AUTHOR : MARK BUTTON
Mark Button has spent the past 17-plus years writing about sports for newspapers, magazines and the Internet. He's worked for the Dallas Morning News, Corpus Christi Caller-Times, Rocky Mountain News, CNN/SportsIllustrated.com, Mobile Press-Register and Avid Golfer.
Originally from Kansas, Button has worked for Texas Links since 2008. He published his first children's book in 2011. "Finding Ti Ming & Tem Po, Legend of the golf gods" is a magical journey filled with character-building life lessons. Button plays golf about four times a month and carries an 8.7 GHIN handicap index.
This whole Mike McCaffrey story (see page 16) is a bummer. I certainly didn't want it to play out the way it has. I should add that I don't think this story is over. There is much still to be learned about McCaffrey's story, and probably even more to be learned from it.
I first met McCaffrey in March at the TGA's South Region Mid-Am at Riverbend Country Club. The dude was huge, probably 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds. He hit the golf ball a mile. His shotgun-blast driver went 330-plus.
The next time McCaffrey popped up on my radar was in June at the Texas Amateur. He made a push over the final two rounds and vaulted into a tie for third.
In September, I finally sat down and talked in-depth with him at the U.S. Mid-Amateur at Shadow Hawk. He had won the medalist honors in stroke play and looked to be the man to beat. After his first round match, I sat down with him in the Shadow Hawk locker room. He had about one hour before his second round match, and he spent it talking to me.
During that hour, the things I heard made me think I had stumbled onto an incredible story. It was a story of positivity, an uplifting account of how the game of golf was possibly helping to save this guy's life.
I learned about his loss of sensation in his fingers and toes that began in March 2010. McCaffrey told me about the series of doctors he saw in a quest to diagnose his symptoms. The first doctor told him it was probably a pinched nerve. The next doctor thought it could be carpel tunnel or an impingement of his ulnar nerve. The third doctor ran more tests: An MRI, EMG nerve study, a spinal tap.
McCaffrey's eyes welled up as he told me about the day he sat in that third doctor's office waiting for the results. The doctor sat down and avoided eye contact. McCaffrey saw the letters "ALS" on the page of the doctor's clipboard. He didn't believe it.
Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig's Disease) is a crippling neuromuscular condition that kills the nerve cells that send messages to muscles. The disease slowly gets worse and leads to muscle weakening and immobility. When the muscles in the chest stop working, it becomes impossible to breathe involuntarily.
The prognosis for most ALS patients is death in three to seven years.
McCaffrey told me he saw a fourth doctor. He got in to see the head of neurology at Methodist inside of two weeks after he was told the normal wait time was up to six months.
He got in because of his age—he was 40 at the time. Most ALS patients are diagnosed around the ages of 50-55.
McCaffrey held back tears as he told me about the two-day battery of tests he underwent. Another spinal tap, blood work, urine tests, swallow tests, MRI, CAT scan.
McCaffrey said the official diagnosis was a neuromuscular disease with a concern for ALS. He told me how he and his wife, Melissa, cried and cried about it. They have five children.
After an on-again, off-again mini-tour professional career, he had petitioned the USGA twice to get reinstated as an amateur. After his diagnosis, he appealed again. He said if
he only had a short time left, he wanted to spend it playing amateur golf.
The USGA granted the appeal, and McCaffrey started winning. Then the most exciting thing happened. He went back to Methodist for more tests. His results had improved. McCaffrey was active, his diet was better and spirits were high because of his golf. Six months after that, he went back for even more tests. The results were even better.
It was like amateur golf was saving his life, or at least drastically improving it. McCaffrey told me his doctors said either it was a miracle or the disease was in remission. Either way, his golf was better than it had been in years and he was feeling good.
That was the story I wanted to write. After the Mid-Am, I started writing it. It was going to be a great story. Then, more recently, I learned about the skins game in Beeville. McCaffrey didn't deny that he accepted a check for $8,500. He told me he gave the money back, but the damage was done.
I know there are a lot of competitive amateurs who have differing opinions on McCaffrey, who put together one of the most dominant years in recent Texas amateur golf history. Here is my opinion: I think he's a good guy and a great golfer who made a really bad decision. He knew better than to accept prize money.
I hope McCaffrey's health continues to improve. I'd like to see him play golf again. The Disney-like story I thought I had turned into a cautionary tale for other amateurs who have been tempted in similar situations. There is more to this story, too. Stay tuned.