Beating the odds

Video: Morris explains his technique at the driving range

By Zack Hall / The Bulletin / @cogolfguy

Published Sep 5, 2013 at 05:00AM

Austin Morris has a shocking way of demonstrating the numbness of the left side his body.

Sitting at a crowded west-side Bend restaurant, Morris raises his left hand and slams it to the table so hard that the silverware rockets off the surface. He then declares with a chuckle: “There is NO feeling in the left hand.”

After a stroke at age 9 and another at age 11 left most of Morris' left side without feeling — a sample of a head-spinning array of medical problems — the 25-year-old Bend resident's left hand has been left visibly atrophied and weak.

That, though, is just part of his story.

You see, little has come easy for Morris — not school, not work, not life itself.

And certainly not golf. How could golf come easy when success in the game is predicated on feel, and nearly half your body is unable to feel a thing?

But to watch Morris play golf is like watching a miracle, as he turns his unconventional golf swing into punishment of a golf ball, sending it through the air some 300 yards.

“My left hand can't support the club,” explains Morris, who has the look of a golf pro, from his perfectly pressed white pants to his Nike sunglasses. “And when I take it back my left hand has no idea where it's going. It's all my right hand doing the work.”

Golf is an incredibly challenging game under the best of circumstances, able to humble anyone who dares play.

But not even a health condition that could end his life at any moment could stop him from becoming a professional-caliber golfer capable of shooting par, with dreams of one day becoming a teaching professional.

For him, golf has become the great equalizer in his life. The place where he feels normal.

“When I walk up to a tee box into a foursome, I realize that these three other guys can feel the left side of their body,” Morris says. “I can't. ... I can't feel what my left foot is doing. I can't feel what my left hand is doing. But you don't know that. You don't see that. All you see is where the ball goes and how far it goes.”

Sick from birth

Austin's mother, Kelly Morris, remembers that as a baby Austin seemingly always had a cold.

“Nobody could ever seem to figure out what was wrong with him,” says Kelly, Austin's 53-year-old single mother. (Her son still lives with her.)

Then living in Gresham, Kelly shopped for answers around the local medical community. None came.

Finally, a Portland-area doctor contacted the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., a federal medical research center adept at identifying rare diseases.

At age 5, Austin became, according to Kelly, just the fourth person in the world diagnosed with ALPS (autoimmune lymphoproliferative syndrome), an inherited disorder of the immune system. According to the NIH, with ALPS, high numbers of white blood cells accumulate in the lymph nodes, liver and spleen, which can lead to dangerous enlargement of these organs. It can also cause other autoimmune issues such as anemia, low platelet counts, and a low count of a certain type of white blood cells, called neutrophils.

Or to put it in more common phrasing, ALPS is a “boy-in-the-bubble kind of thing,” says Robert Boone, an oncologist at St. Charles Bend and Morris' primary doctor for nearly 20 years.

The effects of the disease on young Austin were profound, according to his mother. He had brushes with death, had his spleen and appendix removed. He suffered from meningitis at age 5, lost most of the hearing in his right ear and had partial loss in his left ear.

“We didn't know what the outcome would be with the ALPS,” Kelly adds. “They didn't really know because it was so rare, but the word was that they weren't sure if he would make it past age 10.”

Austin's overall physical development did improve after ALPS was diagnosed, Kelly says.

But throughout his youth, Austin suffered from headaches every day, a sign of what was to come.

At age 9 he suffered his first stroke. He spent five weeks in the hospital and lost feeling on his left side. The left side of his face sagged.

Forced to use a motorized wheelchair, he had to relearn to walk and lost much of his cognitive ability, Kelly Morris says.

She recalls that Austin had been an exceptional math student in elementary school. But after the stroke, she adds, “he lost that. We had to go back and learn how to read and write and to do everything.”

At age 11 Austin suffered another stroke. Finally, at 18, after a third stroke, he was diagnosed with Moyamoya disease, “a rare, progressive cerebrovascular disorder caused by blocked arteries at the base of the brain in an area called the basal ganglia,” according to the NIH.

“He has the blood vessels of a 70-year-old,” says Boone. “One of the things that is hard for me to wrap my head around is that he could have a stroke and die. By looking at him you don't think that. But if you look at his MR (magnetic resonance) scan, first of all you are amazed that he is as functional as he is. But second of all you realize that if he loses any more brain, he isn't going to be alive.”

The nearness of death became a fact of life for Austin. And the Morris family, which includes Austin's 33-year-old brother, Steven, lost count of the hospital stays years ago.

Seeds of golf

At age 12, Austin was granted a wish by the Oregon chapter of the Make-a-Wish Foundation, a national charity that grants wishes to children diagnosed with life-threatening medical conditions.

A hockey nut, Austin wanted to go to Detroit to watch the National Hockey League's Red Wings play.

He met the team and received the carte blanche treatment from the Red Wings, the Morrises recall. And when Austin asked goaltender Chris Osgood what he did in his free time, Osgood replied: “Golf.”

“That's where it started,” Austin says of his interest in golf.

Austin, who moved to Bend with his family in 2001, took up the game with the help of his grandfather Rich Griffeth, who then lived in Salem but now lives in Central Oregon.

“My grandfather took me out to River's Edge (Golf Club in Bend), and we went on the driving range and we hit a bucket of balls and I used (old-fashioned) persimmon woods,” Austin recalls. “One out of three would go like 200 yards. And it felt good.”

He played golf with his grandfather often, but the game did not come quickly.

He played on the Mountain View High School golf team but still struggled to break 100, far behind the top golfers in the region.

“It took years to figure out how to get the club to fit in there,” Morris says while demonstrating how he fits a golf grip into his largely motionless left hand.

After high school, Morris got a seemingly crazy idea: to become a golf professional.

He got a job at Eagle Crest Resort, the club where his grandfather is a member and where Morris would meet his future mentors in Eagle Crest's director of instruction, Tam Bronkey, and then-head pro Howie Pruitt.

Morris' scores still hovered well over 100, and Bronkey had doubts about his pupil's golf aptitude.

The two created a right-hand-dominated golf swing, starting with a stance that aims him some 40 degrees to the right relative to a conventional stance. In that stance, he stands farther away from the ball than most golfers do.

The unusual technique worked. “So I started pushing him harder,” says Bronkey, likening Morris to a little brother. “From that sense, some of the instruction was typical.”

For about a year, Morris says, he practiced his game tirelessly.

“If I worked (at Eagle Crest) at 5:30 in the morning, I would get off at noon and I would practice until about 8 (p.m.),” Morris says. “I would just play or practice until dark. I did that day after day for a year solid.”

Before long, Morris could break 110 ... then 90 ... then 80.

“He is just a golf rat,” Bronkey says. “He just loves the (practice) range, loves to play golf and loves people. And you do that for three or four years straight and you love it that much, ask the right questions, work hard, and there he is.”

Morris still failed his first five attempts to pass his 36-hole player's ability test, a requirement to join the Professional Golfers of America.

Finally, on his sixth try last April at windswept Canyon Lakes Golf Course in Kennewick, Wash., Morris needed only to make an 8 on the par-4 18th hole.

Fatigued at the end of two days of play, he managed a 6 to card a 77 for the round and a 9-over-par 153 for the 36-hole event.

“I still don't know how I made 6,” Morris says.

“It takes a lot out of me to play at 100 percent, so I don't play my best all the time,” he adds. “I get exhausted and then it takes me a long time to get back up to full strength.”

The future

He still has more to go.

Playing the best golf of his life, Morris saw his progress derailed last October when, while driving away from Eagle Crest, his Toyota Camry was hit by another driver on Cline Falls Highway. That put Morris back in the hospital.

With a concussion, whiplash and pain from his shoulders to his legs, his golf game has suffered since the accident.

“You have this rare disease, and a car accident — something typical that unfortunately happens all the time — it has set you back more than any illness,” his mother says.

Morris, who now works in outside services at Bend Golf and Country Club, still has big dreams, though.

He wants to complete the Rules of Golf test needed to become a PGA member, and he still entertains thoughts of entering an event on one of pro golf's developmental mini-tours.

Whether he sees those dreams come true is still uncertain.

Boone, his doctor, calls Morris' progress on the golf course “impressive.” But more than that, golf has changed Morris.

“When he started playing golf, it was like ultimate physical therapy,” says Boone, adding that Morris was socially awkward and overweight before golf. “He wasn't a kid that went to the gym. He started doing things, got the momentum rolling, got better and better and did it more and more. He lost weight and started buffing up a little bit, and he got a personality.”

Ask the relentlessly upbeat Morris why he is so attracted to golf, and he will give a standard golf pro answer about the fun of the game.

Then the real answer comes.

“It's just the determination to prove that I can do this,” Morris says. “I wasn't supposed to live past 3. I wasn't supposed to live past 7, 10, 12, 14, 15. Then I wasn't supposed to walk or talk (after the strokes).”

Nobody knows — not his doctor, his mother or Morris himself — just how long Morris has left. It is his harsh reality.

And it is why he wants to stay on the golf course as long as he can.

“You never take it for granted,” Morris says. “Live life as full as you can.”