It’s not really a goal of a professional golfer to become a familiar name and form lasting bonds with people at the Nationwide Tour’s many locales.
Ideally, the winner of this week’s Preferred Health Systems Wichita Open will make a whale of a memory, vault to the PGA Tour next season, and enjoy a long and prosperous career.
That was the type of utopia Jeff Klauk was chasing in 2003 when he won the Wichita Open on Crestview Country Club’s North course. Still, it took five more years and another tour victory for the St. Augustine, Fla., resident to graduate to the sport’s biggest stage.
Now 34, Klauk is on a much different journey. He won’t be playing at Crestview or anywhere else this week. Klauk has epilepsy, a neurological disorder resulting from surges of electrical signals inside the brain. He is taking time off from the sport while he awaits an Aug. 1 surgery to remove a segment of brain tissue that doctors hope will eliminate or minimize the effects of his condition.
“Just walking 18 holes in a tournament would be great,” Klauk said in a phone interview from his home on Friday. “I wish we could have done (the surgery) sooner, but I’ve tried to be patient. I’m looking forward to getting back out there and competing again.”
Meanwhile, Klauk’s ongoing battle and that of others will be recognized during Friday’s second round at Crestview with Epilepsy Awareness Day. Vicky Hiebsch who along with her husband, Rick, hosted Klauk and his family during his eight Wichita Open appearances, is organizing the event. Golfers will wear pins, spectators and volunteers will receive lavender ribbons, and flyers with information about epilepsy will be distributed.
“We talk to Jeff off and on, and he always calls us if he’s not coming to Wichita,” said Hiebsch, who lives on Crestview’s South course, where Klauk has frequently fished for bass during idle time in his tournament visits. “With his condition, I presented this idea to him and just said it was a great opportunity to educate others about epilepsy, and he said it was fine if we wanted to pursue it.”
Klauk, who hasn’t played in an official tournament since last year’s Wichita Open, experienced his first epileptic seizures in 2006. They were grand mal seizures, which Klauk described in a recently self-authored Sports Illustrated article:
“In a grand mal the muscles suddenly tense – sometimes so forcefully that people moan or scream as the air is shot from their lungs – then contract and expand quickly and repeatedly, causing convulsions. These convulsions can be violent, and mine were. It was two weeks before I felt like myself again, with no memory loss, no sore jaw, no aching muscles.”
Klauk’s doctors prescribed Trileptal, which eliminated the grand mal seizures for four years and enabled him to play well enough to earn his PGA Tour card in 2009. That season, Klauk finished in the top 10 in three tournaments and earned more than $1.2 million.
But Klauk’s battle with epilepsy eventually entered another phase. Late in 2010, while driving his wife, Shanna, and two children to a Christmas Eve service, he experienced an odd 30-second episode that was his first complex partial seizure. Klauk said that type is smaller than a grand mal, but occurs more frequently and is more difficult to control with medication.
Klauk actually shut down his 2011 golf season after eight mostly disappointing tournaments to undergo rotator cuff surgery and repair an ailing shoulder. It also allowed him to begin earnestly working with doctors to try to determine the part of the brain that was triggering his seizures.
To do this, Klauk subjected himself to multiple series of Epilepsy Monitoring Unit (EMU) tests at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., and Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. On April 20, Klauk underwent an initial surgery in which electrodes were inserted into his brain to find the problem areas. The damaged tissue will be removed during his follow-up surgery in August.
“If they do find that exact spot and can remove it, your chances of being seizure-free are about 70-80 percent,” Klauk said. “It’s tough to go through and it’s hard on your family, because the doctors have to induce seizures to pinpoint the area.
“But at my age, you kind of have to take the chance and do it.”
For Klauk, it’s a battle to regain independence. He hasn’t driven a car since January 2011 because of the seizures, instead maneuvering through the golf course community in which he lives in a golf cart. The positive trade-off to time away from the tour, he said, has been spending it with his son, Jackson, 7, and 3-year-old daughter Bridget.
But Klauk is motivated to get back to building on what was a long-awaited and promising rookie season on the PGA Tour. Before he got there, the Wichita Open provided him with some key building blocks – a second-place finish in 2002, his first Nationwide title a year later and another top-10 finish in 2007.
During those trips to Wichita, Klauk made a favorable impression.
“In my years of doing this, I’ve gotten to know a lot of great people, and Jeff Klauk is one of the classiest guys I’ve ever met,” Wichita Open tournament director Roy Turner said. “He’s always been interested in what we’re doing here. He’s been a great champion and a great representative for the other professional golfers.
“As I learn more about epilepsy, I wouldn’t want anyone to have to deal with it, and Jeff certainly doesn’t deserve what he’s gone through. By the end of Friday, hopefully everyone who comes to the tournament will gain something by learning about what he and many others are dealing with.”