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Sandra Gal courageously fought long list of medical issues to make her return to LPGA

March 06, 2024
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Sandra Gal hits a drive during the 2019 KPMG Women's PGA Championship.

David Cannon

Sandra Gal says there were many times when she thought she’d never play professional golf again. Over the past six years, the 38-year-old LPGA veteran and two-time Solheim Cup player has suffered through myriad health issues, including extreme fatigue, a medical misdiagnosis, hip surgery, back pain and an unexpectedly long and arduous healing process that left her barely able to walk.

"I just kept kind of not deciding [to quit] and just letting it go and kept working on just getting better, healing my injury," Gal said in a phone interview last week.

Gal, whose lone LPGA win came in 2011, is about to pull off what may be her most impressive career achievement by returning to the LPGA Tour for the first time in two years. After making only 11 starts since taking medical leave in 2019, the German will play in this week's Blue Bay LPGA in China—the last of three events on the tour's Asia swing.

"I'm so excited and so grateful that I get to be out there again after thinking that I might never be able to," Gal said. "It's like a whole different level of appreciation to go out there. I think I'm going to really savor it."

Gal's difficult road with her health started six years ago when she began feeling constantly run down and was eventually diagnosed in August 2019 with dormant Lyme disease. She left the tour, but months later, Gal said doctors realized that instead of a specific ailment, her body was severely reacting to her 12 years of life on tour. All the stress of tournament golf, on top of the extensive travel playing on the LPGA and Ladies European Tour, resulted in her nervous system acting out, Gal said. Her multiple attempts to start playing again from 2020 to 2022 only made it worse.

Gal stepped away again in 2022 with a torn right hip labrum, which required an operation to shave down part of her femur in surgery. She traveled back to Germany for the surgery that July and expected to be in crutches for only four weeks. She returned to her home in Sarasota, Fla., but it turned into a nearly year-long journey to walk pain-free. Gal relentlessly searched for answers, from meeting with multiple doctors to trying injections and healing modalities as lower back issues emerged after the operation. Enjoying walking to the farmers market or along the beach, some of Gal's favorite downtime joys, proved to be trying struggles.

"My motivation wasn't just golf," Gal said. "I want to live a normal life that is pain-free. I couldn't do a lot of normal things. So I was like, whether I play golf or not, I just want to get healthy."

After trying to partner with numerous physios and personal trainers, a conversation with one of her sponsors suggested she work with Miami-based Ryan Dagale. Beginning in April 2023, his treatments were novelties compared to what Gal had done before, and slowly, she could start walking more. Their FaceTime sessions helped Gal turn a corner when she walked her first nine holes of golf last September.

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Sandra Gal's lone LPGA win came in the 2011 Kia Classic.

Scott Halleran

Problems continued for Gal late last year, as she suffered another back-related setback in November. In a catch-up call with well-known instructor David Leadbetter, whom she had known for 20 years, she shared that her back was aching from just a few hours on the range. Gal explained that Leadbetter asked her if she had changed her swing to compensate for her injuries. The question led to Gal realizing she made several subtle changes since her medical leave to avoid pain, weakening her swing. Gal had her first lesson with Leadbetter post-surgery in December. The duo worked on rebuilding swing speed, streamlining her takeaway to improve her contact, and becoming more in sync between her arms and body.

Being able to swing pain-free is one thing, but handling four rounds of tournament play is another barrier Gal has yet to face. She has not walked three straight rounds since her operation. But she’s hoping the long break will ultimately be a positive.

"I think it all gave me time to heal, not only on the physical, but internally as well," Gal said. "I'm in a completely different space now that I was five years ago."

The opportunities from Gal's medical exemption only give so much runway. She has seven starts this season, plus up to six sponsor exemptions (one of which she is using this week) to earn better status. If she doesn't get quality status over those tournaments, she will target Q-Series at the end of the year to extend the new version of her dreams. The days of Gal playing a full-time schedule are behind her, as she envisions her body allowing her to play maybe 10 to 15 events between the LPGA and LET a year.

To maximize her chances of getting starts, Gal plans to write as many tournaments as possible for sponsor’s invites and play when possible. Rather than stress about how her season will all come together, Gal remains grateful for the chance to navigate the contours of an LPGA schedule instead of treating her many ailments.

"There's really no planning this year," Gal said. "It's just kind of whatever I get in. It's very unusual. It's really weird, I'll take it. It's just like an adventure this year."