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One Career Door Closed, Another Opened

Jimmy Walker (right) and his caddie, Andy Sanders, wore orange during the first round of THE PLAYERS Championship to show their support for multiple sclerosis and the people who suffer from the disease.
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May 12, 2011

By Erin Walker, Special to Together, Anything's Possible

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla.—When the Multiple Sclerosis Society of North Florida asked players and fans to show their support by wearing orange clothing on Thursday during the first round of THE PLAYERS Championship, Jimmy Walker was only too happy to oblige.


After all, MS is a disease that’s particularly close to Walker. His caddie, Andy Sanders, also dressed in orange under his bib during the first round, knows exactly what it is like to live with what can be a debilitating disease.



It took Sanders, an accomplished golfer, a few years to accept the fact that MS was likely putting an end to his competitive playing career. So he decided if he can’t be the one hitting the shots, helping Walker with his game is something he is comfortable doing. The thing is, though, it wasn’t supposed to be this way.


“Andy was a world beater during his junior and college golf days,” said Walker. “(Lucas) Glover, (Charles) Warren and (Jonathan) Byrd, all these guys playing on TOUR, were the names I heard growing up, and Andy Sanders was right up there with them.”  


Glover, the 2009 U.S. Open champion, remembers playing against Sanders.


“Andy was right there with us,” said Glover. “But I know Andy, and I knew he wasn’t going to let [his disease] get to him.”


After a successful year on the Nationwide Tour in 2002, Sanders maintained full Nationwide Tour status in 2003 and 2004, with his best finish a tie for second at the Fort Smith Classic in Fort Smith, Ark. With all the irony life has to offer, it was at the same tournament two years later where Sanders first learned about his diagnosis. 


“I woke up one morning and couldn’t really see out of my right eye. I wear contacts, so I just thought it was a contact issue,” Sanders said. “I tried to play that week, and it didn’t go away. So I saw an eye doctor on Friday. Within 15 minutes he told me he thought I had MS.”


A brain MRI would later confirm that he had optic neuritis, a condition that is often a presenting sign of MS. 


“I was pretty numb mentally,” Sanders said. “I didn’t know how to deal with it.”


It was that emotional insecurity that took a toll on Sanders’ game mentally. The new drugs he was taking to combat the disease took a toll physically. 


“I felt like I had vertigo 24/7,” he continued. “I would stand over the ball, and my head would move all over the place. I developed a lot of bad habits, and one thing led to another and I couldn’t compete.” 


Sanders’ first doctor added to his confidence issues by telling him that as someone with MS, he couldn’t possibly have chosen a worse profession than golf.


“Professional athletes have this attitude of being invincible. I tried to act like it didn’t affect me, tried to separate it from me,” added Sanders, who played in two U.S. Opens (2000 and 2002). “I learned that mentality doesn’t work.” 


Today, after coming to terms with his disease and finding the right doctor and drug regimen that consists of a once-every-two-month intravenous drip, Sanders is symptom-free and enjoying being a vital part of the game he grew up playing and loving.  


It doesn’t hurt that he’s working for a friend.


Sanders’ and Walker’s friendship developed while the duo roomed and played together on the Nationwide Tour. When Walker once again qualified for the PGA TOUR in 2008, he knew he wanted his good friend on the bag. 


“Andy is one of the best putters I have ever known,” said Walker. “He’s great at reading greens, and even though we have different playing styles he helps me see courses in a different way. He knows my swing, and we can talk about it when something is working and when something isn’t working.” 


Sanders is satisfied with the role he plays in the game he loves.


“Being incredibly competitive, sometimes its hard not being the one making the swing and having total control of the outcome,” said Sanders. “But I have a big impact on what goes on. Even though I’m not the one hitting the shots, I still get the rush and butterflies whether it’s Thursday on the first tee or Sunday when we are in contention.” 


When asked if he still harbors playing aspirations, Sanders is realistic. “I think that ship has sailed,” he said.


One thing he does look forward to is helping Walker in his quest to become one of the best golfers in the world—a goal they both agree is attainable.


The two certainly form a solid team.

 

The author is the wife of Jimmy Walker. The Walkers recently had their first child. 

 

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