BILOXI, Miss. – When Gary Smith teed it up at the Old Course in St. Andrews three years ago, he was another aging American about to check off a big-ticket item on his bucket list.
He was in awe of where he stood. He felt humbled. The first tee. The Royal & Ancient clubhouse. The history. The knowledge that every great golfer who ever played the game trod this same hallowed ground. Old Tom Morris. Harry Vardon. Bobby Jones. Jack Nicklaus. Everyone. “I’m not a great golfer,” Smith conceded, “but I love the game.”
This round of golf proved to be much more than just one tourist’s pilgrimage to the Home of Gawf. Smith holed out for eagle at the sixth hole, his first-ever eagle, but that is not what made this round life-changing.
It was this round at the Old Course where Smith, then 60, a former psychotherapist from Naperville, Ill., discovered an effective treatment for Parkinson’s disease, a neurodegenerative brain disorder with which he was diagnosed seven years earlier.
That sounds ridiculous, maybe impossible. When he finished the round at St. Andrews, Smith felt different. He felt better.
“I was tired when I went to bed that night, but I didn’t ache,” Smith said. “I felt looser. Those were strange feelings for me. I could tell something was going on.”
When he returned home, Smith began hitting golf balls regularly at his local Topgolf establishment and playing golf when spring’s fickle weather allowed. He continued to have strange feelings, wonderful feelings. The second week he was home, he went to the range twice. Then three times the next week. Then five times. Then every day.
After five weeks, Smith was able to walk more upright and actually stride, not shuffle. His right foot and his right arm, which had been rigidly stiff, felt looser. He could type with his right hand again. He could manage facial expressions. Mentally, he no longer felt as if he were in a fog and fighting inexplicable feelings of panic. Smith’s right leg didn’t drag behind him when he walked. He could run again, an unexpected bonus for a man who completed a marathon on his 56th birthday. His voice was stronger. He no longer often felt as if he were choking.
At first, Smith thought this unexpected recovery was some kind of placebo effect or maybe leftover adrenaline from playing the Old Course. He had played golf four or five times a year since his prognosis, usually riding in a cart in a scramble event, and hadn’t felt any better.
But his progress continued after his return from Scotland. The more swings he made, the more holes he walked, the better he felt.
He called his neurologist. Skepticism is the best way to describe the reaction from Dr. Martha McGraw at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital. She wasn’t ready for what she saw when Smith arrived in her office and, at her request, walked down the hallway and back.
“She was in shock,” Smith said. “She said, ‘Oh, my, you look like you’re pre-Parkinson’s!’ She couldn’t believe it.”
Smith can’t explain it. His neurologist can’t explain it. But seeing is believing.
When Smith was a guest speaker at the International Network of Golf spring conference last week in Biloxi and talked about his unique recovery, he looked as normal as any youthful, fit 63-year-old. I sat next to him at the ING banquet the next evening, talked golf and learned more about his ordeal. His story makes you think about forces beyond our knowledge and control.
Granted, Smith is not your average Parkinson’s patient. He was always active. He played basketball and baseball in high school and college and still hooped it up and remained active during his 20-plus years as a pyschotherapist. He surfed, skydived, paraglided and ran.
He was shocked when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2008 but conceded that he already knew something was amiss. He had felt strange aches and pains and unusual fatigue. He had lost most of his sense of smell and taste. Plus, he had watched his father painfully suffer a rugged end after a 22-year battle with Parkinson’s. That made his own diagnosis less surprising but no easier to accept. His father’s battle felt like a foreboding movie of his own future.
Smith said even his faith in God was shaken by his diagnosis. Still, he determinedly became even more active in hopes of reducing the symptoms. He tried biking, aerobics, stretching, tai chi, yoga, boxing, marathon running, triathlons and hip-hop dancing. Wait, hip-hop dancing? Smith nodded with a big grin.
“These things, plus my medication, might have slowed down my Parkinson’s,” Smith said, “but they didn’t help all that much.”
He was on a downward spiral, physically and mentally. When his daughter, Morgan, got married in 2010, Smith’s right arm was totally stiff and he was barely able to walk down the aisle.
By 2015, Smith wasn’t the same man he had been a decade earlier. Then he and his wife, Nan, went to Scotland to look for her mother’s birthplace in Glasgow. Smith didn’t take golf clubs with him, but Nan insisted that he bring along a pair of golf shoes, just in case. “So, I knew something was up,” Gary said. “But this trip was for her.”
The Smiths arrived in Scotland, toured Glasgow and found the address where Nan’s mother once lived. There was no house, Gary said, just an empty slab and a shopping plaza in the heart of the city – an unsatisfying mission-accomplished moment.
On their last day, Nan suggested that Gary play the Old Course in St. Andrews. “I figured I’d probably never be in Scotland again,” he told me. It was a rainy February day and, luckily, a New York group that booked the day’s last tee time didn’t show. The starter wasn’t going to let Gary play initially because he didn’t have a handicap, but a no-nonsense intervention by Nan softened the starter, who relented, and Gary teed it up with a father-son duo from Boston.
The rest is potentially medical history. Months later, when the story of his amazing health turnaround came out and showcased his perseverance in hitting balls at a Topgolf facility, Topgolf awarded him a free platinum membership. “I couldn’t believe it,” said Smith, who hits about 1,000 balls a week.
Golf is now a big part of Smith’s life. He usually can be found teeing off with a buddy at a Naperville-area course early every morning. He walks 18 holes and on occasion goes 36. His handicap dropped from 24 to 10.
A second chance at an active existence, after it has been taken away, is a cherished gift. Ask Tiger Woods. Or ask Smith.
“Golf has brought him back to me,” Nan told Golf Channel in a piece aired in December.
Smith wrote for Parkinson.org: “I’m amazed at how I feel now, not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually too. When I was first diagnosed, I was angry with God. . . . Now, I wake up every day and walk by faith, not by sight. . . . I don’t feel like I even have Parkinson’s anymore, even though I know I do. . . . I feel like I’m in my 40s again. I definitely have a new lease on life.”
The big question is, can golf provide relief for other Parkinson’s sufferers? Smith would like to find out. He is trying to help raise money for the Parkinson’s Foundation to fund a scientific study on the potential benefits of golf for Parkinson’s patients.
His story is emotional, and he paused to collect himself a few times during his ING talk, held in a ballroom at the IP Casino Resort Spa. Because of our location, he started his presentation with a joke about the difference between praying in church and praying in a casino. “When you pray in a casino,” Smith said, “you really mean it.” That joke rocked the room.
Near the end of his talk, Smith held up a brown-tinted plastic pill bottle. The directions on the label, he said, read, “Take one ball every hole for 18 holes. Repeat as needed. Unlimited refills.” Smith calls it his “par-scription.”
It’s a weak pun, but it’s the only thing that’s weak about Gary Smith. He is battling Parkinson’s, one swing at a time.