I'm a professional athlete, so when I woke up on December 14 with a little twinge in the front of my ribcage, on the right-hand side, it just felt like par for the course. I did the usual and took some anti-inflammatories, thinking I'd tweaked something. But the next morning, I was struggling to take deep breaths, and I only felt comfortable hunched over. As soon as I stood up, I couldn't get enough air. What kind of injury was this?
It wasn't. The MRI and the ultrasound taken by my GP were clear as daylight: I had a tumor the size (fittingly) of a golf ball in between my lungs and my diaphragm. By the afternoon, I'd seen a cardiothoracic specialist. "This can't stay in you. We've got to take it out," he said. As if I wasn't already having trouble catching my breath, we scheduled surgery for two days later.
At 28 years old, you really can't comprehend your own mortality until it's staring you down. I did my best to stare back—and, with my wife and 2-year-old son, as well as both our families, I had all the support I could have wanted. My doctors didn't panic, my family stayed calm. And I never let myself believe I was going to die. But still. It's impossible not to wonder how you've used your life.
This isn't a story about radical transformation. I didn't abandon the folly of my youth, reinvent myself, see the light. That's a cliché. For a survivor, the question—"Have I taken things for granted?"—is perfectly obvious. But the answer is trickier.
What I knew for sure was this: even if I recognized the serendipities in my life, I was still just cruising along. I may have known in the back of my mind that I'd always been in the right place at the right time. That I'd been fortunate as a boy to meet successful people, particularly golfers, and to learn from them. That every tournament I won, including one just a few days before the pain started, was a blessing. But knowing it is different than feeling it.
It's strange that a feeling of such pain—cystic fibrosis, we discovered—is what made me feel those other things, but life is full of contradictions. While my tumor seemed to lift a veil of complacency from my eyes, in truth, my life hardly changed. It shook my perspective fundamentally, and still hardly altered my behavior.
The surgeons opened a gash and removed the tumor, which, two days later and hopped up on meds, I learned was benign. My brush with mortality was over, but obviously it stayed with me. Yet I was sure my golf game would suffer, perhaps irrevocably. On the professional tour, everyone hones their games infinitely, and even the tiniest problem can ruin a career. My doctors had just closed a seven-inch hole in my back.
I came back out swinging. (It is, after all, my job.) But it wasn't pretty. A tumor definitely doesn't help your game. It took me two months just to get back to a golf course, and even then my golf was inconsistent. My stroke needed work, though the wound had healed remarkably well. When you play a sport for a living, you sometimes live and die by your last result. So despite the relief—the elation—from my medical prognosis, it was a demoralizing few months at work. I started competing, badly at first. And then …
Last month, I won the Masters Tournament, the sport's premier championship—by three strokes! This is our Wimbledon, our Oscar. It's the pinnacle of our profession, and I still haven't gotten used to the idea that, at 28, just four months from a brush with what might have been cancer, I was suddenly wearing the green jacket of my dreams.
Cause and effect? I don't know. I still worry that, physically, my game isn't where I want it to be. But of course the episode helped ground me. Golf is not life. When you put your heart and soul into something, working your butt off to achieve your goals, it's easy to take things too seriously. And I did. In that sense, my tumor lowered the stakes. If I played a bad round—so what? At the end of the day, I would still get to see my son, Jacob, grow up, and I'd still get to grow old with my wife, Carminita. It's a strange attitude for my hypercompetitive workplace, but it's exactly the kind of turning point I needed.