January 12, 2018

By Brian Decker, PGATOUR.COM

As he was lying on the 10th fairway of Sandals Emerald Bay Golf Club just over one year ago, Brock Mackenzie wasn’t sure what had caused the devastating spasm that gripped his entire body, but he knew that he wasn’t going to be playing golf any time soon.

While beginning his third round at The Bahamas Great Exuma Classic, Mackenzie suffered a debilitating tear of a bulging disc in his lower back, the collateral damage of a lifetime hitting balls. The tear impinged the root of a nerve, sending his entire body into a spasm that ended his season just as it had begun.

“I didn’t know,” says Mackenzie of that moment, “if I was going to play competitive golf again.”

2016 had been the best year of Mackenzie’s career. A former 1st team All-American at the University of Washington who represented the United States in the 2003 Walker Cup, the native of Yakima, Wash. had come close to reaching the game’s highest level in his 12 years as a pro, making nearly 100 starts on the Web.com Tour and winning twice on the Mackenzie Tour.

Still, a sometimes-balky putter and short game had kept the tall, athletic kid with a seemingly effortless action from achieving his potential. When the 2016 season rolled around, Mackenzie knew that he was racing against the relentless clock of his time in professional golf.

“After a couple of years prior thinking, ‘maybe I should hang it up,’ that’s when I had a really nice season on the Mackenzie Tour and I played very well at the Q-School,” says Mackenzie.

Thanks to a renewed focus on the greens, Mackenzie finished second on the Order of Merit in Canada that summer – second only to Dan McCarthy’s record book-smashing season of four wins and unprecedented earnings – winning after a seven-hole playoff in Ottawa and finishing in the top-10 in half of his starts. To cap things off, he finished second at the Final Stage of Web.com Tour Q-School, giving him a clear runway to make it to the PGA TOUR in 2017.

“Everything was ready. I told guys back at my course, ‘I’m playing the best golf of my life and I really think I can get my PGA TOUR card this year,’” Mackenzie recalls.

At the first start of the 2017 season, he was T36 through two rounds in the Bahamas and was ready to make a moving day charge. And that’s when everything changed.

Once Mackenzie was painstakingly transported off the course to a Bahamian clinic, there wasn’t much he could do except wait, icing his back in bed for 48 hours. He was on the phone with doctors constantly, but because he wasn’t able to sit up, there was no way to get him on a commercial flight back to the U.S.

Fortunately, two of his sponsors and regular golf buddies from his home club, The Silverleaf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona, had access to a private jet and sent it to retrieve Mackenzie, flying him to Orlando, where an ambulance took him straight to the airport for an MRI. The neurosurgeon in charge said surgery wasn’t required, but that Mackenzie would be in bed with a double epidural, taking morphine every two hours for the next three days.

His 2017 season was over just as it had begun. Months of healing, followed by weeks of rehab, with no guarantees that he’d ever be the same again.

If there was a silver lining for Mackenzie, it was that some forced time away from the usual routine of traveling nearly every week to play tournaments gave him a greater appreciation for the positives in his life.

He and his wife Lila, who married in July of 2016, took the time to do things that the busy life of a professional golfer rarely affords, visiting friends at summer homes in Montana and taking a once-in-a-lifetime trip in Italy in the fall.

“I wanted to travel some and do some of the things I never get to do during a typical summer. We did some stuff that I wouldn’t be able to do during my golf season,” said Mackenzie, who built a plan to work on his health in the meantime. “It was basically just rehab in the mornings and then going and seeing friends that we don’t normally get to spend a lot of time with.”

Still, being away from the game made him hungrier than ever to get back out on Tour and take the steps he thought he would taking in the 2017 season.

“I missed being out here. I missed competing. It was probably the hardest year of my life.”

The first part of Mackenzie’s recovery was the five-month healing period, and without much certainty on what kind of condition he’d ever get back to, there wasn’t much use in even thinking about the game, let alone working on swing changes that would accommodate his condition.

But as the weeks went by and the prospect of returning to work appeared on the horizon, Mackenzie reached out to another player from the Pacific Northwest with a history of back problems and received some encouraging direction on what to do next.

“Fred Couples told me, ‘You’ve got to go see Tom.’”

Tom Boers, a physical therapist based on Columbus, Georgia, has worked with numerous PGA TOUR players, including Couples, who has dealt with back issues for most of his career, as well as Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and many more. Mackenzie started working with him once he was well enough to travel, and quickly discovered that many things he thought he knew about the golf swing and its impact on the body were actually harmful misconceptions.

“What I’ve learned a lot about after getting injured is how much I didn’t know about the body mechanics of a golf swing and how much bad information there is out there. I felt like I had a pretty stress-free golf swing, but obviously there were things that needed to change,” says Mackenzie.

From there, the journey to make changes to his swing began. For an outstanding ballstriker like Mackenzie – who led the Web.com Tour in Greens in Regulation in 2015 at 75.46 per cent – it wasn’t easy to try to rebuild what had been the strength of his game for years. But in order to play and practice at a high level once again, changes simply had to be made.

“I know that the changes are necessary for me to have any longevity playing golf,” says Mackenzie, who says he’s focusing on loading into his right side on the backswing and getting more upright at impact to reduce the curve and stress on his back. “I don’t want to get re-injured.”

With a plan in place and plenty of work to do, Mackenzie got back to work in the Fall and embarked on his journey to re-invent his game while getting back to the level of play he had achieved before the injury.

Mackenzie admits that he’s not yet 100 per cent, and truthfully doesn’t yet know what his new 100 per cent is. He’s been able to play and practice a lot and the nerve pain is now non-existent, but he’s still regularly seeking the assistance of massages and physiotherapy.

Accordingly, his expectations are tempered as he begins the 2018 season this week at the site of his injury last year.

“How I feel right now is how I’m going to feel. I’m teeing it up these next couple of weeks to see where I’m at with it,” says Mackenzie, admitting that it wouldn’t be fair to expect his game to be where it was just over a year ago.

As the swing changes become more comfortable and the results start to show on the course, however, the 36-year old says he’s going to appreciate what he had taken away from him last year and soak up as many positives as he can. If that means low scores and high finishes, it will be a bonus.

“I am glad to be here. When I got injured, I had a lot of phone calls and people reaching out to me, and it’s nice to see people and catch up and get back to normal this week,” says Mackenzie.

“Hopefully,” he adds, “I can have a little redemption on the golf course.”