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A 1990 Interview with Pat Bradley: The Top Golfer in the LPGA Has a Rollercoaster Ride with Graves' Disease


"I'm a pretty intense player - in fact, I'm a pretty intense person. I calculate everything and take everything and take everything to heart. I consider everything that's going on, even when I'm just walking across the street."

I was speaking with Pat Bradley by telephone at her Marco Island, Florida, home, trying to get a sense of what kind of person she is, and it was this sense of intensity in her life that seems to have made her the top woman golfer that she is, the only woman ever to win all four major tournaments in the Ladies Professional Golfers Association.

Pat's father was a caddy, as were uncles on both sides of her family. Her father encouraged her to take up golf seriously, for he admired it as an honest game, a game of etiquette, and one that she seemed to have the potential to be really good at. She loved all sports and was good at basketball, field hockey, and skiing, but at the age of eleven she began to golf seriously herself.

"To be great you have to sacrifice, to give up other things," her father would say. And sacrifice she did, giving up other sports, friendships, and even school activities to concentrate on golf. But in Westford, Massachusetts, she could only play golf for most of the year, and that wasn't good enough. It was not until she went to Miami to attend Dade North Community College that she was able to play golf year round. It was then that her talents began to be recognized in the national amateur tournaments. After two years she moved on to Florida International University where winning began to be even more common for Pat. Finally, it all came together.

Barbara Matson, writing in Golf in January 1989, puts it this way:

"Pat Bradley played the year of her dreams in 1986. She stormed to the top of women's golf, winning five tournaments, including three of the four women's majors. She led the money list with $492,021 and swept the LPGA's postseason awards, taking the Vare trophy for low scoring average, her second Mazda-LPGA series points title (she also won in 1983), and the Player-of-the-Year title, an honor she had pursued with a single-minded passion from the start of her professional career. With 21 career victories, including six majors, Bradley had set a direct course for the LPGA Hall of Fame, which requires thirty victories, including two different majors."

But even during her spectacular year of 1986 Pat was having problems. In April she began to have headaches so severe that she had to go to bed to get rid of them. She began taking large amounts of aspirin, suspecting sinus problems, then wondering if she was just concentrating too hard, thus giving herself the headaches. At times her depth perception seemed off, yet her spectacular play continued. In early 1987 she began to get the shakes. "I felt my whole body quivering, but I just kept telling myself that I was overreacting and worried and taking the game too intensely."

Then she began to notice muscle weakness. Most thyroid patients who experience weakness describe difficulty with carrying heavy packages or climbing stairs. For Pat Bradley, the upper arm weakness was manifested by a drop in distance in her 8 iron shots from 135 to 115 yards. As leg weakness progressed it became difficult for her to stand up after crouching down to estimate the roll of a green.

She started sweating more and was comfortable playing in short sleeves when golfing colleagues were wearing as many as three sweaters. "I kept my hotel rooms air conditioned to 30 degrees," she recalls.

"It's hard to imagine, but even with sweating, the muscle weakness, the shakes, and the palpitations, I still thought I just needed a rest and was simply tense trying to preserve the high level of play that I had had in 1986. I thought I was just reacting to pressure in my own intense way."

But try as she might, she couldn't seem to relax enough to get control of herself and start feeling. She rented a car because she did not have the strength to step up onto the first step of the bus that the players were to ride to tournaments. When she became irritable and moody, she felt even more alone. Finally, in April of 1988 she squatted down to line up a putt and simply couldn't get up until she use both hands to push off the green. Once she had locked her knees, she was unable to stand up. By this time she was convinced that she could no longer handle her nervousness and must be about to have a mental breakdown.

Finally, she phoned her mother, her "best friend." Pat remembers her mother telling her that she must be denying something, something that was seriously wrong. Instead of heeding this advice, she yelled, "Leave me alone." Recalling this dramatic outburst at her "best friend" mother, Pat sounded like she still couldn't believe that she had reacted so sharply.

But this didn't work either. She screamed at the field staff tending the courses, didn't want to see anyone in the locker room, ate alone, and got lonely.

I asked Pat whether she lost weight during this time. The high metabolic rate in hyperthyroidism makes weight loss common. Actually, she didn't lose weight, but when her brother came to visit her at the Dinah Shore tournament in April 1988 he commented that she seemed to be eating constantly. She had three or four helpings at breakfast and most other meals were just as big.

By this time she knew she needed a doctor, someone she could trust with her feelings and emotions because she was frightened that the real problem might be that she was losing her mind…losing control.

She had met Dr. Ronald Garvey who is medical director of a Dallas hospital and a golfer, and she somehow felt she could trust him. On route from Los Angeles to St. Petersburg for her next tournament, she stopped off in Dallas. She called him from the airport. "Can I come to see you today?" she asked. At two o'clock she was in his office and confessed that she felt that she was "a total mess." She had no patience, was an emotional wreck, had no muscle strength, was shaking all over, and her heart was pounding like a jackhammer.

Dr. Garvey recognized the problem immediately and after a brief but careful examination, sent her to the laboratory for thyroid blood tests. The following day he called her and told her that she had Graves' disease, the kind of hyperthyroidism that Ben Crenshaw had had and which had such a devastating effect on his game as well.

He treated her immediately with radioactive iodine, controlling her rapid pulse and high blood pressure with propranolol. She remembers having to take the propranolol five times a day to keep her heart rate under control until the radioactive iodine had a chance to take effect and slow the thyroid permanently.

She was treated with radioiodine in April and by June she had become hypothyroid. At that point Dr. Garvey started her on Synthroid, carefully regulating the dose by blood tests and examinations.

"Dr. Garvey told me that it would take three months for my muscles to begin to get strong again," Pat recalls, "and he told me not to go on a fitness program right away." She began slow workouts at a Texas fitness center during the summer, ultimately building her muscles and endurance. Best of all, she knew she wasn't crazy, that even the nervousness and tension had an explanation in her hyperthyroidism, and that her game would come back again.

The pressures in professional gold are awesome and constant. For example, Pat average score rose only from 71.10 in 1986 to 75.19 in 1988, but that slight increase dropped her earnings from $492,021 in 1986 to $15,965 in 1988. In 1986 her shooting was good enough to place in the top ten in twenty tournaments; in contrast she was not in the top ten a single time in 1988.

The good news is that Pat's game is back and that she is winning again. Best of all, she feels good about herself and her future.

I asked Pat if there was anything about her experience with hyperthyroidism that was special in looking back.

"One thing that stands out in my mind," she said, "was the lack of credibility throughout my hyperthyroidism. At first even I didn't know I was sick, but I knew I was acting funny and I wasn't surprised that the press was giving me a hard time. But it bother me that even after I knew what was wrong, the press still gave me a hard time. If I had had a broken leg I would have had credibility. Somehow the press still didn't seem to understand.

"Then the president's wife got hyperthyroidism, and all of a sudden the press seemed to take my illness seriously. Somehow the publicity about her made them realize that it really was a problem. I'm glad we all understand it better.

"Just one more thing," she said. "A lot of athletes endorse a foundation and in that way try to help others in a worthwhile cause. I'd like to work for the Thyroid Foundation of America and help in any way I can. I don't want other people to go through what I did if we can education patients and the public to recognize the thyroid symptoms early."

I assured Pat Bradley that all of us at the Thyroid Foundation of America appreciate her interest and welcome her help. There is much to be done, but with a true professional like Pat Bradley, our road will surely be easier.

Note: Since this interview, Pat became our Honorary National Director and has been a major supporter of TFA, fundraising for our programs at the annual Pat Bradley/TFA Golf Classic.

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