With a healed heart, Banks rejoins Gators

Florida sophomore Eric Banks

Florida sophomore Eric Banks

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Less than 10 months ago, Eric Banks couldn’t even walk up the stairs at his home in Truro, Nova Scotia, let alone play golf.

The University of Florida player underwent open-heart surgery June 25, and in the first few weeks after the procedure, it took him almost an hour to get into bed because he was in so much pain.

“The first time I walked (after the surgery), I walked about 15 feet and felt like I ran 50 miles,” Banks said. “I was in pretty rough shape.”

The 20-year-old sophomore already is back in the Gators’ lineup. He not only competed at the SunTrust Gator Invitational – Florida’s spring opener – he tied for 10th.

“Seeing all the teams come in during the practice-round day, I got pretty excited,” Banks said after rounds of 72-71-68 in his first tournament since last season’s NCAA Championship. “It’s good to be back.”

Growing up, Banks often became fatigued during normal exercise. He frequently had to come off the ice when playing hockey in high school, and during strenuous workouts his heart rate often increased to 230-240 beats per minute.

After he arrived in Gainesville in August 2011, a physical exam detected something previous tests had missed: a congenital hole between his two atria. The hole forced all blood to the right atrium, causing that side of his heart to swell to three times its normal size.

Banks opted to play his freshman season. He finished the year with a 74.9 stroke average in 12 events and four top 20s, including a T-16 at the NCAA East Regional.

But the problem with his heart was too serious to ignore. He needed surgery.

The operation, performed by Dr. Camille L. Hancock Friesen at the Maritime Heart Center in Halifax, Nova Scotia, lasted about five hours. In order for the hole to be patched, Banks’ breastbone had to be broken, and a tube was inserted into his throat so his lungs wouldn’t collapse while he was under anesthesia.

“I woke up in the intensive-care unit and I had two tubes in my chest, wires everywhere. I felt terrible,” said Banks, who was so uncomfortable that he asked the doctors to remove the tube from his throat. His lungs later collapsed four times.

“I never second-guessed whether I would play again,” he said.

When Banks returned to school in the fall, he still couldn’t swing a club. He was always tired, sleeping as much as 12 hours a night and frequently taking naps between classes. A few weeks later, he was able to chip and putt but was far from being able to rejoin the team.

“That was hard seeing him have to deal with that,” said J.D. Tomlinson, Banks’ teammate. “Last season, we roomed together at every away tournament. To go to these tournaments in the fall knowing he’s sitting at home, it was hard.”

Banks drove down to Orlando with Tomlinson’s family for the Isleworth Collegiate Invitational to watch his team in action for the first time since the surgery. “It sucked that I couldn’t play,” Banks said.

That trip made Banks more determined to get back on the course. He hit the gym more frequently, and gradually his ability to swing improved.

Now, he’s stronger than he was before the surgery. He is hitting the ball longer and, most importantly, is pain free.

“Once I started hitting 50- and 100-yard wedge shots with no pain, I knew I wasn’t that far away (from returning),” he said.

Banks made Florida’s lineup for last week’s John Hayt Invitational, where he shot 8-over 152 and tied for 55th.

“It’s been a long journey since last June,” Florida head coach Buddy Alexander said. “There were some disappointing times for him when he wasn’t sure when he was going to be back to normal.

We missed having him in the fall, so it was awesome to see him get out there and play.”

Said Tomlinson: “Having him around is natural for us. Not only is our team going to be better, but our chemistry is going to be better. It’ll make the spring a lot easier.”

Banks concedes he still gets tired, but not as quickly. He has no physical restrictions, although some wires remain in his chest to help his breastbone heal. For the most part, he’s similar to any other college golfer – but with a unique comeback story.

“Having a bad round or hitting a bad shot isn’t really a big deal anymore because I’ve been at such a low point,” Banks said. “I’m ready to put it behind me and move forward.”

Said Alexander: “As a coach, you’re not supposed to play favorites, but when you have a guy who does everything he’s supposed to do, those are the guys who are easy to pull for.”

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