Brett Massingham, the first with the illness to play in a PGA Tour event, follows course of a hero.
February 14, 2002
By JOHN REGER
The Orange County Register
LOS ANGELES -- As Brett Massingham walks through the front doors of Riviera Country Club, seven days before his magical week, he strides like a man trying to catch the morning train. His pace is quick and his mind racing. He is early for his 9:30 a.m. tee time but doesn't want to miss a single moment.
He breezes through the foyer, unaware of the stone floors or triple archway. With golf shoes in hand, Massingham hops down the three steps leading to the dining room, but heads straight to the stairway to the historic golf course.
On the way, he sees a large signed photo of his idol, golfer Ben Hogan. He pauses in his purposeful gait, touches the frame and says, "This is going to be a good day."
They haven't all been good days for the Rancho Santa Margarita resident, but this week could be one of the best in the 37-year-old's life.
When Massingham steps on the first tee today at the Nissan Open, he will be the first known golfer with multiple sclerosis to play in a PGA Tour event. It is a goal he has had since he was diagnosed in May 1996 and achieved two weeks ago at a Southern California PGA qualifying tournament.
The National Multiple Sclerosis Society, which has a chapter in Irvine, estimates nearly a third of a million Am ericans are afflicted with the disease, with nearly 200 new cases diagnosed each week.
It is unpredictable, and symptoms include numbness in the limbs, fatigue, slurred speech, paralysis or loss of vision. Some people are severely affected, others have mild symptoms.
Before he was diagnosed, Massingham hoped to be a tour player, and he worked as a golf professional at David L. Baker and Mile Square golf courses, both in Fountain Valley, while he chased that dream.
"I lived and ate and breathed and slept golf," said Massingham, now head professional at Marbella Country Club in San Juan Capistrano. "I would rather hit golf balls than go out Friday night."
His wife, Melissa, attests to that. The two knew each other several years before they were married June 10, 1995, and she had accepted the demands of his profession.
"He was very committed to golf," Melissa Massingham said. "If he played bad he would come home upset."
In May 1996 at La Quinta Resort and Club, Massingham was playing in a SCPGA event when he collapsed.
"I was on the sixth hole, and I just went down," Massingham said. "I was conscious but couldn't move."
A doctor in Palm Springs thought it was heat exhaustion or an inner-ear infection. When Massingham returned to Orange County, he saw more doctors, but continued to get worse.
Flu-like symptoms incapacitated him and, for a brief time, he lost vision in his left eye.
The fourth doctor recognized the symptoms and sent Massingham to a neurologist.
An MRI was needed, but Massingham was so sick it took hours to get him under control so he could go in the tube-like machine.
"I am on a stretcher, puking all over this machine," Massingham said. "I can't even sit in the machine. I close my eyes, and I'm spinning. I'm thinking, 'Kill me.' If I could have reached a gun I would have shot myself right in the head."
The disease took its toll on the Massinghams, new homeowners who hadn't been married a year.
"It was very shocking," Melissa Massingham said. "We were like, 'What the heck is MS?' "
Injections of beta seron he gives himself every other day have allowed Massingham to get back into the sport slowly. The medication helps curb the side effects.
"I had a neurologist say to me, 'Son, you better find a new career, because you are never going to play golf again,'" Massingham said. "Well, you can't measure my heart. If you tell me no, I think it means yes. You tell me I can't do something, I'm going to do it or ... die trying."
It was the same philosophy of his hero, Hogan, a man of short stature, with talent and limitless determination. He ruled the PGA Tour with a tireless work ethic and was the only man -- until Tiger Woods in 2000 -- to win three major championships in the same year, in 1953.
The 5-9, 160-pound Hogan was the best golfer in the 1940s, but in 1949 he was injured in a near-fatal car accident. He was told he never would play golf again, but defied doctors by making his return to Riviera 11 months later to play in the L.A. Open, losing in a playoff to Sam Snead.
Massingham, who is 5-foot-10 and weighs 165, has the same determination. Two previous attempts to qualify for a PGA tournament failed, but two weeks ago, at Hacienda Country Club in La Habra Heights, Massingham shot 67 and qualified for the Nissan, despite being in bed the day before with an attack.
"We were at the scorer's table, and I just broke down," said Steve Doorlag, who works for Massingham and serves as his caddy. "It was pretty emotional. ... a pretty special moment."
"I want this so bad for him. I don't know who is going to be more nervous," said Melissa Massingham.
Massingham has prepared in an attempt to rid himself of the nervousness.
"I've seen him out on the range every day I've been to the club since he qualified," Marbella Country Club member Steve Kuhn said.
In the round he played a week before the tournament, he shot a 1-under-par 70, and he played Riviera again Tuesday with friend and PGA Tour player Dennis Paulson, who grew up in Costa Mesa. They didn't keep score.
"It's absolutely awesome he is playing Riviera," said Paulson, who donated $5,000 of his prize money to the MS Society in Massingham's name after winning the Long Beach Open in 1996. "He's got a wonderful spirit, and he's a showcase for people who have that disease."
Massingham sees it more as fate. He is playing where his idol ruled, "Hogan's Alley," as Riviera is nicknamed. He wants to make the cut, something a club professional hasn't done at the Nissan Open since the SCPGA began keeping records of the qualifying tournaments in 1988.
"I was destined to play at Riviera," said Massingham, who named his 4 1/2-year-old son Hogan in the legend's honor. "My first tour event at Riviera. My hero's hallowed grounds."
There is another motive.
"This is for someone who can't get up today or they don't feel good or they've given up," Massingham said. "If you walked two steps yesterday, take an extra one today and go with three. The next day, go with four. Day after that, take five. If it helps one person do something better than they did yesterday, then good. That's all that matters."
Copyright 2002 The Orange County Register