Six years after near-death experience, golfer earns first PGA Tour start at WM Phoenix Open through Monday qualifying
Editor's note: This story originally ran in 2019. This week Brett White will make his first career PGA Tour start at the WM Phoenix Open, earning a spot in the field through Monday qualifying.
Out of context, Brett White sounds like your average aspiring tour pro. Like when he is discussing the importance of rotational balance, or how to make something that feels foreign instinctual. Especially when talking about everything clicking one moment, only to seem hopelessly lost the next.
“Imagine knowing how to do something in your head, having done it millions of times in your life, only to find yourself unable to make your body cooperate,” White says.
Yet White is not your average golfer, and those sentiments aren’t describing anything related to his swing or strategy. Brett White is explaining how to walk, talk and remember … from scratch.
• • •
It happened in 2017. White, a native of Kentwood, Mich., was in his first year as a professional, a dream he’s held since forever. Though he was a standout at Eastern Michigan University, earning all-conference honors, he never really achieved anything of merit on a national level. But White has always considered himself an overachiever with an insatiable drive, and his tour ambitions were a singular pursuit. He had discovered a consistency with his game that be hoped could propel him to golf’s top heights, and that spirit was beginning to yield results on the PGA Tour Latinoamérica where he made three cuts—highlighted by a T-8 at the Honduras Open—in seven starts.
Back in the United States after the first half of the season, White was filling the tour’s two-month sabbatical with state tournaments and local qualifiers, a plan that was proving successful. He finished second at the New Hampshire Open, and shot a strong opening round at the Rhode Island Open the ensuing week.
But between the two events, White sensed his equilibrium was off.
“I started feeling sick after I arrived in Rhode Island,” he says. That feeling worsened the final two rounds, dropping him from contention to a T-24 finish.
Before driving back to his home in Grand Rapids, the then-24-year-old stopped at an urgent-care center in Boston for a spot mononucleosis test. He eventually arrived safely in Michigan, where he visited his primary-care physician. Blood tests were ordered, with White receiving a steroid shot and an antibiotic. Doctors told him to relax, stay hydrated and return in a week.
The advice, however, did little to alleviate White’s condition. “I was starting to stumble when I walked upstairs, having to grab onto the counters as I walked by,” White says.
Brett’s father, Doug, an elementary-school teacher, remembered his breathing was abnormal. “He was gasping for air throughout the night when he slept,” Doug says. Both of White’s parents were by his bedside, ready to go to the hospital at a moment’s notice. “It was concerning,” Doug says, “but we were trying to follow doctor’s orders.”
By the time he returned to the physician’s office, White was in terrible shape. He had a fever, was sweating uncontrollably and in a state that was as uncomfortable as it was unfamiliar. A lab nurse recognized White’s situation and called the doctor, who told White’s dad to get him to the emergency room, and fast.
When White was admitted to Spectrum Hospital, the medical staff believed he was suffering vertigo. Treatments for it, however, were ineffective, so they focused on White’s recent visits to South America, testing for malaria, Zika and Lyme disease. Those results were negative, leading to further examination, which included more blood samples, an MRI and a spinal tap.
After 10 days of analysis, White received an ultra-rare diagnosis of viral encephalitis secondary to Epstein Barr Virus (mononucleosis) infection with complications of ataxia. His brain was under attack by a virus and was swelling at an alarming rate.
“I didn’t know, or wasn’t told, at the time,” White says, “but at that point my life was in serious jeopardy.”
To the credit of the Spectrum doctors, they were able to contain the inflammation and stabilize White. Death, at least the immediacy of it, had been staved off. But there were other complications. White became temporarily paralyzed. He couldn’t talk, and his memory was shot.
“I was reduced to nothing,” White says.
When the swelling was manageable, White was transferred nearby to Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital to start his recovery. The situation remained dire. Brett was in a vegetative state. Even the move to the neighboring facility took its toll.
“I got motion sickness from the two-minute ride over due to a spinal leak [a side effect of the spinal tap] and threw up all over myself before I could get a room,” he says.
That was his low point, White says. It wasn’t the year-long recovery that awaited, being confined to a wheelchair or the inability to speak (and what little he could say was slurred). It was there, covered in vomit, doubled over. He was stripped of everything.
Doug had a similar thought. Given how perilous the situation had been at Spectrum, there was a sense of relief when Brett received a diagnosis. Nevertheless, seeing their son suffer so much, reduced to an infantile capacity, was devastating.
And suddenly Brett’s future that had looked so bright just days ago was vanishing before their eyes.
“I recall my wife, Patty, crying,” Doug says of the moment. “Talking about the possibility Brett would never golf again.”
That low moment, however ... well, you’d forgive White for a bit of revisionist history. But he asserts this much is true: In his darkest hour, he didn’t share his parents’ sentiments.
“I was going to get back on the golf course,” White says. “No matter what. I was going to get back.”
• • •
The comeback began his first morning at Mary Free Bed. For 11 straight days, White faced hours of intensive therapy beginning at 7:30 a.m. During the first week, the maximum he was able to walk, supported by trainers and a gait belt, was 50 feet.
“Yeah, that will humble you,” White says of the experience.
Aside from those steps, White was confined to a wheelchair, where he completed exercises targeting physical, occupational, oratorical and recreational conditioning until dinner. Essentially, he was re-learning how to live.
“Things people do naturally—turning tight corners, moving my head from side to side, down to the way my arms swung while walking—everything had to be acquired,” White says.
Friends, teammates, old coaches and his girlfriend, Natalie, were there to keep his spirits up through the grueling sessions. Growing up, White’s parents preached a simple motto: “If you want to move a mountain, you do it one rock at a time.” That patience was put to the test. It was monotonous work, the emotional and mental demands can be just as taxing as the physicality.
There was also no guarantee the work would pay off. White could see that painful truth in his fellow patients. Moreover, Brett’s attack was so unique that doctors weren’t sure what to expect.
“It was a crapshoot, basically,” White says.
It was an aggressive strategy, but also one that showed signs of promise. After three weeks of around-the-clock care, White was released from the hospital.
Next came three months of outpatient therapy. He wasn’t confined to a wheelchair, but his motion was restricted. Outside the bi-weekly therapy visits, his rehab was left to his own accord. Not that he needed outside motivation.
“I kept challenging myself,” White says. “Every day I would try to do something different, whether it was table tennis, shooting hoops, playing golf or playing catch.”
It also wasn’t done in complete solitude. Brett’s father was often his companion, even getting in administrative trouble for leaving school at the same time as the kids. “Not that I cared,” Doug says of the write-up. “My kid needed me.”
Brett was progressing, to the delight of his family and astonishment of his doctors. Still, plenty of worry endured. The biggest was White’s retentiveness, or lack thereof. His memory was suffering, and he had to rely on primitive strategies from his speech pathologist to survive. “Everything was fuzzy,” White says. “I had to leave notes for myself, or put reminders in my phone to remember. It’s like everything was being erased.”
Then there was Brett’s golf. He had begun to mimic swings and build up stability, and he started putting on a turf area at the therapy center. When he was cleared to walk, the first thing White did was practice his game. The goal, after all, was returning to the sport.
But while he was regaining his coordination and balance, those elements were nowhere to be found in his game. Rust was expected, but this was a different animal. “Everything was just off,” White says. The tour seemed very far away.
To the rescue came Craig Piscopink, Brett’s swing coach.
Piscopink, who works as the Director of Instruction at Eastern Michigan’s home course of Eagle Crest in Ypsilanti, Mich., researched how the viral encephalitis affected motor patterns.
“We had to allow his brain to rewire where his body was in space,” Piscopink says. They did this through a variety of variable speed training drills to sync his movements, starting at the bottom, as White’s brain, while wanting to go fast, could not fire the muscles at the same pace.
That did not deter White, who continued to push himself. By March 2018, he had worked his way to full swings with a club. His body might have been wrecked, but his heart was fully intact.
“Brett is gritty, a fighter, persistently stubborn,” Piscopink says. “He never once looked at himself as a victim, keeping his eye on his goal.”
Brett was not moving many stones in that first year, his father says. Each rock, however, was a blessing, a sign of hope. The hours, days, weeks of drills ... there’s not much immediate reward in these small acts, yet they started to have an impact. His ball-striking had improved thanks to the hyper-focus on balance. Better yet, his memory, slowly, began to materialize through the fog.
He was back to being Brett White, to no surprise to Brett White.
“It wasn’t a shock; I knew the long hours and work would pay off,” he says.
He was back on the golf course in April 2018 and felt good enough by fall to enter seven events on the All Pro Tour Winter Series, finishing third on its money list. The return was nothing short of miraculous, and White and his family reaffirm how lucky they are to have reached that benchmark. “It puts things in perspective,” White says. “A missed birdie putt doesn’t seem like such a big deal anymore.”
But ... his dream wasn’t merely to walk again. His aspirations still involved one day reaching the PGA Tour. “It is all I was thinking about,” he says. And on that front, the comeback had stalled.
Professional golf is cannibalistic. It does not care about fairytales. White’s performance on the Winter Series, while impressive, earned a mere $8,529. He no longer had status on the PGA Tour Latinoamérica and, relegated to the ATP’s summer schedule, White made less than $10,000 in 2019. He took a job at Royal Oaks Country Club in Houston to help with bills, but his bank account, and resume, were in serious need of a boost. Without it, his tour quest would be in jeopardy.
“There were dark days, sure,” White says. “I think I’ve remained positive throughout the years of rebuilding, but there is a reality to it all.”
Yet White maintained his reality was elsewhere. That elsewhere beckoned in Mesquite, Nev., about an hour northeast of Las Vegas.
The Nevada Open, held earlier this month, has one of the bigger purses among state opens at $150,000, with the winner’s share being $31,350. That’s not much compared to the opulent figures on the PGA Tour, but it’s life-changing for most in the field.
White had a premonition about the event, one that was supported by confidence early in the week in small money games with friends. It translated to the first two rounds of the 54-hole tournament, a 69 at the Palms Course and a 63 at CasaBlanca to take the 36-hole lead.
The final 18 would be played at CasaBlanca. It is a course that allows golfers to post their share of red figures with short par 5s, drivable par 4s and greens that aren’t lightning. In that same breath, it’s not defenseless, thanks to a myriad of hazards, long par 3s and a vulnerability to the canyon winds. In short, playing conservatively was out of the question.
“My mind-set going into the last day was that if I could beat both the guys I was playing with, I probably had a pretty good shot at winning,” White says. “I knew everybody was going to make birdies. I was confident after shooting a 63 that I could make a bunch of birdies, too. After 12, I saw somebody was making a push and knew I had to stay aggressive.”
He had come too far not to be, and it paid off when he made four birdies on his final five holes. Two years after re-learning how to walk, Brett White strutted off the 18th having shot a 19-under score. He had won the Nevada Open by two.
A week after the victory, White’s parents still struggle to find the proper words to describe their emotions. Piscopink says he broke down and cried.
“Just knowing what he has been through, and the hard work it has taken to get where he is today,” Piscopink says, “what impresses me the most is how much of a good-hearted person he is.”
As for White, he’s a tad more pragmatic about the triumph. “To win the Nevada Open was big for me financially,” he says. “It allows me to continue to be able to pursue my dreams.”
He’s hoping his win, and his overall story, are able to attract donors and endorsements, and perhaps bestow a sponsor exemption or two.
The future is somewhat muddled. He has no 2020 status outside the APT. White plans to go to Mackenzie Tour Q school in the spring, with eyes on Korn Ferry Q school next season. That’s a lot of hurdles to reach the big time.
Then again, the man went from a wheelchair to the winner’s circle. White says he’ll get to where he wants to go. One stone at a time.