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Pro golfer Charlie Beljan goes from fearing for his life to winner's circle

By Bill Dwyre

Los Angeles Times

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 02:46 p.m. HST, Jan 04, 2013


Incredible things happened in the world of pro golf in 2012.

- Bubba Watson won the Masters with a shot on the second playoff hole that only a magician or a contortionist could pull off.

- Brendt Snedeker won $11.13 million in one day by taking the final FedEx Cup event.

- Charlie Beljan didn’t die during the second round of the Children’s Miracle Network tournament at Disney World.

“I was pretty sure,” Beljan says now. “I feared for my life. I guess that’s the way I am - prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”

Beljan not only didn’t die, he lived for two more days and ended up not flat on his back in the rough, but fully upright, accepting the winner’s check of $846,000 and an entry into all the 2013 PGA Tour events he wants to play.

It was the final PGA Tour event of the year, a Friday afternoon, Nov. 9. Beljan was a 28-year-old former U.S. Junior Amateur champion with a degree in communications from the University of New Mexico and a qualifying-school exemption that put him into enough tournaments to get within reach of the tour’s magic top 125.

He was hardly a household name, but that was soon to end. During that second round, he started to come apart physically, unlike anything seen before in a PGA Tour event.

Speaking by phone from Maui, where he will play in the season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions, which started Friday at Kapalua’s Plantation Course, Beljan described the scary and bizarre day.

“Suddenly, my heart was pounding, I was having palpitations,” he said. “My fingers and arms were tingling, I was having trouble breathing. Everything was a blur.”

That’s not good at home on your couch. It’s lots worse in the middle of a tournament, with TV cameras and spectators everywhere. Between shots, he rested in the rough, usually flat on his back. His caddie talked quietly to him. He kept getting up, hitting shots - most of them beauties - and then collapsing back to the ground. On the back nine, his gallery included a crew of paramedics. Nobody quite knew what was going on. When his situation was labeled an anxiety attack, it cleared up little.

He finished his round, entered the scorer’s tent under his own power and left on a stretcher.

“I was worried everybody was thinking I was just faking,” Beljan said. “But I really thought I was going to die.”

Beljan had quite a 2012. He got his Q-School card at PGA West on Dec. 7, 2011. Two days later, he had surgery on a thumb that had become infected with a rare disease called Valley Fever, a disease that thrives in the arid desert soils of southern Arizona, Nevada and California’s San Joaquin Valley. Beljan lives in Mesa, Ariz. About 60 percent of the tendons in his thumb were affected.

He got his hand out of the cast in early January and a week later was teeing off in the Sony Open in Hawaii. The morning he teed off, his wife, Merisa, told him he was going to be a father. Later in the year, flying home from the Reno-Tahoe Open, he had his first warning incident when he passed out on the plane.

When he sat in the hospital that night of Nov. 9 in Florida, his son, Graham, was 7 weeks old.

“I really had no idea what to expect with a new baby,” he said. “I’d gotten married, had a baby. . . .”

The doctors ran numerous tests that night and advised him he should not play the next day. He got about an hour’s sleep, with his golf shoes on. He talked to Merisa on the phone in the hospital, then again by phone on the driving range. He had ignored the medical advice and headed for the course. Merisa, it turns out, had been the clearest voice.

“She knew about these things,” Beljan said. “She used to be a paramedic and drove an ambulance. She kept telling me I’d be fine.”

Two rounds of golf later, he was standing at the 18th green with a trophy in his hand, Merisa and Graham having flown in to be next to him, and a new perspective on life. Moments later, he got a phone call from a friend named Ernie Els, who said, “Kid, I’ve seen a lot of things in golf, but never somebody going from a stretcher to a championship in the same tournament.”

Chances are good that neither Els, nor the golf world, will see that again. It turns out the cure is easy. Beljan needs to eat more.

“I’ve never been a food guy,” he said. “I could go 24 hours without eating. When I got to the hospital, the doctors said my potassium and sodium levels were so low I was in danger of having a seizure.

“I used to laugh at guys on the tour, always pulling candy bars out of their bags in the middle of the round. Now I know why.”

Beljan is 6 feet 4. When he had his anxiety attack in Florida, he was 230 pounds. Now he is 220 and says he eats all the time, but that his body is not storing food like it needed to before.

“People keep coming up to me and telling me how good I look,” he said.

Beljan said he pulled out a banana on the second hole of a practice round Tuesday and friends who were with him wondered aloud which was a bigger stunner - him teeing it up in the tour’s Tournament of Champions, or him eating a banana on the second hole.

“They all agreed,” he said. “It was me eating a banana.”






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