Keaton Cleland, a young man of 16, loves everything about golf.
As a freshman at Oxford High School in Michigan a year ago, Cleland was the MVP of the varsity golf team. He carries a 6.2 handicap and his best 18-hole score is a 77.
Cleland’s favorite golfer is 2015 Masters and U.S. Open Champion Jordan Spieth. According to Doug Cleland, Keaton’s dad, his son is a, “Spieth wannabe. He dresses like him and wants to be like him. Spieth is Keaton’s idol.”
Keaton was stoked when he not only attended the final two rounds of the 2017 Masters, but also got a high-five from his idol when Spieth was exiting the driving range.
“Keaton actually pulled off one of his new Under Armour Spieth golf shoes and asked Jordan to sign it,” Doug said. “But since he was about to start his round, Spieth said he couldn’t sign and gave Keaton a high-five instead. The look on Keaton’s face was pure joy. It looked like he would not be washing his hand for a while.”
“It was awesome,” Keaton said. “I definitely wanted the autograph, but to be that close, get the high-five and watch him for two days at the most incredible golf course in the world is something I’ll never forget.”
And that, folks, was the entire point of the trip – to be one that Keaton would never forget.
Masters tickets, if you hadn’t heard, are among the toughest to obtain in sports, right up there with the Super Bowl. Yet, four of the five Clelands, minus daughter Grace who was away at school, were there, including a living, breathing Keaton.
“Living and breathing” being the miraculous words.
Keaton, was born with a heart defect called “Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome” or “HLHS.” The defect means that the left side of the heart, which receives oxygen-rich blood from your lungs and pumps blood through your arteries to the rest of your body, never fully develops. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that only 1 out of every 4,344 babies born in the U.S. each year will be burdened with the tragic diagnosis.
Up until a few decades ago, 90 percent of these HLHS babies died within a few days of birth.
“Now, through three surgeries within the first three years of life, there’s a 90 percent chance these babies can function and live something close to normal, considering their condition,” said Dr. Carly Fifer, Keaton’s pediatric cardiologist since birth from C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan.
Despite the surgeries, the hearts are never completely fixed. Kids with HLHS can live a normal life, but, a different kind of “normal” than most kids. Keaton takes heart medications and is not allowed to play contact sports.
“The longest lifespan for people with HLHS has been 30 years,” Fifer said. “Most live their lives and don’t need to think about it every day; however, if Keaton gets sick, he needs to watch his health much more closely. We always hope that as time goes on, more patients will live beyond the 30-year mark. Surviving beyond 30 with HLHS is uncharted territory.”
Right before mom Jessica’s routine 19-week ultrasound for their third child, Doug was ecstatic. The former All-American swimmer who loves his two daughters was hoping fate would bring him a son.
“When we found out it was a boy, I was over the moon,” Doug said. “But that lasted for only a few minutes.”
That's because the Clelands found out about their unborn child’s heart issue and everything changed.
Doug could read the concern on Jessica’s face as the nurse said she was going to bring a doctor in to have a look.
“Jessica could tell something was up,” he said.
The doctor told the Clelands, “We don’t want you to be alarmed, but we’re going to choreograph another ultrasound.”
“I sensed something was wrong,” Jessica said. “Shortly after the ultrasound, we were informed by the doctor that there was evidence of Keaton's heart not developing normally. At the time, the news was upsetting, but we didn’t yet know the degree of severity of this specific congenital heart condition, only that we were in for an uncertain experience.”
When you’re a parent, the last words you want to hear a doctor say about your child is, “Don’t be concerned, but…”
For Doug, “the lights went out.”
Doug and Jessica went back to their home in Metamora, Mich., about 40 miles from Detroit, and, Doug said, did precisely what the doctor advised them not to do: They began Googling.
The news of any defect was not easy for Doug to accept.
“When we found out, I’ll be honest, it’s something I really struggled with,” Doug said. “I didn’t know if I could handle it. For a while there, I told my wife, ‘whatever you want to do, we’ll do.’”
The family was given three options: 1. Medically terminate the pregnancy before 24 weeks; 2. Choose compassionate care for 3-12 days after the baby was brought to term, and delivered - and prepare to say goodbye; or 3. Try the three open-heart surgeries.
“As a mother you want to protect your baby at all costs, and unfortunately in all three situations I was powerless in that department,” Jessica said. “Knowing this, I surrendered to the idea that there’s a plan for each and everyone of us, and this was part of mine and part of Keaton’s.”
“We’re not churchgoers, but we’ve always had a strong faith,” Doug said. “That basically meant that ‘option 1’ was never going to be an option for us. I worried about what this three-surgery commitment could mean for our two girls, Emily and Grace, but I decided I had to pony up and be a man’s man. I stayed up one night and wrote a 20-page letter to my wife; how I felt about everything. We read it together and we cried. Ever since then, we’ve been stronger together in our journey. Jessica, however, has always been much stronger than me with this.”
When most parents are overjoyed to take their newborn home, the Clelands – with Keaton just 5 days old – were sending their baby boy in for open-heart surgery with Dr. Edward Bove. It was the first of three such surgeries Keaton would have between 5 days and 18 ½ months old.
The first two surgeries – Norwood procedure and Hemi Fontan procedure – were textbook. Keaton was back home inside a month after both. But the third – Fontan procedure – had complications.
“He went back to the ICU and spent 15 weeks in the hospital,” Doug said. “We almost lost him a couple of times. That’s when I truly learned about the power of prayer. We had prayers from care pages, the Vatican, friends and family. I literally saw the power of prayer work for my son. It was shortly after prayers from Vatican, believe it or not, that he started to get better.”
Sixteen years later, Keaton is thriving. For Doug, there’s no denying that Keaton is above and beyond all the expectations he ever had for the son he dreamed of having one day.
“Keaton and I are very tight,” he said. “We hunt and fish together, golf together. He’s a very, very good young man. He may physically have half a heart, but when you meet him and see his personality, it’s like he has two hearts. I don’t know anyone like him. So gregarious. We’re so lucky to have him. Keaton has been a focal point in the whole family’s life. We’re truly blessed.”
Now let’s get back to that epic trip to Augusta National Golf Club, where a previously 0-for-73 in the majors Sergio Garcia collected his green jacket after defeating Justin Rose on the first hole of sudden-death playoff, and why the Clelands were there.
A couple years ago, Doug was watching TV when he saw a “Make-A-Wish” feature he’d seen at least 5 times on ESPN. In this segment, the foundation granted sports-related wishes for children. He thought, “Why couldn’t Keaton have a wish?” So Doug went to the ESPN website, found a link to the Make-A-Wish Foundation and sent a sincere email explaining Keaton’s situation. After hitting “send,” Doug didn’t think much about the request until two months later when he received a call from the Make-A-Wish Grand Rapids office.
They wanted to pay the Clelands a visit.
“I talked to Erica Hunt, a Wish Coordinator, who was interested in the story,” Doug said. “They had people come visit us for an interview. Originally, Keaton’s wish was to play a practice round with Spieth. It coincided with Jordan’s world travel on the heels of the 2015 Masters win. Timing was going to be very difficult, if not impossible.”
However, there were a few other golf-related options and Doug had an idea. Keaton’s spring break was during the week of the 2017 Masters. Would it be possible, he wondered, to head to Augusta National? Calls were made, details were discussed, and on Friday, April 7, a limousine arrived at the Cleland residence early in the morning to take the family to the airport.
The Make-A-Wish Foundation arranged for the Clelands to have two badges for Saturday and two for Sunday, along with a rental car, accommodations less than five miles from the course, and $1,500 for expenses.
“It really is such a blessing to be able to give back to these kids and have the opportunity to fulfill their dreams,” said Christy Schulte, Communications and PR Manager for Make-A-Wish Michigan. “They're going through so much with whatever their situation is. When children find out they're having a wish granted, it's almost as life changing as the wish itself. The kids count down the days. Finally, they are told that they can do something instead of the usual ‘can’t.’ We've seen such a positive impact on a child’s outlook. They journey from anticipation to the actual wish. I’ve been on quite a few wishes. The joy on the child's face and the families -- you just can't beat it. Huge smiles. It's an honor to be on the ‘Wish Experience.’”
The Clelands had another stroke of good fortune on Masters Sunday afternoon. Hanging out just outside the gates, Doug met a couple leaving the course. He told them about the family’s journey to Augusta and how they were there for Keaton’s wish. The couple, along with friends, gave two badges to the Clelands so they could enjoy the remainder of the final round, all four of them, together.
“It was incredible,” Doug said. “None of us could keep up with Keaton. He bumped around with Spieth most of Saturday, until Spieth splashed it at No. 12 on Sunday. But we were all within a few yards of one another behind the 18th green late in the day with all of the suspense watching Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose. What an amazing finish. It was a dream come true for all of us.”
For Keaton, who says he got hooked on golf at age 10 both from playing with Doug and from watching on TV, it’s all downhill from here when it comes to attending other golf tournaments. This one, with the fairytale finish on arguably the best course in the world, was his very first time at a live tournament.
“Yep,” Keaton said. “That was my first tournament. It was so exciting. I was pumped when I found out we’d be going and I’m thankful for the opportunity. I guess all I can really say is, I’m speechless.”
Throughout his trek, Keaton discovered a couple of favorite spots.
“First of all, the TV does it no justice,” he said. “The course is incredible with all those undulations. It was crazy. My favorite spots were just to the right of the 13th fairway by the pine straw and then to the right side of 15 in sort of that lay-up zone. You could see a bunch from there.”
And the best shot he witnessed?
“Phil Mickelson on hole 14,” he said. “I was like two feet from him. He was in the woods with about 5-6 trees in front of him and hit a ridiculous shot onto the green. I also was right behind Jordan on 13 when he hit a shot onto the green with a tree right in front of him to about 20 feet for eagle.”
Doug said that as special as it was to attend the Masters with Keaton, it was also like living a dream for his late father, who died a decade ago after a 13-month battle with brain cancer.
“My dad exposed me to golf,” Doug said. “We were very close and golf had created a special bond, like I now have with my own son. So there was certainly some reflecting about my own father going on when we were at the Masters. I was 37 years old when we found out about our not-yet-born son’s defect. When you go through that, you get your priorities straight and you put things into perspective. Keaton has been a focal point in the whole family’s life. We’re truly blessed.”
As a high school sophomore, Keaton is doing great. His father is hopeful that they’ll make it to another Masters together one day, too.
“He’s doing awesome,” Doug said. “He’s a poster child for the hand he was dealt. I never thought too much about it, but he does have challenges. He takes heart medication; he can’t play contact sports so he had to quit baseball. My takeaway to pay it forward is to let parents know that if you sincerely ask for help, there can be happy endings and a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”
For Jessica, the lasting impression of the unforgettable trip to Augusta National Golf Club is this: Seeing her only son so happy.
“I’m very grateful to foundations like Make-A-Wish for granting opportunities like the one Keaton received for kids who have had to deal with adversity,” Jessica said. “It was so good to see Keaton in all his glory. Following around some of his golf idols and setting foot on the course where dreams are made was a big thrill for him and it has motivated him to continue working toward his own golf and life goals. I’m always happy when Keaton is happy, and this experience, without question, raised all of our spirits.”