Morgan Hoffmann worked his way around the practice putting green at Waialae Country Club this morning with the same air of relaxed concentration his peers exuded as they prepared for the US PGA Tour’s first full-field event of the year. He smiled as he stopped to chat with Russell Henley. He shook hands with other players and wished them a happy new year. It felt normal and familiar. Just another year on tour.
Same goals. Same pressures. Same challenges.
Hoffmann looked happy. He should be. But not because he is in Hawaii playing golf for a living, but that he was able to be in Hawaii playing golf for a living.
And he’ll be happy for as long as he can enjoy the privilege. And he’ll be happy because he tells himself to be happy.
The 28-year-old has been telling himself that nearly every day since learning in 2016 that he has muscular dystrophy.
“Sometimes it’s hard,” he said.
Preparing for the Sony Open in Hawaii, which begins on Friday morning, Australian time, Hoffmann is making his first tour start since he revealed in early December that he has been diagnosed with the debilitating illness. Muscular dystrophy actually refers to a group of more than 30 genetic diseases that cause progressive weakness and degeneration of skeletal muscles. Because there are different strains of the disease, prognoses can vary. But there is no cure.
Same goals. Different pressures. New challenges.
Hoffmann wrote a story about his ongoing ordeal for The Players’ Tribune more than a year after learning that he has facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy, which causes atrophy of the chest, back, neck, arms and sometimes legs. Hoffmann’s right pectoral muscle is completely deteriorated, while the left pectoral has only deteriorated slightly. With a golf shirt on, you would never know it. At 186 centimetres, the former Oklahoma State University All-American appears supremely fit.
It was 2011 that Hoffmann first noticed a change in his right pectoral muscle, and it took him more than five years and 25 doctors before being given the proper and properly horrible diagnosis. He competed throughout the 2016-’17 season without revealing his issues, and yet he kept his card easily by making 17 of 29 cuts thanks in part to a T-2 at the Honda Classic, the closest he has come to winning since he joined the tour in 2013.
Finishing 81st in the FedEx Cup standings means he has another full year ahead of him, and Hoffmann, who lives in Jupiter, Florida, is doing everything he can to make sure it is a full season – and that there are more to come.
“Every day is the same for me,” Hoffmann said while taking a short break from practice. “I have a really strict schedule. I have a strict eating schedule. I’m in the hyperbaric chamber every day. I have breathing lessons and work on breathing techniques. I meditate. I get enough sleep. It doesn’t change.”
He can’t afford for it to change. And it’s likely that Hoffman’s longtime dedication to health and fitness is one reason that the illness has progressed as slowly as it has. Other than a diminishing swing speed, which has cost him about 10 metres of carry, he said he hasn’t noticed any adverse effects. He still practises as much as he wants.
“I know he’s a huge fitness fanatic and has been for a long time,” said Jordan Spieth, who read Hoffmann’s piece for The Players Tribune. “For someone who has been so engaged in that part of the game, that’s a very difficult thing to swallow I’m sure. Obviously wishing him the best both mentally and physically.”
“It’s been fine. I have adjusted,” said Hoffmann, who noted that Titleist has helped fit him with new equipment along the way, including a more flexible shaft in his driver this year. “OK, my swing has gotten slower, but I feel a lot more consistent. Maybe that will help things click more. There’s a tradeoff.”
An avid pilot, Hoffmann has had to make other adjustments. He is in the process of being recertified by the FAA to fly his Piper Mirage, his usual mode of transportation to most tournaments. That’s protocol after Hoffmann revealed his health issues, but he doesn’t believe it will be a problem. Primarily, he has to prove he is physically able to perform certain tasks and take an eye exam.
“I play golf for a living, so I’m sure I can handle the plane,” he said.
Hoffmann shared breakfast on Tuesday morning with 2016 US PGA champion Jimmy Walker, whose 2017 season was largely a waste as he battled Lyme disease. The two men talked about the challenges each has faced, how to handle the frustrations of playing poorly because of feeling poorly. Mostly, it was just two guys offering each other support.
“I think it means a lot to know that guys out here care about what happens to you,” Walker said.
“Players have been great since the article came out,” Hoffman said. “A lot have reached out, [saying] that they’re thinking of me. That’s been very cool.”
Hoffmann admitted that his expectations for the season “aren’t very high”. But, he added, “I have the same goals I always have. I want to win. I want to play in the Ryder Cup. Keep my card.”
Same goals. New challenges.
“Right now,” he said, “a lot of my focus is on my attitude and my health. I really focus on being happy every day. If I can do that, the golf will fall in place. It’s not easy. But there are so many things going on around the world today, so much negative news, it’s tough. So most days I feel pretty lucky.”
And because of that feeling, Hoffmann has woven a new goal into all the familiar ones. He can be a face of hope. He can try to win the war of attrition until perhaps more treatments are discovered or, maybe, a cure is found. He can achieve things that would seem impossible for others afflicted with the disease.
“I think we’re going to do a lot of great things this year,” he said, not necessarily referring to his rank on the money list or the FedEx Cup points standings. “I think I can help people by being able to play. It’s going to be a big challenge. I just need to take it one day at a time and see what happens.”