til he reached his 40s and could spend more time on the range. He has got his hand­i­cap down as low as 8 and has a best score of 76.

“I just love to play golf,” he told me.“I mean, I love to play. If some­thing hap­pened to me and I had to stop, I’d be de­pressed for a long time.”

There are ob­vi­ous ad­van­tages to see­ing an ob­ject you’re try­ing to hit, but there are dis­ad­van­tages, too. Golfers who aren’t as flex­i­ble as Rory McIl­roy or Michelle Wie of­ten cramp their swing by try­ing too hard to keep their head mo­tion­less as they turn back and through. A decade ago, a teacher showed me that I could im­prove my shots by im­i­tat­ing David Du­val and An­nika Soren­stam, and al­low­ing my head to fol­low my torso as I hit the ball. It worked when I tried it, but for some rea­son I stopped do­ing it, and I’d for­got­ten all about it un­til I talked to Tami. Maybe I’ll try it again. Heck, maybe I’ll close my eyes, too.

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