In 1986 Pat Bradley was professional golf’s leading female player. She won five tournaments and took home $492,021 in prize money, then a single-year record. She also astonished the many sportswriters who had watched her 12-year career—a career with 43 second-place finishes—and written her off as a perennial choker. “I’ve gotten raked over the coals for what I haven’t done, “said Bradley during that dream season. “Now maybe I’ll get praised for what I have done.”
But her triumph was short-lived. In 1987 Bradley went into a tailspin that forced her to consider retiring from the game she had begun playing in her hometown of Westford, Mass., at age 11. Suddenly, her hands shook on the course, her heart raced, and she was so fatigued that she could barely drag through a round. That year she won a fourth of her previous year’s prize money.
Last season Bradley’s earnings sank to just $15,965 and, after refusing to see a doctor for almost two years, she finally sought help. The diagnosis was quick: She had hyperthyroidism, also known as Graves’ disease, a condition that affects I million Americans. (First Lady Barbara Bush was treated for it earlier this year.) The disease occurs when the thyroid gland, located under the Adam’s apple, produces an excess of the thyroid hormone, which regulates the body’s cell metabolism. The illness, which is sometimes inherited, can be triggered by severe stress and strikes women more often than men, causing symptoms like weight loss, irritability, an intolerance to heat and muscle weakness. In some cases, if left untreated, it can be fatal.
Bradley, 38, who lives alone in a condo on Marco Island, Fla., has now been treated. “The Stare”—her characteristic competition gaze—is back. She has won $307,106 this season, and finished in the Top Five seven times. In a conversation with reporter Andrew Abrahams, Pat Bradley talked about her reluctance to confront her illness and the long road to recovery.
I was getting tremendous headaches every day toward the end of 1986. They were so intense that I had to go to bed and get some sleep. I thought it was sinus trouble or maybe the Stare that was causing them. Then around April of 1987, I started getting very tired. I could barely finish a tournament. I thought that maybe I was playing too much and needed some rest. Well, I took a couple of weeks off, but that didn’t help.
In May of 1987, I started hitting the ball short. I usually hit my eight iron 130 yards, and suddenly I couldn’t hit it 115. I went to see my coach, Gail Davis, and I came down hard on her. I said, “There’s something wrong with my swing—FIX IT!” Then I started getting the jitters. I thought I was putting too much pressure on myself. Every time a symptom came up, I put it off to something else.
I have always thought of myself as a strong person, and I kept thinking that if I didn’t feel really sick, there must not be anything wrong with me. But I was getting to be a mess. My heart rate was 150 at rest. I was extremely tired but I couldn’t sleep soundly. Everything felt like it was in fast speed when I wasn’t playing, but on the golf course I was in slow motion. I was always the last one to reach my ball when I walked down the fairway, yet I still felt like I was going at top speed.
After a while, I thought I must be having a nervous breakdown. I was frightened because the feelings I was having were so strange. I was absentminded: I lost my wallet twice and I had memory lapses. I became paranoid and felt as though people were looking at me. I assumed I was the talk of the locker room, although I never really heard anyone discussing me. No one came up and asked what was wrong, but I don’t hold that against anybody. We all have our own problems to deal with on the tour. I just hid in the privacy of my own room. I didn’t want to go to a doctor because I was afraid of what he might find.
The disease came on very slowly—I didn’t feel all the symptoms at once. So I just kept playing and thought, I’m going to get through this come hell or high water. Every day I put that tee in the ground and put myself on the line for criticism and jokes. One minute I’m No. 1 in my profession, and the next, you can’t even find me. It hurt tremendously.
In August of 1987, I decided to take the rest of the year off. I went home to Marco Island, and I went to Massachusetts to visit my family. I was trying to get a different perspective on everything. I guess playing golf accelerated the problems, because when I was away from it, the symptoms were easier to ignore. It’s all hustle and bustle at my mother’s house anyway, so no one really noticed me.
I played in the very first tournament in 1988, the Mazda Classic, and it was terrible. On the second hole, I had a six-iron shot to the green, and as I stood over the ball lining up my shot, my hands shook so badly that I moved the ball about three inches. I looked up at one of my partners, and laughed, saying, “This is the first one of the year, I’m just overanxious.”
I missed a lot of qualifying cuts that year, which was hard to swallow. I would leave hotels at 5 A.M. so I wouldn’t see anybody. Then, in April of 1988, my brother Tom came to watch me at the Nabisco Dinah Shore. He couldn’t believe his eyes. I struggled through and when the tournament was over, I had breakfast one morning with Tom. He said he was scared for me, and we both got very emotional. I told him I would work things out, but deep down, he knew I was sick. We left each other in tears.
Tommy called my mother, Kathleen, and it was she who finally made me listen. She had questioned me before about something being wrong, but I was so adamant about saying I would deal with it. This time, she was adamant. She said I was not helping myself by saying all I needed was one good week of golf. If I wasn’t going to do something, she was going to take me and get some help.
I called a doctor I knew in Dallas, Skip Garvey. He was a golfer too and a good friend, and I felt that I could trust him with my feelings. As soon as I walked into his office, he said, “What the hell has been goin’ on?” He had followed my career for years, and he knew that the way I had been playing was not me.
He did a couple of tests, and within 20 minutes he told me I needed a blood test and an extensive thyroid profile done. I didn’t even know where the thyroid was. Then he put me on a drug called Inderal to bring my heart rate down. He told me that if I had kept going, I would have been a candidate for an early heart attack.
No one else in my family has ever had Graves’ disease, and Dr. Garvey said in my case it could have been brought on by stress. I was surprised but extremely relieved when I found out that’s what I had. If Garvey hadn’t discovered what was wrong, I guess the next step would have been a psychiatrist.
I went to St. Paul’s Hospital in Dallas, and they administered the first treatment of radioactive iodine. The iodine went to my thyroid and turned it off. My thyroid is nonfunctioning right now because the radioactive iodine destroys cells in the thyroid and makes it inactive.
I felt relief right away, but the treatment is a long process. The doctors had to wait for my thyroid hormone levels to drop. After that happened, in June of 1988, they prescribed a synthetic thyroid, which regulates metabolism the way a normal thyroid gland does. I will take it every day for the rest of my life.
By the summer of 1988, I started feeling much better. My strength was coming around, and I wasn’t trembling. I played great at the Planters Pat Bradley International in August. And then, just when I was feeling encouraged, I had the tragedy of my dad’s death. He died four days after the Planters tournament. My illness had taken a lot out of my dad because he lived and died with every shot I made. He’d had a heart attack on the Monday before my tournament started, but he didn’t want me to know. I wish I had known, but it was his wish. I spent a month at home with my family after his death, but I didn’t pick up the tour after that. I just didn’t have anything left.
When I started playing again last November, things came back more naturally. Two years ago, I didn’t think I’d ever win again. This year everything started falling into place. It was so satisfying winning the Al Star Centinela in Los Angeles in April. It was my first win in two years. My mom was there. She had gone through the whole thing with me, and at that moment, it was all behind us. I had won 22 tournaments before that, but this was the sweetest. I not only won it for me but for my family. I felt my dad was close to me during that last round.
These days I’m working on trying to relax a bit more on the golf course. I’m trying to give myself a little more credit. I have renewed excitement about the game. I’ve also learned that your body transmits messages, and I am going to listen to them from now on.
I could have kept running away from the problem, or quit, but eventually I dealt with it. I went through the embarrassment and the humiliation. Now I feel that if there was one win for me, there’s another one, and I’m out to find it.