On the practice range last Friday, before the second round of Charlie Beljan’s final chance to avoid having to requalify for the PGA Tour, his throat tightened and his heart began hammering.
What happened next was one of the more frightening — and remarkable — rounds of golf ever caught on video. Beljan, 28, endured a five-hour stress test, staggering through 18 holes at the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. He sat down in the grass to catch his breath. Medical personnel in his gallery monitored his racing pulse. The fear of a possible heart attack dominated his thoughts.
He carded a 64, the second-lowest score of his rookie season, to take the lead, then left the grounds in an ambulance.
He spent the night in a hospital, with machines hooked up to his limbs and his golf shoes still on his feet. A battery of tests revealed nothing physically wrong with him. It was a panic attack. And when Beljan was released Saturday, he decided to put his nerves to the test for the final 36 holes.
When he returned to the golf course, he said, “I was crying on the (practice) range because I was so afraid these feelings would come back."
For the next two rounds, Beljan fought bone-crushing fatigue and worry about his health to hang on for his first PGA Tour victory, a triumph over the most mental of games.
“I was just thinking about my health, one shot at a time, one hole at a time," he said Monday in a telephone interview from his home in Mesa, Ariz. “And shoot, it worked out pretty well."
Beljan’s peers who saw him on the course Friday or watched the drama unfold on the telecast said they had never seen anything like it, which was itself a shock.
“It’s amazing that it doesn’t happen more in sports," Keegan Bradley, the 2011 PGA Championship winner, said Monday.
There have been instances of players leaving the course in distress. During a competitive round in 2005, David Toms experienced a rapid heart rate that caused him to drop to one knee and clutch his chest. He was hospitalized and found to have supraventricular tachycardia, which he underwent surgery to correct. Robert Karlsson withdrew abruptly on the eve of this year’s British Open after experiencing the golf equivalent of an actor forgetting his lines: Every time Karlsson tried to take the club back on his swings during a practice round, he froze.
Beljan came into the PGA Tour season finale ranked 139th on the money list. With only the top 125 players assured of retaining their tour privileges for next year, he needed a top-10 finish to secure his tour card. In his first 21 events, he had two top-10 showings. After a strong opening round, he felt a high finish was in his reach. He said he felt relaxed.
“I’ve never tried to make golf something more than it is," he said.
Beljan did not think the high stakes of the moment caused his attack. His first go-round on the PGA Tour was only one of the challenges he had to confront this year. He married in the beginning of 2012 and in September his wife, Merisa, gave birth to their first child, a boy. Beljan had his first panic attack a month before the birth of his son, passing out on an airplane that needed to make an emergency landing as a result.
He said he believed the stress of dealing with so many life-changing events in so few months caused his panic attack on the course.
“I don’t think it’s been the golf that’s done it at all," he said. “I’ve had a lot of people try to diagnose me who have told me they’ve had the same problem, but I don’t think it’s the stress of the tour. It’s everything I’ve had going on this year."
Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, the chief of psychiatry at New York Presbyterian/Columbia hospital, said a panic attack is a neurochemical disturbance in parts of the brain and is related to the fright-flight response. A number of treatments are effective, he said, including Valium-type medications, beta blockers and other drugs, some of which are prohibited on the PGA Tour. Other options include nonpharmacological treatments like behavior therapy and relaxation techniques.
Speaking in general about Beljan, whom he has not treated, Lieberman said, “It’s impressive that he had the cognitive wherewithal to manage his emotions and play winning golf."
“The average golfer can feel his hands tremble just standing over a 4-foot putt to win a weekend match, and for them, all that’s at stake is their ego," said Joe Parent, a psychologist and author of the best-seller “Zen Golf." “The pros are playing for their careers and their lives. It’s a different category of mental stress — an extreme version of stage fright."
There is no relief for the struggling golfer on the course. Players cannot be removed from competition in the middle of a bad round or take a timeout to regain their composure. There are no coaches to offer comfort or teammates to help erase their mistakes.
“The only comparable thing might be a heavyweight championship fight," said Jim McLean, an instructor to various touring pros, including Bradley and LPGA star Cristie Kerr. “The personal pressure is enormous."
McLean, who is ranked among Golf Digest’s top five teachers nationally, said he saw panic attacks on the golf course from pros and recreational golfers alike more often than one would imagine. If it is a rare sight on the PGA Tour, he said, it is because being calm under pressure is part of the Darwinian weeding-out process in professional golf.
“Anxiety under pressure has driven a lot of golfers out of the game," McLean said. “They’re people you don’t know of and never heard about because they couldn’t handle it. That includes some very talented guys. It’s part of the game that is underestimated and just as important as hitting the ball. It can be pretty scary and it’s an incredible story that Charlie won."
Beljan also picked up a paycheck of $846,000. Now 63rd on the money list, with almost $1.4 million in earnings this year, his playing privileges for next season are secure.
Still, Beljan arranged to have a full physical exam this week at Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, near his home. He said he also arranged to meet with a psychologist.
In the 24 hours after his win, Beljan watched replays of his second round and was aghast to see himself between shots struggling to remain upright, stooped over on his knees and slumped on top of his golf bag.
“I can’t believe that was me to be honest with you," he said.