SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS | For most of our lives, Jimmy Walker and I have shared little in common. He’s 14 years older, from a different state, enjoys astrophotography and spends much of his leisure time hunting in the Texas hill country. If not for him being a PGA Tour player and for me being a journalist who covers golf, the overlap would be microscopic.
But as of three years ago, Walker and I have stories that are eerily linked. We both have Lyme disease, our respective diagnoses coming three weeks apart in the spring of 2017.
Walker’s battle has been well-documented. He reached the peak of his career in 2016 when he captured the PGA Championship, his sixth Tour victory in less than three seasons. The tall and powerful player from Boerne, Texas, had risen to 15th in the world and appeared destined to be a legitimate threat for years to come.
A few months after winning his first major, Walker’s body started to break down. He initially thought the flu-like symptoms were the result of his busy schedule. But when the calendar flipped to 2017, fatigue and joint pain remained. Concerned, he finally got a comprehensive blood test revealing his condition just ahead of that year’s Masters. Being bitten by a tick is the only way to contract Lyme, but Walker couldn’t recall such an incident.
When Walker made the announcement that he had the disease, I was already a year into trying to figure out what was wrong with me. I had a severe, jolting pain in my left leg, random bouts of chills, neuropathy in my extremities and, perhaps worst of all, a total lack of energy. I would sleep for 10 hours and not feel rested. On a handful of occasions, I would wake up to find myself unable to get out of bed.
Something was terribly wrong. Like Walker, I had chased all sorts of doctors in hopes of receiving some clarity. It was only when I randomly requested a Lyme disease test in May of 2017 that I discovered the same thing Walker had just figured out weeks earlier.
A few days after I learned about my positive test, I covered the Players Championship. It was there that Walker, who was taking an antibiotic called Doxycycline, received second-degree burns on his hands – sensitivity to the sun being a side effect of the medication. Mentally, he began to struggle with concentration and became uncharacteristically irritable.
That week, I attempted to write a story and had a full-on panic attack because I couldn’t type. This wasn’t writers’ block. This was literally forgetting the physical act of typing, something I have done almost every day since I was 6 years old. My brain had been compromised. My motor skills momentarily disappeared in a nightmare I couldn’t understand. It came and went like a Florida thunderstorm, a theme that many of my symptoms have in common.
A few weeks after that incident, Walker went into a press conference and described what I was feeling. He may have had a difficult time choosing words that everyone would understand, but I knew how he felt.
“It just kind of comes and goes,” he said. “It’s really hard to describe. It’s hard to quantify what happens and why it is happening. It’s a weird deal. I just keep plugging along.
“I mean, you get that sensation that like ‘Wow, I’m really falling back,’ ” he explained.
What happened? Lyme disease happened. Walker has battled through, often acknowledging that he has momentarily felt better and is closer to where he wants to be, but that it has never lasted.
Despite setbacks, it’s human nature to feel relief after receiving a positive test. Common sense tells you to take comfort in the answer. Doctors will eventually direct you back to normal health in the same way they would heal a broken leg.
Lyme disease doesn’t work like that. It is not a life-threatening illness, but it will make you chronically miserable with symptoms that come and go randomly. Your neck may be so stiff you can hardly swivel in each direction, only to see the pain completely subside for several months and then return. The healthcare community does not fully understand why this happens, meaning it doesn’t fully understand how to fix it. The illness requires a great deal of attention and a sophisticated and an intensely customized plan of attack, which means that seeing a doctor is almost never covered by insurance.
The traditional treatment revolves around taking antibiotics long-term, but this is a dangerous strategy. Not to delve too deeply into the complicated science, but antibiotics are designed to kill all bacteria, both good and bad. Doing so for a few days has no negative consequences. Doing so for four months can wreck your digestive system and add more problems than it solves.
Another part of the equation is that once you have Lyme for a lengthy period of time as Walker and I have had, there is no test to say it is officially gone. Testing for Lyme is notoriously unreliable. I received a second test in October 2017. It came back completely negative, a total reversal from five months prior. But I felt worse. I developed new symptoms, such as recurring fevers and chronic sore throat, problems that doctors say may have stemmed from accelerated antibiotic usage.
Lyme disease is a cloud of uncertainty. The best theories on feeling better involve a mixture of antibiotic therapy, diet changes and other immune-boosting techniques, but there is no template. Following a specific strategy doesn’t always equate to feeling better. Some days, you get little rest, eat an unhealthy meal, don’t exercise and feel fairly normal. Other days, you do everything right and still aren’t yourself.
Luckily, I am a writer. I don’t have to rely on physical ability for my livelihood. You can imagine how these symptoms can wreak havoc on a professional athlete.
Walker has yet to reclaim the form he once had, now going 18 consecutive weeks without a top-25 finish. He only has five top-10s since the start of 2017 and is outside the top 100 in the world for the first time since January 2013.
“It’s been pretty bad,” Walker admitted before explaining how he has been feeling sick lately. “I haven’t played well. But I’m working as hard as I’ve ever worked and it just hasn’t really come together yet.”
What happened? Lyme disease happened. He has battled through, often acknowledging that he has momentarily felt better and is closer to where he wants to be, but that it has never lasted.
The saying “Beware of the sick golfer” comes with a caveat. Being chronically ill doesn’t translate to better play.
When I caught up with Walker this week in San Antonio for the Valero Texas Open, he expressed a lot of what I have been feeling for the past three years. He doesn’t know what causes his symptoms to flare up. Some days, he wakes up and is simply not himself. His energy level and joint pain will randomly cause issues at inopportune times, even in the middle of tournaments. Golf on the PGA Tour is a difficult endeavor even if you are 25 years old and have no health issues. Being 40 years old with Lyme disease is enough to make you not want to play anymore.
Kudos to Walker, one of the hardest workers on tour, for not quitting despite the more than $25 million he has earned in his career.
“It’s been tough. Sometimes I get to the golf course, wake up during the day and I just don’t quite feel like the same person I was before as far as how the body works and moves,” Walker said on an overcast day at TPC San Antonio. “I don’t think that’s a product of getting old.”
I assured him that it’s not. I’m only 26 and my golf game, while not belonging in the same galaxy as that of a PGA Tour player, has sadly deteriorated. I used to consistently shoot in the mid-to-high 70s with an occasional round in the 60s, but my body doesn’t allow myself that opportunity anymore. The joint pain and fatigue alone have made the game impossibly frustrating. Life hasn’t been the same since being diagnosed. Mentally and physically, I’m a shell of what I was before. Sadly, that may never change.
I can feel Walker’s pain. This week is his hometown event, which he won by four strokes over Jordan Spieth in 2015. While he says he has felt sick for much of this season, the biggest effect Lyme disease has had on him is stealing away his confidence. This week, he looks more like himself and is encouraged by some of his recent play. But he is still walking uphill.
“I don’t think I’m done yet because I still feel like I’m in great shape and still hit the ball as far as I ever have and can do all the things I’ve done,” Walker said. “It’s maybe just accepting (Lyme disease) a little more and rolling with the punches better because it’s been frustrating.”
From someone with Lyme disease, I have to applaud Walker for continuing to push forward. If he were to win again, it would go down as one of the great comebacks in golf. Even if most people won’t see it that way.
Jimmy Walker, seen during the 2018 National at TPC Potomac at Avenel Farm, has battled Lyme disease since late in 2016. Photo: Peter Casey, USA Today Sports
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