E.A. Sports Today

Amazing, Chase

One month after suffering a traumatic head injury in a freak accident on the golf course, Chase Thomas is back on the links

Anniston golfer Chase Thomas (R) with teammates (from left) Kenny Wright, Rachel Baribeau, Brian Woodfin and John Lindsey after winning the 2016 Links for Life Tournament at Shoal Creek. (Photo courtesy of Lance Evans)

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

When Chase Thomas stripes his first shot in the Links to Life Celebrity Classic at Shoal Creek Monday everyone around the tee box should take notice and, not that he’s looking for any special attention, give him a standing ovation.

It matters not where the shot goes, although his scramble teammates would prefer it sail right down the middle, rather just the fact it went anywhere at all and he was there to strike it.

If they only knew …

Chase Thomas goes through some rehab work to strengthen his left arm and hand. (Photo courtesy of Chase Thomas)

Exactly one month to the day he steps onto the tee Monday Thomas didn’t know if he was going to live or die. A freak accident May 11 on the 18th green at Anniston Country Club involving a thrown club left him fighting for his life.

It’s been through an incredible strength of will, swift action by his playing partners and an outpouring of support and encouragement has the Anniston golfer been able to return to the game he loves from an accident that would have left a weaker sort crippled or worse.

But once he was released from the hospital – in an incredible five days — Thomas, a nurse practitioner who operates Pediatrics Plus in Golden Springs, was determined to return to the links.

He upheld a promise to play in the tournament at Shoal Creek Monday, a tournament his team won in 2016; committed to playing in the RTJ Silver Lakes Championship in two weeks, the first individual stroke-play event in his return; and is determined to play in the 40th Sunny King Charity Classic with new partner Timmy Woodard, which should signal his complete comeback.

“Chase is Superman, coming back from something like this,” said Ryan Huff, Thomas’ Sunny King Charity Classic partner the past four years. “I’m in the physical therapy business and see the results of these kinds of accidents. He is the complete opposite of what most people can do.”

“He’s different than any other person,” added Lance Evans, Monday’s tournament director and organizer of the Sunday social event that goes with it. “If it’d been a normal person, if it’d been me, I’d still be laying there on the green.”

The accident

It was a Friday afternoon and Thomas was playing in his regular game at the club. The group had reached the 18th green and Huff scuffed shot out of the right greenside bunker. Thomas was moving in to remove the flagstick for the rest of the group to putt out and had just seconds earlier told playing partner John Lindsey his plans to spend the rest of the day relaxing at the lake. That’s when the day took a frightful turn.

Huff tossed his wedge from the bunker across the green towards his cart. The club caught the flagstick, picked up momentum whipping around the stick and the butt end caught Thomas on the right side of his head a couple inches above the ear.

The next few moments were frantic. Thomas was on the ground bleeding profusely from a head wound. His playing partners rushed to his side and did what they could to render first aid. Thomas later credited their quick action with helping save his life.

“Everybody who was there had a hand in it and were in the right place at right time,” he said.

The force of the blow fractured Thomas’ skull and drove a piece of bone into his brain. He never lost consciousness and was coherent throughout the ordeal, but had no feeling in his left arm. The prognosis from the local hospital wasn’t good; it was feared he might not survive the airlift to Huntsville. All sorts of thoughts raced through his head. He didn’t mind saying he thought the end might be near.

He underwent emergency brain surgery where the prospects of survival were uncertain. Luckily, the fragment popped right out when surgeons opened his skull to relieve pressure. They later attached a metal plate to repair the fracture.

“I’ve had some accidents before, but I’ve never – never – thought when they put the mask on to sleep that’d be it,” Thomas said. “I’m laying there thinking I’m playing golf an hour ago and now this may be it.”

The reaction

What happened to Thomas should serve as a cautionary tale about the dangers of losing one’s temper on the golf course.

No doubt every golfer has thrown a club in frustration at one time or another, usually followed by someone in the group making a joke about it. But as your mother used to say, it’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye. Well, Thomas nearly lost more.

A study by Golf Digest estimated 40,000 golfers each year seek emergency treatment due to injuries caused by errant golf balls and flying club heads. Stories of golf-related deaths occasionally hit the news.

Thomas knew the throw was “so not malicious” or intentional and he harbors no ill will towards his former SKCC partner over the incident. But that didn’t ease the hurt Huff has felt about the ordeal.

“My whole insides were eating me alive,” he said. “It took me a while (to get over it); I felt terrible. I hope from my standpoint that people realize you can’t let golf control your emotions. I hated this had to happen but I’m hoping my mistake is a lesson for everybody else on that golf course. Even if it’s not in golf, out on the golf course, don’t get mad, fight through it.”

The message has resonated in their group at least. They’ve even had occasion since the accident to chastise a player who slips up and tosses his club aside. They’d often give the offender an incredulous look that screamed, “Really?…”

Back on course

Thomas is “usually pretty positive,” but admitted he had three “really feeling sorry for myself days” immediately upon returning home from the hospital, not necessarily about the future of his golf game but what the rest of his life was going to be like going forward.

Soon thereafter his positivity switch flipped and he was eager to get back on his feet. A lot of that rekindled optimism had to do with the hundreds of supportive letters, pictures, videos and texts he’d received from his friends, fellow golfers and, especially, his young Pediatrics Plus patients and their families. His Facebook posts chronicling his comeback regularly are accompanied by numerous expressions of encouragement in the comments.

“I just said we’re going to do it,” he said. “We’re going to put in as much time as we have to and turn this thing around. It’s been nothing but positive. I want to be as good a provider when I go back. I don’t want to be that ‘before his accident …’ guy people talk about; that would probably kill me.”

Thomas was a 5-handicap at the time of the accident and he’d like to get back to that level again. He later heard that one of his doctors said he wouldn’t be able to hold a club or even play again. That made him even more determined to get back.

The only lingering effects of the accident is a lack of feeling in the ring and pinky fingers of his left hand that affects his grip and his putting. He can’t tie his shoes all the time and it takes time to get his golf glove on, but beyond that he’s got all his faculties.

He spends between three and six hours a day rehabbing his body. The rehab on his game began with a series of wedge shots as soon as he could start getting around and has worked up through the bag.

“I’ve busted it every day since,” he said. “I’m impressed every day what I can do. To go from a crazy thing happening to I’m playing golf inside of a month is a blessing.”

Thomas played his first full round since the accident Tuesday and shot 85. He had only planned to play nine holes that day with a goal of shooting 7-over or better, but he got to No. 8, was feeling good and there was plenty of daylight left, so he soldiered on past the turn. He played again later in the week – this time finishing to a big crowd of supporters – and shot an 88 that was full of positives.

Actually, the injury may have even helped his game in some areas.

“I’ve lost my fade,” he said. “I’ve got a draw now.

“The scores are going to come. It’d be nice if I got hit in the head and come out a professional golfer, that’d be awesome. The reality is that hand is in my head and once it becomes natural again I’m going to be, I don’t know, maybe better than I was because I’ve got the ball flight I want.”

The aftermath

From this experience Thomas and his family have started a non-profit to benefit Alabama children who sustain traumatic brain injuries, The Chase Thomas Strong Foundation. When the website gets up and running information on the foundation will be found at www.stronglikechase.org. The initial fundraising effort is coming through the sale of specially designed T-shirts.

“If I can come back, then why can’t kids who’ve maybe been told they can’t do this and that,” Thomas said. “In Alabama there is no organization for pediatrics (TBI) alone; we want to raise awareness. There’s no reason we can’t help their families out and address the issue. If nothing else comes of this, it’s a pretty good platform.”

The Links to Life Tournament and Lord Wedgewood Charity auction that precedes it Sunday night benefit an effort to put portable AED and EKG units in the state’s schools. For the last five years the effort has placed a minimum of 45 AEDs and 10 EKGs in the schools. To donate an item for the auction or place a bid on one, visit the following link: https://501auctions.com/wedgwoodcharityevent/mobile

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