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Gary Woodland recounts his 'horrible' and harrowing experience with brain surgery

January 09, 2024
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Kevin C. Cox

The fear that gripped Gary Woodland in the weeks after last year’s Masters was the tell-tale sign that something was wrong. Unequivocally wrong. A perpetually optimistic soul by nature, the Kansas native wasn’t afraid of much. True, he never was comfortable with heights, but the only thing he really feared, he admits, was failure.

Suddenly, however, he found himself consumed by fear almost constantly—fear of dying, fear of something awful happening to his children, fear of falling to his death. At the Memorial Tournament in June, he awoke one night and clung to the mattress for an hour, certain that if he let go, he would plummet to his demise.

Nighttime was particularly scary, too, because spasms and jolts would awaken him and cause him to jump out of bed. Tremors attacked his hands. He suffered chills and loss of appetite. But mostly, he was plagued by almost unceasing anxiety. His preternatural ease and good-natured personality disappeared.

“The big one [symptom] was I just wasn't feeling like myself,” Woodland explained.

After enduring a difficult week of nausea and anxiety at the PGA Championship at Oak Hill, Woodland consulted his longtime general practitioner, who was inclined to prescribe medication, though not before he ordered Woodland to undergo an MRI. He wanted to rule out Parkinson’s Disease. The MRI did that, though it did reveal something more troubling—a lesion growing on his brain. It sat on a part of his cranium that, Woodland said, controls fear and anxiety. “He's like, you're not going crazy. Everything you're experiencing is common and normal for where this thing is sitting in your brain.”

At first Woodland tried to alleviate the symptoms with anti-seizure and anxiety medication. That worked for a while, got him through the Wyndham Championship, the final regular-season event on the PGA Tour. But his mind was not right. He would pull a club and then forget which one it was. He couldn’t concentrate while putting. As his thoughts darkened again, doctors recommended surgery.

Now, less than four months after a doctor carved a baseball-sized hole out of the left side of his skull and removed as much of the tumor as possible without risking his eyesight, Woodland, 39, has returned to competitive golf at the Sony Open in Hawaii. Meeting with the media Tuesday afternoon at Waialae Country Club in Honolulu, Woodland appeared to be his old self. He was relaxed. He smiled easily. It’s time to play golf again. He’s as ready as can be.

“This week will be a big week,” said the former U.S. Open champion who owns four PGA Tour titles. “I can hit every golf shot I want right now physically. It's, can my brain sustain the seven days of tournament golf? Can I get back to the focus and stuff I'm used to since I've been on tour? If it's not this week, can I adjust and go home and practice and work on that focus stuff?

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Gary Woodland plays a shot on the 16th hole during a practice round prior to the Sony Open.

Kevin C. Cox

“I plan on being competitive very quickly. Like I said, physically I can hit any shot I want. That's not going to be the problem. I am looking forward to being back and where I'm at and expecting to be ready very soon.”

He was nervous to fly, but he made it to Las Vegas. “Twenty minutes in it was very rusty, and 30 minutes in, he [Harmon] was like, ‘G-Dub, you're right where you're supposed to be.’

Woodland, who revealed his struggles only to family and friends, published a surprise announcement on X (formerly Twitter) on Aug. 30 that he was scheduled to undergo surgery Sept. 18 to remove the lesion from his brain. Though he had little energy for weeks afterward, he did begin putting two days after walking out of the hospital, installing a Putt View putting system in the family dining room with the blessing of his wife Gabby. He was given permission to start hitting balls after four weeks, but he waited five weeks, just to be sure he had enough energy. His father would drive him to and from the golf course. Soon after, he tried to play nine holes. It didn’t go well. So he sought another doctor, swing instructor Butch Harmon.

Woodland, ranked 94th in the world, will make his 10th start at the Sony Open, where he has collected three top-10 finishes. Despite his struggles over the final four months of the season, he finished 115th in the FedEx Cup standings. He missed only two cuts after first sensing problems at the Mexico Open.

The evidence of the operation he underwent, a craniotomy, is hidden by his ballcap. The scar runs almost down to his right ear. After the surgeon removed what he could—about half of the lesion because it touched the optic tract of his left eye—he reattached Woodland’s scalp with titanium plates and screws. “So, I’ve got a robotic head, I guess,” Woodland was able to say with a grin.

He had to admit that the ordeal has changed him. “A lot,” he said emphatically. It would change anyone.

“It was a horrible experience,” Woodland said. “All you wanted to do was go to sleep to not think about it, and going to sleep was the worst part. That is where all the seizures were happening. It was a horrible four, five months.”

But there were positives to be discovered as well. “I realize there is a lot of good in this world,” he said. “The love and support I've had has been unbelievable. Even being back this week, seeing the guys, haven't seen many guys. It's been overwhelming how good it's been.

“I learned a lot about myself,” Woodland continued. “Usually people ask me for help, and I'm not asking. I'm very fortunate and probably lucky why I'm sitting here being able to play this week that I asked for help. When I was struggling, if my doctor would've given me anxiety or some medicine to calm me down and not ordered that MRI, who knows how much more it would've grown. That helped me … saved me more than anything.”

Golf, he said, was a respite from his troubles. It was something to keep his mind occupied. It saved him, too. Starting Thursday, it’s a source of hope and new beginnings. The optimist in him has returned.

“At the end of the day, I just want to prove you can do hard things. I want to prove to my kids nobody is going to tell you you can't do anything,” Woodland said. “You can overcome tough, scary decisions in your life. Not everything is easy. This came out of nowhere for me, but I'm not going to let it stop me.

“I don't want this to be a bump in the road for me. I want it to be a jump start in my career. I've had people reach out that of gone through similar experiences, and hearing their recovery and dealing with similar things has definitely helped. I'm here because I believe this is what I've been born to do, play great golf. I want to do that again. It's been a while. Been a couple years. Nothing is going to stop me. I believe that. I believe a lot of great things are ahead.”