2005: Profile - Comeback Kid
Saturday, October 1, 2011
The early stages of Q-School, the annual exam that can make or break the psyche of the most resilient aspiring PGA Tour player, are just around the corner.
More than 1,200 will give it a go. But it’s hard to fathom any being more resilient – or more appreciative of the opportunity – than Brad Iles. Slightly more than 13 months ago, he was lying in a Savannah, Ga., hospital on life support following emergency brain surgery. His parents were on a flight from New Zealand, not knowing whether they would return with their 20-year-old son in a seat beside them or in a casket in the belly of the plane.
“We were going to bring Bradley back, whatever that might be,” recalls Peter Iles, Brad’s father. “We were terrified, actually.”
Iles (pronounced Isles, as in British Isles) has been the top amateur golfer in New Zealand for the past two years. In 2004, he was medalist at the New Zealand Amateur and the Australian Amateur. He’s a two-time winner of his country’s North Island Amateur. He won the 2004 Australian Amateur Stroke Play. Twice he has represented New Zealand in the prestigious Four Nations team tournament. He was looking forward to leading the Kiwis at the ’04 World Amateur Team Championship when tragedy struck.
For nearly two months last summer, Iles had been traveling the United States with a group of Australians, competing on the amateur tournament circuit. It was July 18, a Sunday evening, and Iles was among those celebrating a victory by Aron Price at The Players Amateur in Bluffton, S.C.
“We were just having a good time, me and a few Australians,” Iles said.
After the awards ceremony, they had grabbed a few beers, hopped on golf carts and gone fishing on the Belfair Golf Club grounds. After dinner, they decided to go flashlight spotting for alligators.
Iles, who turned 22 on Aug. 23, was riding on the back of a cart driven by Anthony Brown.
When Brown made a sharp turn, Iles lost his balance and fell. His head struck a curb, openingup like a dropped watermelon.
Marc Leishman was in the cart just behind, riding with Kane Streat. They were first to see Iles after he fell.
“It was pretty scary,” Leishman said. “He was on the ground in a massive pool of blood. I’d never seen anything like it.”
Said Iles: “They thought I was dead because of all the blood. I can understand that.”
Iles was still conscious. He kept trying to stand up, but was restrained by the others. One of them rushed off to call for help.
“We’d all had a few to drink, but Pricey and Brownie, they did the right things, I think,” Streat said. “When Brad tried to get up, he didn’t know where he was. If we had let him up, who knows what would have happened.”
Iles credits Price with saving his live.
“He took his shirt off and wrapped it around my head (to slow the bleeding),” Iles said. “No one else thought of that.”
When paramedics arrived and assessed the severity of the injury, it was decided to rush Ilesto Memorial Health University Medical Center in Savannah, a highly regarded regional medical center about 35 miles south of Bluffton. Dr. Daniel Suh, a neurological surgeon, was on call that night. He performed the surgery on Iles.
“I had four hours to live and he did it (the operation) in three hours,” Iles said. “I had four hours before I was going to die.”
Suh doesn’t dispute that assessment.
“I think from many respects, that’s probably accurate,” Suh said. “Under those kind of circumstances, the patient can rapidly decline into what could be considered dire straits.”
The doctor also agrees that Price’s action was critical.
“Bleeding from a laceration to the scalp – and he was bleeding from his ear – can be pretty profound,” Suh said.
Suh described Iles’ injury as similar to that which killed NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt when he crashed during a race in 2001. Iles had fractured a bone in his skull, in a region through which a major artery runs. He suffered what’s known as an epidural hematoma. Suh opened a “bone window” in Iles’ skull and removed a blood clot that was nearly 11⁄2 centimeters thick.
“He also had brain contusions, and we were more concerned about brain swelling,” Suh said.
Post-surgery, Iles was on a breathing tube for about 36 hours. He wasn’t in a coma, Suh said, but in a “depressed mental status” for nearly three days, meaning he had eye movement and could react to stimuli.
Back in New Zealand, the plight of the country’s best amateur golfer was front-page news. For Iles’ friends and family, the uncertainty surrounding his fate was agonizing.
“We heard he could be brain dead and was on life support,” Leishman recalls. “We didn’t know what was happening. The first thing you think in that situation is how long is it going to be before he dies.”
In the immediate aftermath, Streat was physically ill.
“I went home and threw up,” he said. “I couldn’t eat for a couple of days. I’d never seen anything like that in my life. It was a shock.
“We were thinking about his family, as well. Letting them know what was going on for two days.”
Hospital officials had difficulty getting in touch with Iles’ parents, finally obtaining a phone number from the New Zealand Golf Association. Karen and Peter Iles didn’t hear the news until 7 p.m. Monday. New Zealand is 17 hours ahead of U.S. Eastern Time, meaning the accident had occurred about six hours earlier and Brad was being prepped for surgery.
“It was terrible,” Peter Iles said. “We couldn’t get a flight to the States until 4 p.m. the next day.”
The parents made arrangements for their 23-year-old daughter, Kelly, who lives in Sydney, Australia, to meet them in Los Angeles, then go on with them to Savannah. Regardless of what happened, Peter Iles says, the family was going to be together.
Karen Iles is a nurse. Before leaving Auckland, she called for hourly updates on her son’s condition. “She understood what was going on,” her husband said. “Brad was in intensive care and on life support.”
When Brad’s parents and sister arrived in Savannah, they were relieved to learn that the operation had gone well.
“The fact that he’s young and strong helped him,” Suh said.
“He was really fit,” Peter Iles said. “And I thinkit was just determination. “
Only a few days after surgery, as Iles was becoming more lucid but remained disoriented, he kept trying to get out of bed, saying he was due on the tee for his next tournament.
“I didn’t remember anything for about a month after the accident,” said Iles, who was sent home after three weeks in the hospital. “It’s just sort of a blank. Pretty weird, but it doesn’t mean much to me because it just feels like I was in a dream. It doesn’t even feel like it happened to me.”
When Iles got home, one of his first visitors was his coach, Mal Tongue.
“When I first saw him, I didn’t think he was going to play golf again,” said Tongue, the former New Zealand national coach who also mentored a young Michael Campbell. “But never once has he complained about being unlucky. He said this is what the good Lord handed me, and we’re going to deal with it.”
Iles could do little more than lay around the house until October, the beginning of New Zealand’s summer.
“Then I could start going to the gym and start rebuilding my body,” said Iles, who figures he lost about 20 pounds during the ordeal. “It’s been a long, hard road, but it’s all good. It makes you appreciate it that much more when you do well.”
Iles said the trauma affected his golf “big time.”
“I didn’t touch a club for almost six months,” he said. “I had to rebuild my swing; I’d lost my whole swing. I hit it sideways for a long time. . . . I still do, but not as bad.”
Iles experienced vertigo for several months, which was especially troublesome to his short game.
“I couldn’t putt or chip because it just spun when I looked down at the ground,” he said.
“The ground spun.”
Iles said he has had to take as many as 11 different medications to aid his recovery. Some caused side effects, and he’s still not permitted to drive a car.
“My jaw was locked up. And I had the shakes; I still get the shakes quite a lot,” he said, extending his right hand to demonstrate.
Nevertheless, by Christmas he was champing at the bit to start playing again. He devised a game where he lobbed shots onto the roof of the family’s house near Tauranga, a Pacific coastal town about 100 miles southeast of Auckland on the Bay of Plenty. His target was a specific spot from where the ball would run down the shingles into a bucket he had placed on the ground below the eaves.
“He already was testing his ability,” Peter Iles said.
By the first of the year, Iles felt confident enough to tee up a driver and, in front of his wary father, launch a ball over traffic on the road in front of their property. It flew long and straight. He turned to his dad and said, “See, I can still do it.”
After that, his recovery progressed rapidly. In January, he played in the New Zealand Under-23 Championships, shooting 4 over for 72 holes. In March, he won his second North Island Amateur. He finished third in the South Island Amateur and lost in the quarterfinals of the New Zealand Amateur before returning to the United States for his second summer tour. He tied for 34th at the Rice Planters, was sixth at The Players Amateur, T-25 at the Porter Cup, then reached the semifinals at the Western Amateur. Earlier this month, Iles missed the cut at the Scratch Players.
His performance at the Western buoyedhim because “it was nice to be able to beat some of the top players in this country.”
But his return to Bluffton was more gratifying emotionally.
“It was good to be back there where (the accident) happened,” he said. “It was really good, because the people over there are amazing. Really sweet people. I had a great time with them, lots of dinners and some long talks.”
From a medical standpoint, the speed of Iles’ comeback was unexpected.
“If only because of the underlying brain contusions and the fact that his injury was fairly significant,” said Suh, the surgeon. “So I think it’s quite remarkable that he’s made that kind of progress.”
Told that Iles had played 131 holes in five days at the Western, nearly winning one of the most prestigious tournaments in amateur golf, Suh replied: “That’s amazing. Obviously he’s a very talented athlete. Given how technical (the golf swing is) and the degree of skill required, it’s quite remarkable. Especially when it’s within the time frame of a year.”
Asked at the Western if he could have imagined Iles coming back so soon, Streat shook his head.
“We thought he was dead,” he said. “So, no, I couldn’t imagine him playing golf. I couldn’t even imagine him being normal again, from what initially we were seeing. Then the next day, when we heard he’s had brain surgery, we thought, ‘Oh, no.’ We didn’t really know what to think.
“Now to see him out here is unbelievable. To see him playing back to almost how he used to play. . . . He’s a lucky boy.”
But in some respects, say friends and family, Iles’ recovery is true to form. Iles always has been able to roll with the punches, they say, describing him as “laid back” or “carefree” or “positive.”
His nickname in New Zealand is “The Oracle.”
“He’s patient. He’s prepared to listen. And he’s prepared to give his opinion,” Tongue said. “I’ve been in this game for 32 years, and I’ve learned many things from Brad Iles.
“For a boy of 21, his maturity is incredible. To go through the injury he went through, to be playing golf – to be alive – is an amazing achievement. The job people did in America, we can never thank them enough.”
By all accounts, Iles’ personality sparkles much like the diamond stud he wears in his left earlobe.
“He’s a legend,” said David Lutterus, one of the Australian entourage.
“Honestly. He shoots an 80, he doesn’t give a damn,” Streat said. “If he shoots 65, it doesn’t fuss him. Nothing really seems to fuss him. And I haven’t seen any change in him.”
Indeed, during his 1-up semifinal loss to Chris Wilson at the Western, Iles smiled and joked with his caddie about an errant drive that ended up in a drainage ditch at the 12th hole. He laughed when his tee ball at the 13th came to rest amid a clump of trees. After the match, he noted that Wilson had twice hit the pin with shots and had lipped out several putts.
“He played solid. He deserved it,” Iles said. “To be honest, I would have felt bad if I’d have taken it from him.”
Natalie Storck, a Kiwi who plays on the University of Toledo women’s team, was the aforementioned caddie. She has known Iles since they were juniors. Brad’s pleasant demeanor, she says, belies his competitive drive.
“He’s a very strong-willed person. Very determined at what he does,” Storck said. “Golf is the passion in his life and he was eager to get back to where he was.”
Leishman concurs: “He’s a good guy – and tough. He’s proved that.”
Peter Iles contends that his son has become a better strategist as a result of his brush with death.
“Since the accident he’s changed the way he thinks on the golf course,” the elder Iles said. “He thinks about what’s next, and not what’s gone.”
What’s next for Iles is six weeks of preparation for his run at Q-School.
“He’s more than capable,” Tongue said. “This kid’s got something special. He’s going to be a superstar.”
Regardless of his destiny, it’s not likely that Iles’ appreciation of golf – and for life – will ever be diminished.
“I enjoy every moment of it,” he said. “I just love to play the game now.”
If that attitude ever does begin to change, Iles need only look in the mirror. A thin scar that begins in front of his left ear and runs to the top of his head is there to remind him of what’s important in life.
“I think everything’s for a reason, eh?” Iles said. “I don’t know why. I should have died that night, but I guess it wasn’t my time.”