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Local pro with stage IV cancer playing Butterfield Bermuda Championship

10 Min Read

Beyond the Ropes

Local pro with stage IV cancer playing Butterfield Bermuda Championship

Brian Morris' story reminds us not to take life for granted

    Written by Helen Ross @helen_pgatour

    Any club pro teeing it up in his first PGA TOUR event, as Brian Morris will do at the Butterfield Bermuda Championship starting Thursday, would likely admit to being quite nervous.

    Not Morris, though. Sure, he’ll feel what he calls “competitive butterflies,” but he only gets truly nervous when he goes to see his doctors at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston every three months. Almost two years ago, those physicians cut into the back of his skull and removed a malignant tumor from his brain. They later discovered stage IV cancer in his stomach and esophagus, too, and, at his most recent check-up, inoperable tumors in his neck.

    By all rights, this inspirational and indomitable man probably shouldn’t be living out a dream this week at Port Royal Golf Course. But he is, and Morris’ very presence in the field should teach the rest of us about not taking our own lives for granted.

    “I used to be terrible with nerves,” Morris says. “But since I got diagnosed with cancer, it's like hitting a tee shot don't really – like I embrace it now because I'm able to do it and I probably shouldn't be because according to the doctors and how my cancer was growing and stuff.

    “I've been past my expiration date, you know?”

    It was after suffering vertigo-like symptoms at work that Morris, the 54-year-old head pro at Ocean View Golf Course in Devonshire, Bermuda, began to look for answers. Expecting nothing was seriously wrong, he asked a co-worker to drop him at the hospital and come back later.

    “The doctor, you know, he does that finger across your eyes, and you follow the finger,” Morris recalls. “One of my eyes was moving. One of my eyes was, he said it was like a jittery type of like jerking. And he was like, oh, boy.

    “So, he gave me a CAT scan,” Morris continues. “We went from CAT scan to an MRI to intensive care to air ambulance to brain surgery on Monday.”

    There was no time to wait; the cancer had to come out immediately. Morris’ wife, Laurie, was told to pack a carry-on bag, and within 24 hours the couple arrived at Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. True to his optimistic nature, Morris puts a positive spin on the conversation he had with his doctor before surgery.

    “(He said) ‘Don't forget, I'm in your brain,’” Morris recalls. “‘You know, I'm taking the tumor out, but anything could happen.’ It could be paralysis. It could be this. It could be death. And I was blinking like uncontrollably. And he said, ‘Are you OK?’ And I say, ‘Yep, I'm fine. I'm just practicing waking up. That's what I want to do.’”

    Morris admits he was terrified. He remembers kissing his wife and wondering what was going to happen next.

    “Like, do you wake up?” he says. “I was so pleased when I woke up. I can't remember who my nurse was, but I told her I loved her. She was like, ‘Oh my God, that's kind of forward.’”

    Morris had cleared one hurdle, but on Dec. 23, 2019, two days after the surgery, he was told his brain cancer was terminal and had metastasized to his stomach and esophagus.

    Fast-forward to today, with Morris about to play in the Butterfield Bermuda Championship on a sponsor’s exemption – the invitation brought him to tears when he received it – and you can see why he believes he’ll be playing with a purpose. Not just this week but going forward.

    After all, it’s been two years since doctors told him to get his affairs in order. He and Laurie talk about this week and the gift of whatever time he has remaining when they feel stressed.

    “I'm wondering like maybe I have this to help others,” Morris says. “Maybe that's the plan, you know? … Maybe I got it to show other people that, hey, you can fight this, man. You could battle it because I could've laid down. I could've settled my affairs and just accepted that, hey, I'm going to die in six months. I believe my doctors 100 percent, but I don't believe that.

    “And here I am,” he continues. “Every day I get up, I'm so thankful. I get my breath and I just don't plan long-term. I plan my life in like three-month increments.”

    Morris stayed in the hospital for four days and, not cleared to travel, Boston for two weeks. He missed Christmas with his family. “Christmas is huge for us,” he says. But he was surprised on New Year’s Eve when nine relatives and friends knocked on his door. “They showed up with all the kids and whatnot,” he recalls. “… And we spent New Year’s Eve in Boston. I cried again.”

    For nearly two years, he has undergone chemotherapy every three weeks – his next treatment will be on Monday. The first course of chemo didn’t work, nor did the immunotherapy that was meant to direct his cells to fight the cancer. He’s currently receiving an experimental drug that he calls his “last shot” and will find out at Dana-Farber in December if it’s working.

    The drugs invading his system leave boil-like lesions on his legs. Even more challenging for the golfer is the neuropathy he’d developed in his hands and feet. It’s a constant feeling of pain, like he’s being stuck with pins and needles, and it limits his ability to walk long distances.

    The neuropathy and the cancer have taken a toll, and tournament officials will allow Morris to ride in a cart this week. But make no mistake, he can play. Morris attempted to qualify for this year’s U.S. Senior Open and tied for 12th in a New England PGA event last month.

    “When I go to the airport, I have a hard time standing up for a half an hour,” he says. “But I could play golf for four hours and I swear it's because of where I am when I'm playing. I'm just thinking of how you make this shot and that shot. You know what I mean? So, I don't realize I'm tired until I play 18. And then I'm like pooped and I come home and take a nap.”

    Morris, who has given lessons to celebrities like the late Patrick Swayze, Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglas, played cricket, soccer and golf as a kid. He proved a quick learner in all three, but particularly enjoyed going with his dad to the golf course on Sundays.

    “I used to love the way they dressed back in the day in like green pants and red pants and diamond studders and pom-poms on the hat,” says Morris, who especially revered Fred Couples. “And I was always waiting to be able to play with them.”

    He got that opportunity when he was 12 and soon began thinking about becoming a pro. But his father died in an accident when he was 19, and Morris was so distraught he quit the game.

    “I went to one of the cliffs here in Bermuda and I threw all my golf clubs and all my shoes and everything off the cliff,” he says. “I was disgusted with golf because it didn't mean anything to me without my dad. I never wanted to play again.”

    Morris’ mom died of cancer later that year, adding to his despair. He worked as a bartender to help support his siblings and didn’t play golf again for nearly a decade.

    “One day somebody invited me to go play golf and I didn't want to go, but I did,” he says. “I made triple on the first hole. I'll never forget it. And then the second hole, I missed the green and I was like, ‘This game sucks, I told you guys.’ And I chipped it in (for birdie).”

    After enrolling in the now-closed Golf Academy of the South in Orlando, Florida, he honed his game and learned to teach. He also learned to repair clubs and manage a pro shop. He graduated with honors in 2003 and has been the head pro at two clubs in Bermuda.

    “I got sidetracked,” he admits. “I don't like to use the word regret. You know what I mean? I made a fair decision that day, throwing all my golf clubs away. I wish I would have stayed. But it happens. I was young. I was only a teenager and life just changed so fast for me.

    “But I got through that and 10 years I was out of golf. I was probably better for it because maybe had I got into that business then it probably wouldn't have worked out. Maybe I just needed time to mature and whatnot. And like I said, it's been 25 years now. I love it.”

    Far from obsessed with his own problems, Morris has raised more than $200,000 to help the families of other cancer patients pay their hospital bills. How? By three times playing 180 holes in a 24-hour marathon, a sprint that lets him briefly forget that he himself has terminal cancer.

    “You have so much alone time,” he says, “and you don't realize it when you're driving, when you're brushing your teeth, using the bathroom, getting in the shower – you have so much alone time and you're so scared, man, because you know, like, you've got a wife, you've got kids. You're always worried about leaving them.

    “And so, you think about it every day,” he continues. “When they tell you that you’re dying, you think about dying every day, you know? Not the bad things really, it's just the thought of like leaving your family, leaving the people at your job, and leaving your kids. So yeah, you think about it, but when I play golf, I don't have time to, because I don't want to miss a six-footer.”

    Morris says he’s had more good days than bad of late, and he thinks the adrenaline and excitement of this week will help keep him strong. His only goal is to shoot the lowest score he can at Port Royal on Thursday and make Bermudians proud. When tournament director Justin Belanger extended the exemption to Morris two weeks ago, he told local newspapers that the week would be about “more than golf; it’s about this community. …

    “It will be great to see the island join us in supporting his dream and cheering him on.”

    Morris embraces that opportunity. He’s looking forward to having Laurie and three of his four kids – his daughter will be watching on TV at her home in England – as well as aunts, uncles and friends in his gallery.

    “It makes a difference to me how I play,” he says. “But to them, it doesn't matter. They just want to see me because they know what I'm going through. As far as being proud of me, all those boxes are checked. I just want them to enjoy the moment like I do.

    “We have a lot to be thankful for outside of the bad things. There's so much to life without dwelling on the bad stuff, you know?”

    Morris says it’s hard to overestimate the impact this week has had on his mental well-being, as well as his overall health. He says he plans to “experience it like nobody else,” and “eat it up, man” – but not just for himself. The week is also for the entire island, and all cancer survivors.

    “I'm going to enjoy people cheering for me,” he says. “I'm going to enjoy people writing about me. And I just hope that (this) story and whatnot gets out there to people that have cancer or have a sickness that think that it's all doom and gloom, because it's not.

    “I believe that a positive attitude and a positive outlook is probably better than any miracle drug,” he adds. “And if you could look at somebody and maybe draw some inspiration from them to get you motivated, then I've done my job and I don't believe in just touching one person. I want to touch as many as I can.”

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