Insider: Weibring battling through Bell's palsy with father's help and supportSAO PAULO, BRAZIL - APRIL 05: Matt Weibring hits a shot during the second round of the Brasil Classic Presented by HSBC at the Sao Paulo Golf Club on April 5, 2013 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images for HSBC)July 10, 2013
By Jeff Shain, PGATOUR.COM
Want a challenge? Try to read this article, first word to last, without letting your eyes involuntarily remoisten themselves. Maybe you can get through it. Maybe you can’t.
Imagine trying to play a round of golf in that manner.
“You don’t realize just how much involuntary blinking you do,” Matt Weibring said. “Bell’s palsy is a weird thing.”
Sports – or any competitive situation, for that matter – so often raises that metaphor about one side making the other blink first. Weibring’s malady gave him two months on the Web.com Tour sidelines because his right eye couldn’t blink.
If Weibring can blink, he can play.
“I’m just taking it one week at a time,” said the 33-year-old Dallas native, still cautious in his return from the mysterious facial paralysis. This week’s Utah Championship is his third start since the hiatus.
“My face felt a little tingly a couple of times [during Monday’s practice round]. It’s kind of a weird feeling; I can’t explain it. But it’s just something I’ll have to deal with for a while. … When it comes, you know it.”
Bell’s palsy paralyzes the muscles on one side of the face, prompted by inflammation of the nerve that controls those movements. The condition is believed to stem from a viral infection, though scientists have yet to pinpoint the exact nature of the virus.
Among the effects are drooling, difficulty swallowing, sensitivity to sound and muted taste buds. Those are minor annoyances, though, compared to the inability to close an eye – even to blink.
“It doesn’t move,” said Weibring, who had to tape his eye closed to sleep. “You have to put drops in your eye all the time. That’s really why you can’t go outside much, especially my home. In the springtime, it’s windy.”
Likewise, doctors have no way of predicting how long the malady will last. Some get movement back after a month or two. Others need six months, some a year or longer. And there’s no surefire treatment to speed up the healing.
“They don’t know how you get it, they don’t know how to get rid of it,” said D.A. Weibring, Matt’s father and Champions Tour pro, who oddly had his own bout with the condition 17 years ago.
The younger Weibring thought maybe he’d escaped the danger zone when he surprisingly qualified for the U.S. Open and played all four rounds at Merion. Then in his return to the Web.com Tour, he missed the cut in Raleigh when his face swelled up.
“Now I couldn’t keep my eye open,” he said. “I was hitting putts awful – leaving them 15 feet short, hitting them 10 feet by. I went back to my doctor and he said the same thing that affects your face can affect your eyes, make you lose perception.
“He said it can lay dormant and then when you get fatigued, it lets the virus attack. That makes it kind of difficult when you play golf. But it can spring on you at any time.”
It first sprung on Weibring in April, getting ready for the WNB Classic in west Texas. A dull pain developed behind his right ear as he finished a practice round, and still bothered him the next morning. He visited a local clinic, where the diagnosis was an ear infection.
He carded a first-round 73 in sunglasses, which he rarely wears on the course. Entering the locker room to clean up, he caught a glance of himself in a mirror.
“My eye was really wide and my face was all weird,” he said.
Weibring went to the emergency room, where he learned Bell’s palsy had set in. Asking if he could play with the condition, he was told there was no reason he couldn’t try. Despite a 71 the next day, he missed the cut by four.
“I slapped it all over the place,” he said. “But I don’t like to withdraw. I absolutely cannot do it. Then I went home and did nothing.”
Being sidelined had become all too familiar for Weibring in his pro career. Hip surgery shelved him for eight months in 2010 and ’11, two years after knee surgery brought on by the hip problem.
This one, though, was different in its uncertainty.
“That’s the difficult part,” he said. “If you hurt your hip or knee – you’ve got to have surgery, do this, be out for four months. You can wrap your mind around it. But for me, I had no idea. I didn’t know if it’d be six months, four months, whatever.”
The paralysis began to wear off at the end of May, allowing Weibring short sessions of chipping and putting. Having long ago signed up for U.S. Open qualifying, he moved his entry to the Dallas sectional with the intent of simply getting some competitive rounds in.
Weibring opened with a 1-under-par 70 at Lakewood Country Club, then found his groove on the second trip around. A birdie/birdie finish gave him a 64 and a share of medalist honors.
“Once I got it going, I made some good swings,” he said. “I didn’t forget. I knew how to do it again.”
Another small victory came at Merion, where a late birdie allowed him to make the cut on the number.
“I told him that just shows the strength of his game,” D.A. Weibring said. “He probably was unfortunate because [weather delays meant] he only got nine holes in his first day. So in his first competitive tournament back, he had to play 27 holes.
“He was in pretty good shape through 18 holes that day, even 20 holes. Then he struggled a little, but made birdie on his 26th hole of the day to make the cut. He’s showing a lot of good signs.”
Matt Weibring acknowledged that his dad’s experience with Bell’s has helped him manage his comeback.
“I’d feel dizzy and weird [on the practice range],” he said, “so I’d tell him I feel this, this and this. He’d say, ‘Yeah, I went through that as well.’ ”
Dad’s biggest advice has been for Matt to make sure he’s well rested. During his own comeback in 1996, D.A. recalls struggling in the heat at Colonial when a kindly woman pulled him aside.
“Please be careful coming back in these conditions,” she implored him, sharing her own Bell’s experience. The virus first attacked the right side of her face – and later her left side when she didn’t take care of herself.
D.A. took the next two weeks off, skipping the Memorial Tournament and Kemper Open. He brought Matt with him to Hartford – and won by four over Tom Kite.
“By stepping back and resting,” he said, “it helped me win at Hartford.”
With just seven events left before the Web.com Tour Finals, rest might be a tough order for the younger Weibring. Standing 172nd on the money list, he needs to move up 97 spots just to crack that lineup.
Then again, one well-rested week can become a huge springboard. A top-10 finish would jump Weibring into the top 100. Two would put him in striking distance of a Finals berth.
Nor has he forgotten how Dad won in Hartford – five months after contracting Bell’s and just seven starts into his return. “It’s in the back of my mind,” he said.
First, though, is to make sure the virus stays at bay.
“Hopefully one week, the thing stays away and I’ll be fine,” Weibring said. “It’s been a stressful year. But I’ve played good in the past during the summer months. My game’s starting to get sharper now, which is good.”
Said Dad: “He’s handled it well. I know good things are coming for him.”
Web.com Tour Insider Jeff Shain is a freelance contributor for PGATOUR.COM. His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.