PEBBLE BEACH — The last thing Leo Lukenas remembers before he died was the routine task he had performed countless times for 50 years as a caddie and for 25 years working at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am—just handing a few clubs to his player.
Carrying for amateur Geoff Couch in last year’s tournament, Lukenas left the bag at the top of the hill between the 10th and 11th holes at Pebble Beach Golf Links and walked to the 11th tee to deliver Couch’s putter and driver. Couch putted out on 10, hit his tee ball at 11, and the two began to make their way up the hill with the rest of the group that included PGA Tour players Max McGreevy and Beau Hossler.
Lukenas collapsed to the soggy turf before reaching the bag. He had suffered a massive heart attack.
“I was dead for four minutes,” Lukenas said. “I probably should be dead now. It was only a matter of time before it hit me. If it hadn’t happened at the tournament with all those people there and security and the medical staff, I wouldn’t have made it.
“You know,” he added, “I always hated that hill at 11. But not anymore.”
Talking by phone on Saturday afternoon as he neared completion of his daily two-mile walk, Lukenas shared the details—many of which he only knows from what others have told him—of that harrowing day last Feb. 3 during the second round of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and his long recovery in the aftermath.
Lukenas, 64, a longtime resident of Monterey, Calif., who began to caddie in junior high school, said he had not been feeling like himself for months when he agreed to caddie for Couch, a Pebble Beach businessman, for the 20th straight year. He shrugged it off as just age and the mileage compiled from his chosen line of work. “I should have known something wasn’t right,” he said.
He doesn’t remember starting to climb the hill, but within a few minutes of falling, Kelly Bunn, a sergeant with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department who was on duty at the event, began performing CPR until paramedics arrived. Lukenas was told later at Community Hospital of Monterey Peninsula that he had been in cardiac arrest for 30 minutes and his heart had stopped for four.
That he survived at all was a miracle. According to statistics from the American Heart Association, fewer than 10 percent of people who have a cardiac arrest outside a hospital survive. He was diagnosed with multi-vessel coronary artery disease and within days underwent quadruple bypass surgery. After recovery and physical therapy, Lukenas was discharged on March 15.
In April, he retired from his job as caddie master at Monterey Peninsula Country Club, though he still ventures out to the 36-hole facility once or twice a week to caddie for friends. “But I work from a cart,” he said, qualifying how his responsibilities have changed. “It’s more just about being with friends at this point.”
“We had a press conference the day he checked out. We keep tabs on him,” said Steve John, AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am tournament director. “It’s a wonderful ending to something that could have been a tragedy and thank God it turned out that he’s OK. The right people were there for him at the right time.”
In particular, it was Bunn’s quick action that was crucial. “The moment I will be most proud of is this moment, watching Leo not be in a hospital bed, being able to walk, talk and move around,” Bunn said at the press conference. “It’s just a very proud moment for me to be sitting next to him in the company of all the people that helped him get to this point.”
Lukenas said he missed not being able to caddie for Couch at this year’s revamped pro-am, now one of eight signature events on the PGA Tour featuring a limited 80-man field and offering a $20 million purse. He made a lot of friends, especially among a number of amateurs, including some celebrities. Two of his favorites were Condoleeza Rice, who returned to the field for what is now a 36-hole competition for amateurs, and the late radio personality Rush Limbaugh.
He didn’t realize just how many friends he had until after his surgery. “I lost track of all the folks who reached out,” he said, his voice cracking just a bit.
At MPCC, his favorite big shots were former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and NBA great Steph Curry. Lukenas remembers that Bush was a cut up who arrived in torn slacks and with his shirt hanging out, and that he got around the Shore Course in two hours. More recently he went out with Obama and Curry, and that round is one of Lukenas’ most enjoyable memories.
“It’s fun to think back on times like that,” he said. “In a way, I think it’s a good thing that my time at the pro-am is over. I wish I could be there, but then again, I didn’t want people following me around worrying about me. It would have been more of a burden on others. I wouldn’t want that.”
What’s important, he said, was simply being alive—again—to have those memories. To show his appreciation for those who saved him, Lukenas and his family made a donation for the purchase of an AED (automated external defibrillator) for the local First Tee chapter.
“People talk about getting second chances in life, but I really did get a second chance,” Lukenas said. “I’m still working on getting my strength back, but all in all I feel pretty good. I’ve said it before, what happened to me was a blessing in disguise.”
And every day after has simply been a blessing.
This article was originally published on golfdigest.com