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Man on a Mission

By: Tony Dear


On the afternoon of Friday May 25th, Bill Waite walked off the 18th green at Stanford Golf Course exhausted, relieved and justifiably proud of the 20-over-par 90 he had just shot. His final putt marked the end of a memorable journey for the 58-year-old Englishman, who had covered 978 miles and played 18 courses in 25 days, beginning in Vancouver B.C. and finishing in Palo Alto, Calif.

Bill Waite

To celebrate, Waite and his brother-in-law Paul Crawford, who had joined him midway through the trip, drove 20 miles south to the Mountain Winery in Saratoga to see Alison Krauss perform live. "She's my favorite musician, and it was a fantastic evening," says Waite, "even if she didn't play my favorite song, 'The Lucky One.' "

At a time when every second golfer in the world seems to be embarking on some wild and wacky golf voyage, be it across this desert or over that mountain range, or through this continent or into that war zone - and with golf shoe maker True Linkswear currently promoting its "Hundred Hole Hike" campaign in which participants play 100 holes in a day for the charity of their choice, 18 courses in 25 days with a cushy, full-size rental and inexpensive but mostly comfortable lodging every night - doesn't seem terribly noteworthy.

For most people, Waite's expedition would have amounted to little more than a slightly busy jaunt down the West Coast, a merry spree with nothing to fill the days but fun. For Waite though, it was a major undertaking requiring months' of research and planning, a considerable amount of medication, the odd post-round massage and, most importantly perhaps, his doctor's blessing.

What makes Waite's golf adventure different from so many others is that he has Parkinson's disease (PD), the same condition Michael J. Fox has endured so valiantly for the last 21 years. Diagnosed in 2009, Waite was actually thrilled to learn he had PD as his doctor had made an initial diagnosis of Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP) the previous year. Whereas Parkinson's, whose symptoms can closely resemble those of PSP, can be controlled to a degree with the right medication, PSP is often fatal - the average life expectancy of a patient being seven years according to the PSP Association.

Whatever the diagnosis though, it was a cruel coincidence as, just four weeks before, Waite's best friend Derek Ralston had succumbed to Motor Neuron Disease, a devastating neurodegenerative affliction similar to what Bruce Edwards, Tom Watson's caddie, had suffered.

Waite gets by okay, but he certainly isn't symptom-free. His speech is slurred; he must consciously consider the position of his lips and tongue when saying certain words; he gets fatigued and stiff after relatively little activity; and he has the gait of a much older man. Thanks to the medication, however, and his own determination to lead as normal a life as he possibly can, he is able to take 10 overseas trips in a year like he did in 2010, and organize 25-day long golf trips.

Bill Waite's List of Reminders

Waite, you understand, is not the support group type. The former math teacher and math textbook author would rather walk nine holes with buddies at his local course near Watford, just north of London, than sit around feeling sorry for himself and asking why, of all people, he should have to deal with this disease. "I went to a PD patient group once, but really didn't like it," he says. "Everyone seemed to regard themselves as victims. They looked like they had given up. But I chose not to see it that way. I've still got too much life to live."

Part of that life, says Waite, will now be taken up raising funds for research into a possible cure for Parkinson's and creating programs designed to improve the lives of those living with it. Before leaving Britain for the U.S., Waite established a JustGiving account, money from which will go to the National Hospital of Neurology and Neurosurgery in Queen Square, London, and to the Meyrow Fund, which seeks to decrease the financial hardship of patients.

Waite chose the West Coast of the U.S. for his venture having vacationed in Northern California when his son was studying at San Jose State University. "I loved the place," he says. "I visited the Mt. Shasta Resort and met Rod Sims, the head pro. He was so encouraging and it was him that actually first had the idea of a golf trip."

"When Bill first visited the resort, we just got talking," Sims remembers. "I told him it might be a good idea to go on a golf trip to raise money for, and awareness of, Parkinson's disease."

Sims called Waite in December 2011 to discuss the itinerary. Waite had always wanted to go to Vancouver, so it made sense for him to start there and work his way south. "We picked the courses based mainly on geographical location," says Waite. "There were private, semiprivate, public and municipal courses. Next time I'll probably try to leave out the public and municipal courses because they can get pretty busy so it's tough scheduling rounds. The private clubs were usually very happy to welcome me."

The highlights were many, though probably none better, says Waite, than listening to Sims and Crawford jamming on the patio at Mt. Shasta following their round together. "Rod sang and played the harmonica while Paul played guitar," he adds. "It was great listening to them play a few old Creedence Clearwater Revival tunes, a really special evening. I saw a second cousin in Portland who I'd never met before, and stayed the weekend. That was pretty special.

"And I'll always remember the couple I played with at Shadow Hills in Junction City, Ore. After the round they invited me back to their house for dinner and to spend the night. And also at Shadow Hills, I was given a message while out on the course to meet someone on the practice range after the round. I went and introduced myself and the guy made a sizeable contribution right there on the spot."

Waite suspects it will be the whole Shadow Hills experience - the course, company, donation, Junction City's one main intersection and one hotel - that lingers longest in his memory, but he's fairly sure Eagle Point in Medford, Ore., was his favorite course. "It had such amazing views of the Rogue Valley," he says. "I'd buy a house there if I could. I really enjoyed Stanford and Sevillano Links in Corning, Calif., too."

At Sevillano, Waite played with the general manager Donna Komar, who also knows a thing or two about playing golf in discomfort as she lives with both multiple sclerosis and fairly severe arthritis in her knee. In undertaking her executive role at the five-year-old course with that combination of physical impairments, and as a mother of seven-year-old twins (one of each), Komar is certainly a source of inspiration for many, but she can't say enough about Waite and his efforts to raise money. "Bill was amazing," she says. "We had a wonderful round. He played to his handicap and it was just a lot of fun. I find his story very inspiring. People like Bill and the courage he shows are what enable me to put my own issues in perspective."

Waite Swinging in the Rain at Bellingham GCC

Really the only thing Waite would rather forget is the short but significant periods when his symptoms worsened. "I think I may have overdone it a bit," he says. "I walked 18 holes eight times and on those days felt I had to double my dose of Rotigotine. And I had two Neupro patches on at times. On bad days, I felt very fatigued and was very stiff. I had trouble bending over and my 'inertia' was greatly reduced."

Even so, Waite insists there was never a time when he felt like packing up and heading home early. "At no point did I think 'sod this,' " he says. "Sure, if I had three of four continuous rounds like we had at Bellingham Golf & Country Club in Bellingham, Wash., then I might have called it a day. The course was absolutely wonderful, and the pro there very welcoming, but it absolutely poured down all day. We only managed 14 holes. Just couldn't take in any more water, and I had a tough time that evening getting all my gear dry again."

Crawford, who has known Waite for 20 years, lives in Norwich, England, and was making his first-ever trip to the U.S., admits there were occasions when he was quite concerned with how his brother-in-law was holding up. "There were a couple of days when he seemed to be really struggling," he says. "But really, he did amazingly well. He swings it slowly and deliberately because every move is a conscious effort, but he has learned to hit it remarkably straight, and his chipping just got better and better as the trip went on. He's just a very positive man. He doesn't hide behind anything, and he makes the most of what energy he has."

On the Saturday morning following the final round at Stanford, Waite had very little of that left. But that didn't stop Crawford dragging him around guitar shops. "When I get home, I'm definitely going to relax for a few days," says Waite. "And then, who knows, I might start thinking about where we're going to go next."

For more information about Waite's JustGiving page, visit http://www.justgiving.com/user/31249644.  

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own website at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.

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