Steven Bowditch’s grandfather, subjected to four years forced labour in the death camps that built the infamous Burmese Railroad during WWII, is thought to have left his grandson with an unwanted legacy – severe clinical depression. The diagnosis, so long in coming, recognises the role genetics have probably played in making Bowditch’s life one hell of a challenge.
On 31 May Bowditch won the 2015 AT&T Bryon Nelson Classic by four shots, beating a quality field in the process. The win took him from 125 to 69th in the Official World Golf Rankings; the highest he has been. But that is not the story – it is more about how he got there.
By age 17, Bowditch was making sufficient waves in Australian golf that many were saying he would emulate fellow Queenslander, Greg Norman. The two were paired together in the penultimate group in the last round of their national open, at Kingston Heath GC in 2000; the legend and the 17-year old apprentice.
From Adam Scott to Nathen Green, most Aussies of Bowditch’s generation will agree that his natural skills mark him as someone special. “Bowdo’s just raw talent,” says Adam Scott. “One of those guys who’s gifted with really good hand-eye coordination. When you’ve got that much talent, it’s always just a question of when his game matures.”
Bowditch turned 32 recently, Monday 8 June. It’s been some ride.
Turning pro at 18, he tried his hand in Europe, unsuccessfully. Returning home he worked at his local pro shop in Kooralbyn, Queensland, before returning to tour golf in 2005. After qualifying for that year’s Queensland Open, he defied all predictions when winning it by five shots. That started a series of good performances on the Nationwide Tour that culminated in moving to America, knowing that a continuation of his current form should result in a PGA Tour card in 2006.
But there was something wrong, something that Bowditch didn’t want to talk about, something that nearly killed him.
For two-three years prior to moving to the States, Bowditch would experience debilitating headaches. These would occur once a month, then once a week, before becoming a daily event. During this time, he would get sudden nosebleeds so severe blood would soak the front of his shirt. There were nights he couldn’t sleep and days he couldn’t focus on anything for more than a few minutes at a time.
Then in February 2005, on the practice range the Wednesday before he won Australia’s Jacob’s Creek Open Championship, Bowditch got such an acute headache he sought medical attention. The fear was that it may mean a brain tumour. After an MRI he was almost relieved when a diagnosis of clinical depression was given. Notwithstanding, the condition wasn’t thought serious enough to warrant medication, rather just monthly psychotherapy sessions. “They didn’t want to put me on any medication, because they didn’t think I was bad enough for them to do that,” he says. “It was hard for them to understand because everything in my life was so good – I was winning.
“To be honest, it was normal for me on the Nationwide Tour to be so embarrassed of my thoughts, I would sit in the locker room ‘til two minutes before my tee time and run out and play,” he says. “If everyone was hitting balls on the left side of the range, I’d go all the way to the end just because I didn’t want to be around anyone. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. When people would talk to me, I didn’t even know they were talking. I couldn’t work out why.
“I wouldn’t sleep or eat from Monday to Wednesday and then I’d eat all day Thursday as much as I could,” he says. “I had it in my mind this was my routine.”
Bowditch describes himself as a binge drinker, if an infrequent one, in his schoolboy days. During the ’05 season he began self-medicating with alcohol. “I would finish the pro-am at midday. I would start drinking at 1 o’clock in the afternoon and go all the way until 5 o’clock in the morning and tee it up in the tournament at 7 o’clock on the first tee. Go home, have an afternoon sleep and do it again. And that went on for six weeks,” he says. “I realized in June or July that I was doing it every day. That was my only escape from the person that I was.
“It was bad before Jacob’s Creek, but it started to get really bad about Christmas time ending in ’05,” says Bowditch. “I just got flatlined. I lost all my anger. I lost all my happiness. I lost everything. And that’s when I was playing pretty much the best golf of my career, which was strange.”
In 2006 Bowditch commenced his rookie season on the PGA Tour. His first ten tournaments resulted in three DQs, two WDs and five missed cuts. He felt totally finished, not able to bring himself to visit a golf course let alone play. He withdrew from all contact.
In April of that year, desperate for rest after 12 sleepless nights, he downed a full bottle of Scotch and slept for two days. Upon awakening, he donned all his heavy clothing to serve as an anchor, and entered the pool of his Dallas condo with every intention of ending his life. If it wasn’t for his then girlfriend, discovering him in time to resuscitate him and get him to hospital, he would have succeeded.
Next week, in part 2, we look at Steven Bowditch slow and often difficult road to recovery, eventually culminating in his latest PGA Tour victory in May.