Big Daddy” is back. Well, at the least,
“Big Daddy” is better. And for Tim Simpson, after 14 years of being betrayed by his body, better is more than he ever thought possible.
The four-time PGA Tour winner arrived at last week’s Nationwide Tour event in Virginia Beach with a few new clubs in his bag, a high-tech cattle prod that ran from his chest, through his neck and deep into his brain, as well as a ready supply of AA batteries. Simpson also had something else that had been absent from his life for some time – optimism.
Of all the golf played last week, Simpson’s 147 strokes may not have seemed the stuff of legend at first brush. But for a handful of family and friends – and probably a scribe or two from the New England Journal of Medicine – the barrel-chested Southerner’s seemingly nondescript week in Virginia Beach was historic if not heroic.
Since 1991, the year Simpson contracted Lyme disease, he’s logged more time in operating rooms than your average anesthesiologist. The man’s medical history reads like a complete season of “ER.” There’s been spinal fusion surgery, surgery to remove an encapsulated staph infection from his groin and, most recently, a procedure called deep brain stimulation, developed to combat the effects of Parkinson’s Disease.
Simpson underwent the surgery March 1 at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta to help cure what was diagnosed as benign essential tremor, a nonlethal form of Parkinson’s that caused his left hand to shake uncontrollably during his swing.
“You set up to the ball and your left hand starts going ballistic,” says Simpson, who missed the cut in Virginia Beach after rounds of 77-70. “Shots my two Jack Russell Terriers could pull off and I couldn’t hit.”
Wired up like a refurbished ’65 Ford Mustang, the device in Simpson’s chest sends an electrical current through a wire and into his brain, stopping the shakes before they occur.
Missing the cut was a victory by any measure.
If not for Simpson, who has never lacked for confidence, then for his team of Ph.D’s back in Augusta and for D.J. Fiese, a little-known mini-tour player who lives in Atlanta.
Simpson and Fiese crossed paths three years ago while Fiese was still in college. Fate, however, has made the two brothers in Band-Aids.
Last June, while traveling to a NGA/Hooters Tour event in Savannah, Ga., Fiese lost control of his Ford Explorer. The car flipped four times, and each time the impact pounded Fiese’s left arm.
“The fact he’s got an arm and can swing a club at all is amazing because it looked as if he was going to lose it,” says Dr. Charles G.
Howell, father of PGA Tour player Charles Howell III and a pediatric surgeon at the Medical College of Georgia who advised doctors during Fiese’s surgery.
Three surgeries, 18 screws and two plates later, Fiese had the makings of a rebuilt wing.
“I’ve got about half of Home Depot in my arm,” Fiese says.
With Simpson’s not-so-gentle counsel, Fiese began the long process of rebuilding his battered psyche. Together, with a pair of the best left arms modern science could mend, Fiese and Simpson are intent on picking up the pieces of careers that already should have ended.
Better living through science.
“He’s instilled a lot of confidence and that cockiness in me,” says Fiese, who plans on resuming his career in June at the Hooters Tour event in Savannah.
“When I step on the first tee, I’m thinking, ‘I can’t believe all you guys showed up to finish second.’ That’s Tim’s philosophy. That’s what Tim thinks you have to do.”
Watching his mentor undergo the complicated and potentially life-threatening deep brain surgery was more motivation than anything Fiese would have found on a psychologist’s couch.
In the 1980s and early ’90s, Simpson was considered one of the game’s finest ball-strikers – he set the Tour record for greens in regulation in 1992 – and his southern swagger often was mistaken for cockiness. But after the tremors robbed him of his chipping and putting stroke and forced him into semi-retirement in 1997, he resigned himself to life as a teacher.
Medication that was supposed to control the tremors left “Big Daddy” bubble-headed, and when Simpson’s wife – Leigh Anne, an MRI technician – suggested deep brain surgery, he hardly was the perfect candidate.
“I was more than a little reluctant about brain surgery,” Simpson says. “I told them I didn’t want to be the first guy in line waiting to have this procedure. It scared me to death.”
But after missing the cut at the Nationwide Tour’s season opener in Panama and with a potential Champions Tour career slightly more than a year away, Simpson – who turns 50 next May – agreed to what he knew was his last shot at a pro career.
Because he’s claustrophobic, Simpson asked to be sedated during the presurgery MRI. The actual surgery lasted nine hours; he was awake the entire time. Simpson remembers almost every detail of the procedure, including the moment doctors activated the device.
“They said, ‘OK, let’s cut the activator on,’ ” Simpson says. “And boom. I felt electricity go down my arm and the cane (he was holding) stopped dead. When they did that all hell broke loose in the operating room. Everybody was cheering.”
Still, Simpson needed to see for himself. Four days after his surgery, Simpson sneaked out to the golf course and, against doctors’ orders, hit a few chip shots. Then he took out his cell phone and dialed Fiese’s number.
“He called me from the chipping green and I said, ‘How’s it feel?’ And he said, ‘Well, it took me three to pitch it in. I need to call these doctors back,’ ” Fiese says. “That’s typical Tim.”
With enough technology holding them together to guide the space shuttle, Simpson and Fiese resumed their regular game at Simpson’s course in Oconee, Ga., a few days before the Virginia Beach event. Simpson won, holing a 20-footer on the final green.
Combined, the walking wounded shot 4 or 5 under that day, Fiese says. But it wasn’t the score as much as the winner’s swagger that signaled an aura had returned.
“I don’t think the golf world has seen the last of ‘Big Daddy,’ ” Simpson says.