Special report: PGA Tour medical extensions
Monday, August 2, 2010
Joe Durant stood by the practice green, tendinitis in his left wrist aching, and asked anyone within earshot a common refrain heard on the PGA Tour: “Does anyone have Advil? I’m all out.”
Players call it the Tour’s “official Tic Tac” because virtually everyone swallows ibuprofen to deal with aches and pains. Veteran Greg Kraft joked that if such over-the-counter pain relievers were on the banned-substance list, then only a handful of golfers would be able to play. The Champions Tour? It wouldn’t exist.”
But even the wonder drug has its limitations. Every year, a handful of Tour players are beset with injuries that force them to miss extended time. As the saying goes, you can play hurt, but you can’t play injured. Some ailments are as noticeable as Tiger Woods’ limp or as life-threatening as Ken Green’s recreational-vehicle accident, which cost him a limb. Others aren’t as visible.
Already this season, rookie Billy Horschel (wrist) and veteran Rich Beem (back) have required season-ending surgery. Anthony Kim (thumb) and Jeff Klauk (herniated disk) hope to return later this season. Others such as David Toms, who has had three cortisone shots in his right shoulder since October, are delaying surgery and playing through the pain.
In other sports, athletes get injured and get replaced. Sometimes they get cut. But the Tour’s disabled often receive a second chance. They may not have guaranteed contracts to fall back on, but they can reclaim their spot on Tour once they’re fit to return – thanks to a “major medical extension” policy that’s uncommon in professional sports.
Medical Extensions: How exactly do they work?
• The nuts and bolts of medical extensions can be confusing. Adam Schupak breaks down exactly what it means to receive one.
An extension requires petitioners to show medical proof they need time off from work. After a minimum leave of four months, players can return to competition, and based on a formula, are given a certain number of starts to retain their Tour status.
“It’s a godsend, really,” said Arron Oberholser, who had hip and hand surgery this year and is guaranteed 14 starts upon his return. “I’m saving every one of those suckers until I’m absolutely ready.”
Eighteen players have starts remaining as part of their medical extensions. Their availability has given stars and journeymen alike the opportunity to continue their Tour dreams, which otherwise might be lost. Indeed, medical extensions are as vital to Tour players as health insurance is for ordinary Americans. It’s the safety net that catches them, but can’t guarantee to stand them back up: In the past 10 years (2000 to 2009), only 39 of 124 players receiving medical extensions have kept their card (31 percent).
Steve Jones, a medical-extension poster boy who has endured several stints on golf’s disabled list, compares the challenge of coming back from injury to a boat taking on water.
“Each missed cut is like another hole in the boat,” Jones said. “Pretty soon, you’re sinking. Next thing you know, you’re back at Q-School.”
There’s no denying that the medical extension is a blessing for sidelined players. But it remains a controversial policy on Tour. Although it has undergone reform over the years, the policy hardly is immune from criticism. Plenty of players still want changes – to curtail what they say are abuse of privileges or to gain benefits they say they deserve. And those who believe the system failed them harbor deep resentment.
Take Kraft, who contracted Valley Fever, a fungus in the desert soil that affects the lungs, while playing in the 2002 Tucson Open. Considering his seniority and good standing on Tour, Kraft lobbied that an extension should award him the same Tour status and privileges upon his return. The Tour rejected his request, and as a result, Kraft never applied for the extension and played while undergoing chemotherapy. He missed the weekend in nine of his next 10 starts and eventually lost his card. All these years later, he still burns with animosity.
Many players acknowledge they don’t understand the medical policy – or even know that they are eligible for disability payments – but for those who have been affected personally, it’s a topic for which they are passionate.
“It’s our job; it’s our life; it’s everything,” Kraft said.
• • •
Former Tour player Jim Nelford is considered the godfather of the medical extension program. In September 1985, Nelford, 30, nearly was killed in a water-skiing accident. He was treading water when the boat that had been pulling him raced toward him, and the boat’s propeller tore into his right arm between the hand and elbow. Bone, cartilage and tendons were so badly damaged that doctors wanted to amputate.
Nelford petitioned the Tour for a special exemption.
“We sort of closed our eyes before we had the policy,” then-commissioner Deane Beman said. “Creating it was the right thing to do.”
Jones recalled asking the Tour for an exemption into the final stage of Q-School in 1982 after undergoing thumb surgery. The Tour turned him down.
“Of the guys hurt now, not one of them would’ve been granted one back then,” Jones said. “We’ve made great strides.”
Nelford was offered a special one-year exemption, but it came with strings attached: use it within a year or lose it. Remarkably, Nelford returned to the Tour in October 1986, but his comeback never took flight.
“I was in no way ready to play,” Nelford said.
Nowadays, there is no expiration date for a medical extension. Players are encouraged to wait until healthy. Chris Perry (injured in 2001) and Patrick Moore (2003) still are recovering from setbacks that have forced lengthy layoffs. And when players are ready to return, they can play up to five “rehab starts” on the Nationwide Tour.
Such changes are among the dozens that have been implemented since the plan’s inception. At one time, a player needed to be a Tour member for three years to be eligible.
The last significant change to the policy occurred in 2007, when David Duval petitioned for hardship caused by illness not to him, but a family member. Initially, Duval, whose wife had a difficult pregnancy, was denied an extension. But the Tour Policy Board reconsidered and gave rise to the “family-crisis” medical extension.
“My point was, if we’re going to tout ourselves as a family-friendly Tour, then I shouldn’t be penalized when I have to go home and take care of my wife and kids,” Duval said. “To their credit, they saw a problem and remedied it.”
The commissioner is the sole arbiter of the family-crisis extension. One of the first to benefit from it was Dudley Hart, who left the Tour in May ’07 to be the primary caregiver to his sick wife and care for their 5-year-old triplets. Hart returned the next season, earned more than $2 million and was named the Tour’s Comeback Player of the Year.
To some, extending a hardship during a family member’s illness is the ultimate sign of a kinder, gentler Tour. But others view it as a liberalization of a policy that has lost touch with its original intent, and worse, created a system that’s too easy to abuse.
Said Nelford: “It’s become the monster that they didn’t want it to become.”
• • •
Andy Pazder, the Tour’s senior vice president of tournament administration, serves as a one-man ruling body, evaluating a player’s eligibility for the program. (Technically, however, decisions are “at the discretion of the commissioner.”) To qualify, a player must be an exempt member (up to and including No. 150 on the money list), sit out a minimum of four months and submit medical documentation.
Pazder doesn’t have a medical background. He has access to a doctor for consultations, but insists almost every case is straightforward. If a player has medical evidence and meets eligibility criteria, Pazder approves his petition. Since he began administering the program in 2000, he says he hasn’t rejected a single request.
“I don’t know any player that, if he was healthy, wouldn’t want to play for a purse of upwards
of $5 million,” Pazder said.
But his approval record raises suspicions among some Tour members who say better screening is required. Discrepancies in how petitions have been evaluated over time especially are unfair, Kraft insists.
“There should be an independent panel,” and conditions that players need to meet to secure cards should vary “on a case-by-case basis,” Kraft said.
He resents that players today can receive an extension for reasons ranging from sinus surgery to depression. Kraft says Tour veterans like himself couldn’t qualify for benefits so readily when they were rookies. And he criticizes the system that doesn’t factor dedicated service to the Tour when awarding benefits.
“Part of my lung was in a jar. I thought I was going to die,” Kraft said. “I couldn’t play golf. I lost 30 pounds. Maybe I should have been depressed. Now you got all these guys who abuse it.”
Pazder scoffs at such a notion.
“Any player who makes that sort of accusation will be glad we offer a medical extension if he should ever need one,” he said.
Pazder has numerous supporters.
“No one is faking getting a surgery,” Roland Thatcher said.
Perry, 48, who hasn’t competed since 2006, said: “It’s not for a lack of effort. I haven’t been able to perform, but I have earned the right to use this medical thing to come back and play.”
Perry flirted with college coaching when the job at his alma mater, Ohio State, opened last year, but he is devoted to competing again and hopes to return later this season.
“When you’ve got the greatest job in the world, why wouldn’t you want to be out there?” he said.
But there’s an undercurrent of grumbling among players – most of whom won’t talk on the record – that at least validates the perception that some aren’t injured as much as they portray to be. Those who don’t go under a knife usually are the first to draw suspicion. And it’s not uncommon for players to avoid surgery. They’ve heard the horror stories.
Consider the case of Jason Bohn, who received a note from Finchem offering his best wishes before undergoing back surgery to remove a disk fragment lodged behind the nerve cavity. In surgery, Bohn’s spinal cord was cut, requiring two more operations. For 32 days, he was bedridden and couldn’t lift his head above his waist.
“I wasn’t thinking golf,” Bohn said. “I was thinking about being able to get up so I could play with my kids.”
• • •
If the medical-extension plan is being abused, it’s likely hurting players the most in terms of disability coverage they receive.
In general, all exempt players qualify for the Tour’s base coverage, which is administered by Unum, one of the world’s largest disability-insurance providers. An injured player must sit out six months to be eligible; 12 players now are receiving benefits. Monthly payments, ranging from $2,500 to $10,000, are based upon a player’s average earnings over a three-year period. Coverage is for a maximum of five years, the Tour said.
According to some Tour members, so many players have received extensions – and subsequently, disability – that Unum was forced to reduce payments in 2008. The company lowered the monthly maximum from $20,000 to $10,000.
“I don’t want to name names, but we cost Unum quite a bit of money, and I think that’s part of the reason why Unum reduced our coverage,” Oberholser said.
Added Bohn: “The Tour is so forgiving and understanding, and it’s based on honesty that I think it can be taken advantage of.”
The Tour’s explanation for the change? “In order to meet the program objectives long-term, the benefit was revised after the initial five years,” said Kathy Krempler, director of player retirement plans.
For many players, staying healthy is just as important as getting healthy.
Bohn hired a physical-therapy team, Back 9 Fitness, which travels the Tour and provides fitness, training, massage therapy and nutrition expertise to several clients. Bohn spends 20 hours per week getting his body ready to play and pays roughly $50,000 per year for the company’s services.
“I’ll probably have to rehab until the day I stop playing golf or the day I go 6 feet under, whichever comes first,” he said.
When Bohn won the Zurich Classic of New Orleans in April, his team of therapists was among the first he publicly thanked. It was his second career title, but Bohn equally cherishes his sixth-place finish at the 2008 Verizon Heritage. That earned him enough money to keep his card after his medical extension.