BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Midway through his first stroke-play qualifying round on Saturday on the East Course of the Country Club of Birmingham, Christopher McConnell was feeling dizzy. The combination of temperatures in the mid-80s and humidity levels around50 percent was taking its toll.
“It was exhausting,” said the 40-year-old McConnell after shooting an 11-over 81, which included birdies on two of his last three holes. “There was an eight-hole stretch where I was fumbling around. I was in a daze. I was getting dehydrated.”
Two years ago, playing in the 2013 U.S. Mid-Amateur would have been a pipedream for McConnell. On a rural highway in northern Idaho, McConnell was driving home from work at the Lower Granite Dam and Fishery when, suddenly, his car rolled over.
To this day, McConnell doesn’t know what caused the accident. His first recollection of anything occurred two weeks later while in the hospital recovering from a series of injuries. He lost his spleen, fractured 17 bones and suffered a severe concussion. He spent a month in the hospital, another month in assisted living and he couldn’t walk for six months. Twenty screws and two plates were inserted in his left leg.
McConnell was even forced to move back to Lewistown, Mont., because he could no longer do the field work required as a fish biologist. He was in charge of tracking and monitoring adult steelhead and chinook salmon.
Doctors certainly didn’t give him much hope of returning to any physical activities, including his other hobbies of skiing, white-water rafting and backpacking.
“I thought there was no chance,” said McConnell of returning to golf after the accident. “I thought I was done. I thought I was going to lose everything.”
After 16 months of rehabilitation and nearly two years away from the game, McConnell returned to the golf course earlier this summer. His first walking round came at his U.S. Mid-Amateur qualifier in Cody, Wyo., on Aug. 26, where he shot a 1-under 71 at Olive Glenn Golf & Country Club to garner the lone spot.
Standing on the first tee on Saturday, McConnell felt a little like Ben Hogan. Hogan recovered from a horrific auto accident in 1949 to win the 1950 U.S. Open.
“This is the thrill of my life, especially with all that’s happened,” said McConnell. “[The 81] doesn’t dampen my spirits. I knew it was going to be difficult from the get-go. This is just the experience of a lifetime. Of course I didn’t play the way I wanted and I don’t feel too good right now. Just the facilities, the hospitality, the place, the USGA … it’s just phenomenal.”
Since qualifying, McConnell has received tremendous support from family and friends. Some 25 individuals pooled their resources to help pay his expenses to compete. He’s also been working in a local golf shop.
“People I’ve known throughout golf have stepped forward and helped,” said McConnell, who is competing in his first USGA championship since the 1991 U.S. Junior Amateur at Bay Hill in Orlando, Fla.
Before the accident, McConnell was one of the top amateurs in Montana. He won the 2006 and 2007 Montana Mid-Amateur. Earlier this summer, through the use of a cart, he was the runner-up in the Montana Amateur and Montana Mid-Amateur.
As for his future, McConnell isn’t sure what lies ahead. To become a resident biologist, he would need to return to school and earn a master’s degree. He’s thought about doing some golf writing as well.
“I’m thinking there’s some avenue,” he said. “I’d like to start with some magazine articles, writing about golf in Montana.”
Considering what’s transpired in the last two years, McConnell certainly wouldn’t be at loss for words.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.