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‘I thought everything was going to kill me’: Gary Woodland says he was gripped by fear of death before brain surgery

By Jack Bantock, CNN

(CNN) — American golfer Gary Woodland said he was “fear-driven every day, mostly around death” in the months before undergoing brain surgery last year.

The former US Open champion returns to competitive action on Thursday for the first time since the craniotomy to remove a lesion on his brain on September 18.

Woodland had made his diagnosis public a few weeks before, yet had been experiencing life-affecting symptoms for months prior, beginning in the midst of a PGA Tour event at the end of April.

The 39-year-old had been asleep on the eve of the final round at the Mexico Open in Vallarta when he jolted awake. Immediately, “fear set in,” Woodland said Tuesday.

“I didn’t know what it was,” he told reporters at the Sony Open – the second event of the 2024 PGA Tour season – in Honolulu.

“Maybe a panic attack, I didn’t know … shaking, hands were really tremoring.”

Woodland would discover the answer towards the end of May after being sent for an MRI scan by his doctor, whom he had approached after his symptoms proliferated to a loss of appetite, lack of energy and chills.

Yet the most debilitating symptom, Woodland explained, was a daily fear of death.

“Didn’t matter if I was driving a car, [or] on an airplane – I thought everything was going to kill me,” he said.

“I’ve worked hard with performance coaches and psychologists since I was 16 years old. You think you can overcome stuff – I couldn’t overcome this. Every day, it was a new way of dying, new way of death.

“The jolting in the middle of the night scared the heck out of me … I’m laying in bed at 1 a.m. grabbing the bed to tell myself I wasn’t falling from heights, [that] I wasn’t dying, for an hour.”

The scan ruled out Parkinson’s disease, yet revealed what looked to be a tumor on his brain. Further tests eventually ended with Woodland visiting a specialist in Kansas City, who told him that the jolting episodes were partial seizures, caused by the lesion pushing onto the part of the brain that controls fear and anxiety.

“He’s like, ‘You’re not going crazy. Everything you’re experiencing is common and normal for where this thing is sitting in your brain,’” the golfer recalled.

‘I would be standing over a club and forget which club I’m hitting’

Subsequent medication eventually began to limit the seizures and allowed Woodland to function, but at the cost of losing memories and other “horrible” side effects that left the golfer “depleted,” from irritability to loss of focus and energy.

Falling asleep before 9 a.m. without an energy pill, Woodland said it reached a point where he had just one hour of energy a day, and yet played a flurry of PGA Tour events across 10 weeks – eight of them while on medication – before undergoing surgery.

“To have to get up and play the next day and play through it, golf was the only thing that allowed me a little break for a little bit of time,” Woodland explained.

“My game from a physical standpoint felt really good. I was in positions that I’ve been trying to get into a long time.”

Remarkably, across the 10 events Woodland played from when his symptoms began, he made the cut at all but two of them, finishing as high as tied-14th at the Wells Fargo Championship.

Yet after feeling nauseous for the entirety of his two rounds at the PGA Championship, a conversation with his caddie following a tied-27th performance at the Wyndham Championship in early August convinced Woodland it was time to step away from the course.

“My caddie pulled me aside, ‘You can’t play this way. You got to go get help, you got to get fixed,’” Woodland recalled.

“I would be standing over a club and forget which club I’m hitting. I would be lining up putts and think, ‘This is taking too long. I’m just going to hit it.’ Didn’t have the focus or the energy.”

Given the lesion was benign, not cancerous, surgeons did not remove the entirety of the growth, Woodland said. Instead, they removed half via a “baseball-sized hole” in the side of his head before putting it back together with titanium plates and screws.

“I’ve got a robotic head, I guess,” Woodland joked.

‘Nothing is going to stop me’

Due to the proximity of the lesion to Woodland’s optic tract, as well as nearby blood vessels, doctors told the golfer there was a risk he could have lost his eyesight and suffered paralysis on his left-side from the surgery.

Yet a bandaged Woodland returned home two days later exhausted but relieved – practicing his putting on a makeshift dining room course not long after.

“The support from the Tour, from people outside the golf world, has been tremendous for me and my family,” he said.

“When I woke up and realized I was OK, I was filled with thankfulness and love.
That replaced the fear. It was very emotional because I had gone four-and-a-half months of every day really thinking I was going to die.

“You can imagine leading up to surgery how I felt going into having my head cut open and operated on. The fear going into that was awful.”

Scheduled for scans every three months, Woodland said his last check-up just before the new year revealed a “stable” diagnosis. Now looking forward to tailing off medication and competing again, Woodland can reflect on a grueling – yet simultaneously enlightening – experience.

“I learned a lot about myself,” Woodland said.

“Usually people ask me for help and I’m not asking … Asking for help helped me speed up the process, helped us catch this quicker than we probably would have. That helped me – saved me – more than anything.”

After receiving messages telling him that he’s inspired people, Woodland hopes his story can provide hope to others.

“I just want to prove you can do hard things. I want to prove to my kids nobody is going to tell you that you can’t do anything – you can overcome tough, scary decisions in your life.” he said.

“I don’t want this to be a bump in the road for me. I want it to be a jump start in my career … At the end of the day, I’m here because I believe this is what I’ve been born to do, play great golf.

“Nothing is going to stop me. I believe that. I believe a lot of great things are ahead.”

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