PEABODY, Mass. (AP) — A water polo player-turned-swimsuit model who didn’t pick up a golf club for decades, Kurt Van Hees told himself during a near-death experience, “If I get out of this alive, all I’m going to do is play golf.”
On Thursday, he will tee off in the U.S. Senior Open.
The 51-year-old Californian was added to the field as an alternate Sunday and hopped on a red eye to Boston that night, fighting off the migraines and stiffness he still feels from a 2010 attack that left him unable to play more than four holes at a time.
“I just always felt like if I tried hard enough, I might be able to get to somewhere like this tournament,” Van Hees said Wednesday before his practice round at Donald Ross-designed Salem Country Club. “It’s amazing, the guys that I’m seeing that I’m playing with and stuff just blows my mind. So it’s been a pretty cool thing.”
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After taking up golf when he was 6, playing only when the weather was warm enough in Oregon, Van Hees won a few junior tournaments and was approaching a scratch handicap by high school. But he was also a nationally ranked swimmer as a child, and by the time he was 20 he put down his clubs entirely.
Swimming never took him any further than his junior college water polo team, but the time he spent getting in shape paid off with a modeling gig for Speedo that landed him on the cover of Men’s Fitness magazine and on posters for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
After not playing at all for 15 years, he “got the bug again” when he was 35. But he didn’t really dedicate himself to the sport again until the attack that “egg-shelled” his face.
On Dec. 30, 2010 — Van Hees recites the date as if it were a birthday — he at the gym working out when he was hit from behind with a steel pipe, caving in the right side of his face. He didn’t know his attacker. “To this day, I really don’t know what the whole story is,” he said.
It took 6 1/2 hours of reconstructive surgery, four steel plates and 12 screws to put his skull back together. His jaw was broken. His nose was reduced to splinters. His eye was knocked into his sinus cavity. And then his heart rate dropped to 19 beats per minute.
“When the thing went to 19, I just got this clear as day thought in my head that, if I get out of this alive, all I’m going to do is play golf. It was bizarre,” he said. “So that’s been a bit of a drag, but it was really what got me back into golf. … I always kind of wanted to see if I could get good in the game.”
Four operations later, Van Hees would wander out to the course, four holes at a time. “Took me a little while to where I was going out and playing a full round,” he said.
He tried to make the PGA Tour Champions in 2015, making the final stage of Q-school but falling two strokes short of qualifying. Last year, he shot 84 in the first round before rebounding to play the next 54 holes at 1 over.
“I thought, ‘If I really work on my short game and work on my putting, I felt like there was maybe an opportunity to get decent,'” he said.
He made it onto the alternate’s list for the Senior Open with a playoff victory in sectional qualifying. But after learning he was sixth on the waiting list, he became convinced that he wouldn’t make it and canceled his hotel room.
On Sunday, he got the call and hopped on a red eye that night.
“I said, I’m so excited, I’m probably not going to sleep tonight, anyway,” he said.
The extra day or so has helped him get over his jet lag and recover from the migraines that resulted from the attack and are exacerbated when he flies. Van Hees also has diminished vision in his right eye and his jaw, which was wired shut for seven weeks, still gets stiff.
“There’s some aches and pains I definitely get,” he said. “But golf’s almost like therapy for it.”