Jeff Overton makes emotional return at 3M Open
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Written by Kevin Prise @PGATOURKevin
Overton off the course
BLAINE, Minn. – Jeff Overton lives with a certain resolve. Not even a life-threatening infection could break it.
In early 2017, the former Ryder Cupper was lying in a hospital bed in his living room. A nurse provided in-home care. Mobilizing for a trip to the bathroom proved difficult. A few steps in a walker meant a good day.
Overton, known on the PGA TOUR for his ‘Boom baby!’ expression and full-speed practice swings, had developed an epidural abscess after an injection for a herniated disc in his back. The infection, which forms in the space between the skull bones and the brain lining, meant an uncertain future.
Mere months removed from day-to-day life as a touring pro, he had accepted a new challenge.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” Overton said, “going from living the dream to fighting for your life. But here I am, five-and-a-half-years later, after doing a whole lot of rehab and seeing a lot of great people. You never give up.”
Thursday morning, Overton made his first TOUR-sanctioned start since February 2017, playing on a sponsor exemption at the 3M Open. He shed a tear upon hearing his name called on the opening tee. He felt a tinge of satisfaction upon seeing his name on the leaderboard after a birdie on his second hole, the par-4 11th at TPC Twin Cities. He carded 6-over 77, but was still upbeat upon signing his scorecard and meeting the media for approximately 15 minutes post-round.
“You’re struggling for your life, and you’re just wanting to get through to where you’re somewhat OK,” Overton said. “Then after a year or two goes by, you’re just like, ‘I may never get to do my dream again.’ That was hard. You’re seeing different doctors, like, ‘Am I going to make a full recovery?’”
Slowly but surely, Overton fought his way back. The Indiana native who came so close to a TOUR title – 32 top-10s in 293 career starts, including four runner-up finishes – was known for wearing his heart on his sleeve, and he channeled all that energy into an unlikely comeback.
“He’s definitely fiery,” said Overton’s 2010 Ryder Cup teammate Rickie Fowler, “and that’s just how he operates. Everyone’s different, and it always seems he’s a bit on edge and fiery. That’s how he rolls. That’s how he needs to be, and that’s who he is.”
Overton’s odyssey began at the 2016 RBC Canadian Open, where he injured a disc in his back. He took a few months off before resetting into the 2017 Korn Ferry Tour season (he had finished No. 160 in the 2015-16 FedExCup standings). He played in The Bahamas Great Abaco Classic at The Abaco Club, finishing T21, then played The Honda Classic in February (MC) before having an injection a few days later. The injection went wrong, though, and the abscess required emergency surgery, a month in the hospital and acute rehab center, two months of IV antibiotics and home health care.
“They were telling me to get up, and it was hard,” Overton said. “I couldn’t really roll out of bed to pee or any of that for a couple weeks. I was able to get in a walker and do a couple minutes a day, maybe, here and there.”
Overton had made nine consecutive trips to the FedExCup Playoffs between 2007 and 2015. Now he questioned whether he would play another round of golf. He slowly regained his health and, after two years or so, attempted a return to golf. He’d play nine holes here and there, but reasons for optimism were sparse.
“It wasn’t anywhere close to being competitive,” Overton said, “or feeling decent at all.”
So the Indiana Hoosier regrouped. He reached out to Dr. Stuart McGill, a renowned professor of spine biomechanics, and developed a plan to “shut down for a year” and stabilize the area of his back that caused excruciating pain while bending over. He worked with trainer Shane Rye on building flexibility and endurance as it related to re-establishing his golf game.
“Go 6-irons, drivers, and then a couple weeks later, try to play nine holes, six holes, see how much it wears you out and slowly build up,” Overton said. “I had a lesson with Craig Harmon and he showed me a Jimmy Ballard-style move with Rocco Mediate … standing a little taller, hitting a little closer to it, really making sure you’re moving through the ball and don’t let any of that hang-back ever happen.”
The progression wasn’t always linear, but the drive remained consistent. Earlier this year, Fowler ran into Overton at The Grove XXIII in south Florida and was struck by his 2010 Ryder Cup teammate’s determination to make a return.
“At that point, he was struggling just to get out and play nine holes every once in a while,” Fowler said. “It’s been a really long road; I know there are plenty of years in there where he wasn’t even able to play at all, let alone stand up and walk.
“When I saw his name on the list (at the 3M Open), I was excited for him, and hopefully the start of him being able to come back and play a bit more regularly.”
Six months ago, Overton began the ramp-up process to regaining TOUR-caliber form. He transitioned from a draw to a fade off the tee – “I feel like I hit it fairly straight and can still have a fairly complete game.” Six or eight weeks ago, he played Victoria National in his hometown of Evansville, Indiana – one of three Korn Ferry Tour Finals stops, in which he plans to compete next month in hopes of regaining TOUR status.
For four consecutive days, he walked 18 holes from the back tees at Valhalla and kept it around par. He had built up the strength to practice putting for more than five or 10 minutes at a time, too.
“I was like, ‘You know what, I’ll probably pick up a few yards when I get in competition,’” Overton said, “I think it’s maybe time to try to start playing.”
He made his competitive return at the John Deere Classic’s Monday qualifier earlier this month, carding 1-over and failing to qualify. Still, he remained determined to move ahead, which meant a competitive return at this week’s Korn Ferry Tour event, the Price Cutter Charity Championship presented by Dr Pepper. He was at the airport for a flight from Florida to Springfield, Missouri, when he received a call that he had received a sponsor exemption into the 3M Open. George McNeill had gained entry on his number, opening a spot that went to Overton.
Overton’s wife Christina and two daughters, Paulina (3) and Valentina (9 months), accompanied him on the trip to Minnesota, and they came out to say hello at the turn.
“When we had (Paulina) three years ago, I remember having an interview and (saying) … ‘I don’t know if my daughter will ever really see me play out here,’” Overton said. “That in itself, having her there for that one little moment waving at you … I’m excited to be back out here. It’s fun to compete again.”
The fire remains. Overton grinded to the last putt Thursday, draining a 19-footer for par on his final hole.
“When you have an injury, when you fight your butt off to try to come back, it takes five years, and you still want to keep playing, it just shows how much it means to be out here playing,” said Stewart Cink, another 2010 Ryder Cup teammate. “It’s really amazing to see Jeff overcoming what he’s overcome to get back out here and compete.”
Kevin Prise is an associate editor for PGATOUR.COM. He is on a lifelong quest to break 80 on a course that exceeds 6,000 yards and to see the Buffalo Bills win a Super Bowl. Follow Kevin Prise on Twitter.