LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) – Charlie Beljan was in a hospital bed in the middle of the night, still wearing his golf shoes, thinking his season was over.
He was about six hours from his tee time Saturday at Disney. Just 12 hours earlier, he was having a panic attack on the golf course so severe that he could barely breathe, his blood pressure spiked and his arms felt numb. After signing his card, he was strapped into a stretcher, loaded into an ambulance and taken to a hospital.
“I thought I literally had a chance to die,” Beljan said.
In a turnaround that even by Disney’s standards seems like a fairy tale, the 28-year-old rookie now has a chance to win his first PGA Tour title.
Beljan was released from the hospital, overcame two early bogeys and was solid over the final hour in the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic for a 1-under 71 that gave him a two-shot lead going into the final round.
“I honestly didn’t know if I was going to play one hole, any holes or was I going to get through the day,” Beljan said. “I felt good, better as the day went on, and I just hung tough, hung in there. I knew what the rewards were at the end of the week if I could pull something off, and that’s kind of what kept me going.”
The rewards were ample.
This is the final PGA Tour event of the year, and Beljan is No. 139 on the money list. Only the top 125 get full cards for next year. Doctors told him he was in good enough health to be released, but perhaps not to play golf. He ignored their recommendations.
“The position I’m in, it’s kind of hard not to show up,” he said before teeing off.
Beljan had a pair of three-putt bogeys that cost him his three-shot lead after three holes, and felt some tightening in his chest as he approached the turn, the same symptoms that caused much fear Friday. But he steadied himself, began the back nine with back-to-back birdies, and kept in front.
He was at 13-under 203, two shots ahead of Brian Gay (67), Josh Teater (67) and Charlie Wi, who was tied for the lead until closing with two bogeys for a 70.
“It’s nice to be able to walk around and smile,” Beljan said. “Yesterday, I was hanging on for my life.”
When last seen at Disney, Beljan was gasping to draw a big breath and sitting in the fairway to wait his turn to hit. Paramedics followed him around the back nine after taking his blood pressure on the 10th tee. After signing for a 64, Beljan emerged from the scoring room strapped into a stretcher and was loaded into an ambulance.
For most of the night, he felt 99 percent sure he wouldn’t be playing. But with the comfort of knowing that he was physically fine, he went back to his hotel for a shower, breakfast and headed to the golf course. Despite being nervous that another episode could strike again, he was steady for so much of the day.
Now comes the hard work.
Beljan’s wife, 7-week-old son and mother-in-law were flying in from Phoenix for the final round. He has long dreamed of how cool it would be to have his family come onto the green to celebrate his first PGA Tour win.
But there’s a long way to go.
Beljan’s three-shot lead was gone before he stepped onto the fourth tee in the third round. He will start Sunday with 11 players separated by three shots. That includes Sea Island winner Tommy Gainey and Camilo Villegas, winless in four years, along with Robert Garrigus, who won at Disney two years ago. The group at 205 included Vaughn Taylor, who like Beljan is making a last-ditch effort to keep his card.
Beljan was simply thrilled to be playing.
“I think the big advantage for me is I’m not thinking about the golf or the putts or the chips or the shots or the swings,” said Beljan, who didn’t even realize he was in the lead until about 10:30 p.m. Friday at the hospital. “I’m just thinking about my health, one shot at a time, one hole at a time. And shoot, the last 36 holes it’s worked out pretty well.”
Beljan showed off his power on the opening hole when he was behind a tree 183 yards from the hole. He hit a pitching wedge straight up and over the tree, with enough on it to reach the green. He three-putted from 50 feet, however, and then dropped another shot on the par-3 third with a three-putt from about 25 feet on the fringe.
His only other bogey came from a bunker on the 12th.
Several players made a run at him – Wi, Gainey among them – and Charles Howell III was right in the mix. Howell was one shot out of the lead until driving into the water on the 17th to make triple bogey, and then making bogey on the last hole to finish five shots behind.
Beljan said a variety of tests showed nothing was wrong with him.
“Physically, everything is wonderful,” he said. “It’s that little space between those ears that I’ve got to work on.”
This all started about three months ago when he fainted on a flight home from the Reno-Tahoe Open as he was going to the bathroom. Since then, Beljan said he has had a half-dozen panic attacks, usually in controlled environments when he can settle himself down. This one came on a golf course, and it spiraled out of control on Friday.
When he showed up at the course, he felt nervous and a little embarrassed about Friday’s afternoon’s episodes. But he doesn’t mind the travails if it means a chance to win a tournament, or even keep his job for next year. Even if he doesn’t win, Beljan would need to finish around 10th to move into the top 125.
Besides, it would be a fitting way for a wild year to end.
After getting his card at Q-school last year, he had hand surgery before starting the season. He found out at the Sony Open that he was going to be a father. He was married in March. He played poorly all year except for one week at the Greenbrier. His baby was born at the end of the FedEx Cup season. He fainted on the plane. He at least secured a spot inside the top 150, only to realize that won’t mean as much next year because of a shorter season.
“It’s been a long, exciting, hectic, crazy, stressful year,” he said. “But hopefully, we’re going to end it with a bang.”