Back from the Brink

It has been 10 years since An­ton Haig won a Euro­pean Tour event and was the youngest player (20) in the top 100 of the World Rank­ing. What fol­lowed was a down­ward spi­ral of poor form, in­juries and sub­stance abuse which al­most cost him his life. He’s now r

Golf Digest (South Africa) - - The Golf Life Think Young/play Hard - By Barry Havenga


I won 310 000 Eu­ros for my ca­reer break­through mo­ment at the 2007 John­nie Walker Clas­sic in Thai­land, beat­ing Richard Sterne and Oliver Wilson in a play­off (Retief Goosen was fourth and Ernie Els and David Frost T-6). I was 20 and sud­denly had plenty of money to be­have badly. I kicked back and found out what win­ning was all about, invit­ing 90 peo­ple to a game re­serve in Mpumalanga for my 21st birth­day party two months later. I had en­dorse­ment deals with equip­ment man­u­fac­tur­ers and a lux­ury watch­maker, and was ex­empt into World Golf Cham­pi­onship events with no cut. At the end of 2015 I was broke.


I have al­ways found it dif­fi­cult to find the off switch. I couldn’t just have one beer – I had to get ham­mered. I had my first cig­a­rette at 14, smoked weed for the first time at 15 and tried co­caine at 19.The only drug I didn't try was heroin. Be­fore en­ter­ing re­hab (for the sec­ond time) in 2015 I was on metham­phetamine (crys­tal meth), had been hos­pi­talised twice for over-in­dulging and of­ten had thoughts about self-harm and ul­ti­mately end­ing my own life. Once my golf ca­reer started go­ing south, I didn’t know what to do with­out it. Golf was my life – it was all I knew.


Ernie knew I liked to party.We were both clients of ISM and I in­ter­acted with him, Lee West­wood and Dar­ren Clarke. Ernie told me that if I went on a night out, I would have to work twice as hard on my game the next day.When you’re 21 you can do that, but I took it too far and it ob­vi­ously all caught up with me. It was no se­cret I en­joyed the party scene. I thought I was a bit of a rock star and got out of hand. I was young and didn’t know how to deal with all the at­ten­tion I was get­ting. I lacked the life skills to deal with fame and for­tune.


I joined the pro ranks on Septem­ber 1, 2004 and signed with In­ter­na­tional Sports Man­age­ment (ISM). I first played on the Euro­pean Chal­lenge Tour and smaller Euro Pro cir­cuit in Eng­land.At the be­gin­ning of 2005 Matthew Kent, SA’s No 1 am­a­teur and a close friend, turned pro and signed with ISM.We shared a flat near Manch­ester and trav­elled across Europe play­ing on the satel­lite tours. But we didn’t en­joy the life.The weather was ter­ri­ble and I missed my fam­ily and friends back home.We were pro­fes­sional ath­letes but liv­ing like stu­dents. At 18, I re­quired bet­ter guid­ance.


I feel em­bar­rassed, ashamed and guilty that Matt’s golf ca­reer did not go as planned. No one is ever a sure thing in this game, but I cer­tainly con­trib­uted to him not reach­ing his full po­ten­tial as a pro­fes­sional. I gave him his first cig­a­rette and of­fered him a ‘joint’ for the first time. (Kent no longer plays com­pet­i­tively, and works in the golf in­dus­try as a tour op­er­a­tor.)


My down­fall was self-af­flicted, but the men­tal an­guish of enduring nu­mer­ous in­juries also played its part. I was born with de­formed hips and a leg-length dis­crep­ancy of 1.25cm and had prob­lems with both my knees which pre­vented me from play­ing con­tact sports at school.Af­ter win­ning the ‘dou­ble’ of SA Am­a­teur and SA Ju­nior Match­play ti­tles in 2003, I joined my Cen­tral Gaut­eng team­mates at the U-23 In­ter­provin­cial and, dur­ing a game of touch rugby, tore lig­a­ments in my knee. I’ve had nu­mer­ous surg­eries since I was a teenager but the most hu­mil­i­at­ing was for a de­vi­ated sep­tum in my nose be­cause of my pro­longed use of co­caine.


At the end of 2011 I was ready to walk away from the game. My shock an­nounce­ment came af­ter an MRI scan re­vealed I had a se­vere os­teo­phytic im­pinge­ment in my neck, com­bined with a bulging disc in my cer­vi­cal ver­te­brae.An op­er­a­tion could have al­le­vi­ated the prob­lem but my doc­tor ad­vised me to not con­tinue play­ing pro­fes­sion­ally.At the same time I had taken a ‘mu­tu­ally agreed pro­ba­tion pe­riod’ from the Sun­shine Tour. For six months I worked as a tal­ent scout for ISM.


In 2012 I re­ceived a Face­book mes­sage from Bri­tish busi­ness­man Philip Man­d­uca, who wanted to help. He spon­sored me. I spent time at Fan­court with a swing coach and bioki­neti­cist, and then Spain on a boot camp. Im­proved con­di­tion­ing saw me lose 10 kilo­grams which al­le­vi­ated stress on my neck, back and hips. I made two starts on the Asian Tour and got an in­vite to the Al­fred Dun­hill Links Cham­pi­onship where I fin­ished T-13 (and part­nered Man­d­uca in the pro-am). But the come­back was short-lived. My health de­te­ri­o­rated and I played a hand­ful of events on the Sun­shine Tour in 2013.


I had two stints in re­hab. First at The Sport­ing Chance Clinic, a Bri­tish char­ity in Hamp­shire founded by Arse­nal foot­baller Tony Adams to pro­vide spe­cial­ist ad­dic­tion and re­cov­ery fa­cil­ity for ath­letes. But I still didn’t know what to do with­out golf.There was noth­ing to drive me and I spi­ralled out of con­trol again – abus­ing al­co­hol and drugs – which prompted two

close friends to phone my mother, telling her I was go­ing to die if there wasn’t an im­me­di­ate fam­ily in­ter­ven­tion.


I en­tered the South Coast Re­cov­ery Cen­tre in Mar­gate (KwaZulu-Na­tal) on Fe­bru­ary 5, 2015 and ex­ited ex­actly one year later. I was told I was only go­ing to spend a month there, but that was never go­ing to be enough time. I was too far gone. I treated the first month like a hol­i­day and my re­bel­lious na­ture came to the fore, dis­rupt­ing lec­tures and caus­ing chaos at the cen­tre. One day the prover­bial penny dropped and I be­gan re­lat­ing to the other pa­tients’ strug­gles.


I was fully in­sti­tu­tion­alised and for the first time in my life was able to un­pack sev­eral deep-rooted is­sues.The first of which was my golf ca­reer that I had thrown away, then the aban­don­ment is­sues I faced while grow­ing up. I didn’t have a nor­mal up­bring­ing. I was sent to board­ing school at 11 when my mother moved to Aus­tralia, and I failed to ma­tric­u­late. I was good at be­ing re­bel­lious. In ret­ro­spect, play­ing golf and turn­ing pro as a teenager was dam­ag­ing in that I missed group ac­tiv­i­ties. I was a so­cial per­son, but was in a lonely pro­fes­sion. Four months into my re­hab in Mar­gate, I was bap­tised and sur­rounded by like-minded Chris­tians which aided my re­cov­ery tremen­dously.


I burned some bridges with peo­ple who be­lieved in me, so I will let my clubs do the talk­ing now. Af­ter ex­it­ing re­hab I be­gan prac­tis­ing again and won three times within two months on the IGT Tour. I had a new phi­los­o­phy about the game. I al­ways played my best golf when my mind was free, so the con­stant goal is to get into a good headspace on the course. In the past when I had a bad round it would af­fect me for days. Now golf is not my life, it’s just my job. It no longer de­fines me.


My new life could not be busier. There are five peo­ple I speak to on a daily or weekly ba­sis who are in­te­gral to me not re­laps­ing: My girl­friend, pas­tor, ad­dic­tion coun­sel­lor, psy­chi­a­trist, and Nar­cotics Anony­mous. Lau­ren and I met in re­hab. She has been sober for three years and is a won­der­ful source of in­spi­ra­tion. We’ve been to­gether for a year and help each other con­stantly with the sup­port and love re­quired to be a re­cov­er­ing ad­dict. My de­sire to use drugs and al­co­hol is gone, but com­pla­cency is the killer. I have to iden­tify neg­a­tive thoughts and ad­dic­tive be­hav­iour early and counter it im­me­di­ately. I get on the phone to some­one in a heart­beat.


I am very in­volved with Nar­cotics Anony­mous, at­tend­ing meet­ings in Bryanston to help oth­ers bat­tling or re­cov­er­ing from ad­dic­tion. I have re­turned to the South Coast Re­cov­ery Cen­tre to speak with pa­tients, im­plor­ing them to keep fight­ing. There is hope. I am proof of that. I have found ful­fil­ment in giv­ing back and hope one day to start a foun­da­tion to help fur­ther. (Part of Haig’s talk at the cen­tre has been posted onYouTube.)


I won con­sec­u­tive events on the IGT Tour in April and May and will con­tinue to play on this very com­pet­i­tive tour. I have a Big Easy Tour card af­ter fin­ish­ing 59th at Sun­shine Tour Qual­i­fy­ing School.The top 5 on the Or­der of Merit at the end of July earn main tour cards, so that’s an im­me­di­ate goal. I have also writ­ten let­ters to Sun­shine Tour chair­man Jo­hann Ru­pert and ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor Sel­wyn Nathan re­quest­ing in­vi­ta­tions. I’ve had fi­nan­cial sup­port from my par­ents, Di­men­sion Data, In­vestec, Tay­lor Made and Dain­fern mem­ber Stu­art Con­way, so I'm on the right path. I’m work­ing with fit­ness spe­cial­ist Garth Milne and bioki­neti­cist Tanya Kear­ney at Serengeti and my body now feels like it can han­dle tour­na­ment golf again.


I’m in the fi­nal year of an ex­emp­tion into the fi­nal stage of Euro­pean Tour Q School in Novem­ber be­cause of my John­nie Walker Clas­sic vic­tory and sub­se­quent in­juries. I’ve got to work twice as hard now – hav­ing emerged from 10 years of neg­a­tive headspace – but I’m ready for it.

Hap­pier days. An­ton Haig with Ernie Els when play­ing on the Euro­pean Tour.

Play­ing the IGT Tour this year. Right: John­nie Walker cham­pion in 2007.

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