Friend of Tiger, Phil battles brain tumor
One week on the PGA Tour was enough to remind Todd Demsey where he wants to be not only because of the perks and the prize money, but also because of the players he once called his peers.
Demsey walked past Tiger Woods on his way to sign his scorecard after the third round of the Wachovia Championship. They were teammates at the 1994 World Amateur Team Championship in France, where the United States won by 11 shots.
"It was good to catch up with him," Woods said. "He was one of the best putters."
As he stood on the steps of the Quail Hollow clubhouse, Phil Mickelson saw the 34-year-old Demsey and came over to bump fists. They played one year together at Arizona State. Mickelson won the NCAA title as a senior, Demsey won it the next year as a sophomore.
"Very talented golfer," Mickelson said.
Also playing that week was Justin Leonard, one of Demsey's teammates at the 1993 Walker Cup, where the United States set a record for the largest margin of victory (19-5) against a Great Britain & Ireland team that included Padraig Harrington.
"He had the best-looking swing of anyone," Leonard said. "He had a pretty sweet motion."
They all went on to win majors and play in the Ryder Cup.
Demsey had brain surgery twice to remove a tumor the size of a golf ball.
"It puts things in perspective," Demsey said. "I used to live and die on every shot. It's still my job. It's what I love to do. It's not quite as important to me as it was before all this. But I feel real lucky to be able to play golf for a living, especially after back problems and a brain tumor. I have nothing to complain about."
Back injuries slowed his momentum out of college. The real jolt came five years ago when he missed the cut in half his starts on the Nationwide Tour while coping with constant pressure in his left sinus. An MRI revealed a large tumor going into his brain, requiring two operations to remove it.
A month ago, he found out the tumor had returned. All indications are that it is benign.
"I'll have to go in for radiation at some point," Demsey said. "It's a slow-growing tumor. It just needs to be managed."
He continues a slow road back to the PGA Tour, where everyone figured he would be all along.
Demsey tied for 23rd at the Henrico County Open in Virginia, then decided it was too far to drive to the next Nationwide Tour stop in Arkansas. Instead, he stopped off in Charlotte, N.C., to try to qualify for the Wachovia Championship, and earned a spot in a playoff.
It was his first time on the PGA Tour in 10 years.
His previous start came at the Las Vegas Invitational in 1997, his final event of his only year in the big leagues. Demsey was four shots off the lead until shooting 81 in the third round to miss the cut by one shot in the 90-hole event.
"I took this for granted," he said. "I didn't think it was that big of a deal. But after playing the Nationwide Tour, and being away from this, it was a reminder that this is where you want to be."
Through it all, Demsey never complained about why his career took such a hairpin turn. The back injuries were one thing. Demsey won't forget the voice mail his doctor left on his cell phone after the '02 season.
"He said there was a very large tumor behind my left sinus going to my brain," Demsey said. "That was tough to hear."
He got married 24 days before the first surgery in January 2003, and doctors had to go back in at the end of the year to remove the remaining 20 percent of the tumor. He still feels numbness in his face, although he doesn't think it affects his game. Next up is Cyberknife treatment, a powerful radiation that attacks tumors without having to cut open his skull for a third time.
Demsey doesn't look different from other golfers, at 6-foot-2 with a fluid swing. The only difference is when the temperatures dip below 65 degrees, and he pulls a ski cap over his head. It leads to some peculiar stares.
"I've got some titanium in my head, so my head still gets cold," he said. "People give me a hard time."
He doesn't take time to tell them his story, that he was one of those can't-miss kids who never anticipated brain surgery, and who refuses to give up his dream even as his peers are enjoying success he figured would belong to him.
He doesn't waste time wondering how his career might have turned out, if not for the brain tumor.
"I just have faith it's going to work out," he said. "I guess there's a chance it can still cause problems, but I feel like I'm in good hands."
Demsey now is back on the Nationwide Tour, playing this week in the BMW Charity Pro-Am in Greenville, S.C. He probably won't try another Monday qualifying on the PGA Tour, preferring instead to concentrate on getting his card. He is 34th on the Nationwide money list, and the top 25 are exempt to the big leagues next year.
He used to see Mickelson quite a bit when they belonged to the same golf club in Scottsdale, Ariz. Mickelson has moved back to San Diego, but he still tries to keep in touch.
"He's a great player," Mickelson said. "His day will come."