MY VERO: Mardy Fish switches from tennis to golf

Before we get into my latest telephone chat with Mardy Fish and why his future probably will have more to do with golf than tennis, I need to recall a different conversation I had with him 18 months ago on the golf course at the Windsor Club during his foundation fundraiser.

It was there, while waiting for each foursome to arrive so he could join the local donors in hitting their tee shots on the par-3 12th hole, that Fish revealed to me the real reason he had walked out on his U.S. Open Round-of-16 showdown against Roger Federer two months earlier.

He did so, however, only after I had promised not to print what he told me. And though we had spoken several times since, it wasn’t until I called him last week – to discuss his recent attempt to qualify for golf’s version of the U.S. Open – that he finally released me from my confidentiality pledge.

“I appreciate what you did,” said Fish, who grew up in Vero Beach and whose father, Tom, is the tennis director at Windsor. “It was just something I wasn’t comfortable with coming out with, publicly. I wasn’t ready to talk about it back then.”

For those who don’t know: After embracing a late-career commitment to fitness and diet, Fish dropped 30 pounds and played the best tennis of his life, climbing as high as No. 7 in the ATP World Tour rankings in 2011. But in early 2012, he began experiencing severe cardiac arrhythmia, which produced frightening palpitations and pounding in his chest.

In May of that year, he underwent a procedure to correct faulty electrical connections in his heart. The problem was fixed. His heart was fine and he was free to resume his tennis career.

But he didn’t. He couldn’t.

The terrifying episodes, which he said occurred mostly when he was asleep at night and made him feel “as if my heart was going to explode in my chest,” left a scar on his psyche.

And, until now, the extent of that mental scar was known only to his wife, parents and closest friends. They, too, kept his secret.

Fish did occasionally hint at the problem in other interviews, using words like “demons” and “panic” and “anxiety,” but he was cautious about providing details. The closest he came to fully divulging the diagnosis was at last summer’s Western & Southern Open in Mason, Ohio – one of a handful of stops in a disjointed comeback that remains in limbo and leans hard toward retirement.

In a post-match press conference there, Fish revealed that, following his stunning, Labor Day withdrawal from the 2012 U.S. Open, he spent nearly three consecutive months inside his Los Angeles home.

“I think I went in the backyard maybe a couple of times,” he told reporters.

He also said, “There’s a lot of things that I’m working on … speaking with psychologists and things like that on a week-to-week basis.”

Then he said this: “I can’t ever forget what I went through.”

Now, though, he has reached a point where he can talk about it – and when we spoke last week, he did.

“A severe anxiety disorder has been the culprit,” Fish said. “It’s an illness I fight every day. It’s something I have to deal with every day, and I do. I see professionals every week. I work on it every day.

“That’s the reason I couldn’t go back to tennis.”

Yet he can play golf?

Competitively?

“It doesn’t bother me when I play golf,” Fish explained. “It’s like PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder, like you see with soldiers who come back from war – except that my anxiety is associated with me playing tennis.

“That’s what triggers it,” he added. “Being on the tennis court, traveling by myself, being by myself in hotel rooms at night … That was my life when the attacks occurred.”

So now, at age 32, he’s trying to build a new life, or at least a new career, in a new sport.

Last fall, Fish competed in two tournaments on the All-American Gateway Tour – a developmental circuit for up-and-coming pros hoping to someday play on the PGA Tour – in Arizona. He failed to make the cut in either event, shooting 78-75 in both, but he was encouraged by his performance.

Earlier this spring, he picked up his first paycheck as a professional golfer, finishing in a tie for fifth in the La Quinta Dunes Shootout, a Golden State Tour event in California.

Then, earlier this month, Fish entered the U.S. Open local qualifying tournament at TPC Valencia (outside L.A.) and, after shooting a 1-over-par 73, birdied the first hole of a five-man playoff to claim the first alternate spot.

“There were 95 guys playing for five spots, and I finished sixth,” said Fish, who, as a tennis player, was considered one of the world’s best golfers among athletes from other sports. “That means if one of the five guys who qualified pulls out, I get in.

“It’s probably a long shot, because I doubt anyone is going to pull out, but you never know.”

Advancing to the sectional qualifying round would bring Fish back to Vero Beach: Before playing the local qualifier, he designated the Quail Valley Golf Club as his sectional site. Play is scheduled to begin there June 2.

Even if Fish doesn’t get into the sectional qualifier – he’s trying to join Ellsworth Vines and Frank Conner and the only men to play in the U.S. Open in both golf and tennis – he said he’s fully committed to his second career and eager to see how far he can take his game.

In fact, he said his pursuit of a professional golf career has “saved his life,” getting him out of the house and giving him another opportunity to compete.

“I’ve been playing tennis tournaments since I was 6 years old, so I’ve had a long, long career,” Fish said. “I’ve always had that kind of competition in my life. Doing this gives me something else that I love to do and, at the same time, feeds my competitive juices.

“So I’m putting in the time and the work, trying to figure out if this is can be something I can be successful at.”

Fish, a right-handed tennis player and left-handed golfer, said he’s counting on his attributes on the court – physical fitness, athleticism, competitive fire and experience in performing in pressure situations – to help him on the course.

But he understands the games are very different.

“I already possess a lot of the intangibles, but the one thing I don’t have in golf is experience,” Fish said. “I’m so far behind in that regard. In tennis, it’s a one-on-one deal, so even if you’re not having a great day, all you have to do is figure out how to beat that one opponent. In golf, you’re not only playing against the rest of the field, you’re playing against the course and you’re playing against yourself.”

He continued: “Even before I started this, I had a low, single-digit handicap, but I didn’t really know what I was doing. How to score, how to get the ball in the hole when you’re not playing well, knowing what shots to hit when – tournament golf is a different animal.

“It’s been a lot of fun getting to know a different game,” he added. “Who knows how good I can get at it? I’ve got the work ethic, the mental toughness and the will to try. That said, I might not have the skill set. We’ll find out.”

Does that mean Fish is done with tennis? That his stalled comeback has actually ended? That he has quietly retired from the game that made him a somebody in sports?

Maybe. Probably. It’s hard to tell, though he does offer hints that he won’t be rejoining the men’s tennis tour any time soon.

“The way my career has stopped, and probably ended, is not the way athletes want to go out,” Fish said. “I had a great career, and tennis has given me a lot of great things in my life. I miss the game and the competition, especially when the big tournaments come around. A big part of me wants to go out on my terms.

“My career was taken away from me when I was at the top of my game, and there wasn’t anything I could do about it,” he added. “That’s a tough pill to swallow. But I can’t go back right now.”

Instead, he’s going forward.

The demons are still there. He might never forget the nights he was awakened by his fluttering heart, the pounding in his chest, the fear that he would die. But he’s fighting it, every day of his life.

He’s working hard to move past the nightmares that cruelly took him off the courts. He’s trying hard to keep his mind on the course, where he again is chasing a dream. Golf is as much a therapy as it is a challenge.

“In a perfect world, I’d love to play tennis and golf at the same time,” Fish said. “But I’m going to stick with golf for now and see where it takes me.”

Let’s hope it takes him to a better place.

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