Golf With a Broken Neck

July 21, 2015

In Cincinnati a couple of years ago, I played a round at Hyde Park Golf & Country Club, a terrific course designed mostly byDonald Ross. One of the guys in the group was Thomas Tami, an ear-nose-and-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 meets he'd needed help getting out of the pool: once after failing to break the water with his hands during a one-and-a-half from a three-meter board, and once after hitting his head on the bottom of a pool that was too shallow for diving. Both times, he was paralyzed briefly.

"When they took me to the hospital from the meet," 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, 'OK, 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. His best score for 18 holes is 76 at Hyde Park, and, although he needs a month or two each spring to re-groove his swing, by the time the season ends he has usually pushed his Index from 14 or so down to 8 or 9. "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.