Golf has proven to be a tonic for this Parkinson’s sufferer

Gary Smith, by his own admission, is not a champion golfer but his golf story is well worth telling. Tim Rosaforte, a long-time friend of mine who works for The Golf Channel, told it first as a TV feature. Now it’s my turn.

Smith is a Naperville resident, but I met him at the International Network of Golf’s Spring Conference in Biloxi, Miss., in May. He was a featured speaker there and provided a compelling report on what golf has done for him.

In short, golf served as an effective treatment for Parkinson’s disease. That’s a neurodegenerative brain disorder that has very negative life-changing effects for its victims. Smith was diagnosed with it in 2008, but suspects he had symptoms as many as five years before that. His father had died of the disease the same year that Gary was diagnosed with it and his father had battled it for 22 years. Gradually the disease took its told on Smith as well.

“My life was really getting dark,’’ he said. “My dexterity was gone. I had tremors. I was walking very slowly. My voice was wispy. Basically my life was not good.’’

He lost most of his ability to smell and taste. He felt strange aches and pains and his energy level was dropping off. He was barely able to walk his daughter Morgan down the aisle at her 2010 marriage.

This was especially painful, given the active lifestyle Smith had led prior to the devastating diagnosis. He played basketball and baseball in high school and college and was a skydiver for 20 years. He once para-glided off a 3,800-foot cliff in New Zealand. In his fifties he was a surfer and ran a marathon on his 55th birthday in 2011.

Married with three children, Smith had worked as a psychotherapist, then took on a second career as a loan officer. He continued to work for seven years after getting his Parkinson’s diagnosis before retiring on his 60th birthday in 2015. He wanted to play more golf then, mainly because his wife Nan liked to play the game.

Smith tried other forms of exercise, and some would work for a while, but he came to the realization that “everything goes slow.’’

“My kids said `Please don’t quit’ and I kept looking for exercises,’’ said Smith. “My son said I should go to TopGolf.’’

That fast-growing franchise has a facility in Naperville, and Smith hit lots of golf balls there – up to 1,000 a week.

When Smith turned 60 he and Nan took a trip to Scotland, and she encouraged him to play a round at the famous Old Course at St. Andrews. Using rental clubs, he got through that round and was inspired by the experience. That led to more sessions at TopGolf when they returned to Naperville.

“When we got back there was some freakish weather, temperatures in the 50s,’’ he said. “I started walking (in rounds at Naperbrook and Springbrook, Naperville’s public courses). I was confused. I felt good because I was walking. But it wore me out.’’

Eventually the Parkinson’s symptoms went away. After five weeks he could walk more upright and actually stride, rather then just shuffle his feet. His right foot and arm had been stiff. They started to loosen up. He could type with his right hand again and manage facial expressions. His voice got stronger, too.

Now 63, he usually walks his 18-hole rounds and has done as many as 36 holes in a day. His handicap also dropped from 24 to 10.

Initially Smith felt his “recovery’’ wasn’t the real thing, just a carryover from the St. Andrews experience. His neurologist, Dr. Martha McGraw at Northwestern Medicine Center DuPage Hospital in Winfield, had her doubts as well until Smith demonstrated his regained walking ability at her office.

She declared him back to his pre-Parkinson’s fitness level. Though Smith couldn’t understand his recovery either, he was determined to take his message to others who suffer from the disease. He’s trying to raise money for the Parkinson’s Foundation to fund a scientific study on the potential benefits of golf for Parkinson’s patients.

While he’s thankful for his improved health, Smith still has concerns his old symptoms might return.

“Every day I wake up I just wonder if this will wear off,’’ he said, “but so far, so good.’’