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Chip Sullivan (left) and Kevin Burton have overcome much to get to Tulsa. (Photo: The PGA of America)
Chip Sullivan (left) and Kevin Burton have overcome much to get to Tulsa. (Photo: The PGA of America)

Ailments can't stop PGA Professionals Sullivan, Burton

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Chip Sullivan and Kevin Burton, two of the 20 PGA Professionals participating in the 89th PGA Championship at Southern Hills, are living proof that spirit, determination and medical science can not only save one's golf game, but can also save one's life. Together they are perseverance personified.

By Ron Green Jr., Special to PGA.com

If golf were as cruel and heartless as it often pretends to be, Chip Sullivan and Kevin Burton would not have played their way into the 89th PGA Championship at Southern Hills Country Club. But beyond the technical expertise the game commands, it also saves room for spirit and determination. Sullivan and Burton serve as living proof.

Despite the discovery earlier this year of two life-complicating medical conditions, Sullivan won the PGA Professional National Championship in late June, and a berth in the 2007 PGA Championship. Burton, who has battled his own physical problems, also is among the 20 PGA Professionals to earn a precious spot in the PGA Championship.

"The game brings out the passion," says Burton, the men's golf coach at Boise State University.

"Passion has always been the driving force for me in golf. You want to get the ball in the hole and have fun doing it. That's lost on a lot of people. You want to find that passion and fall in love with it."

The stories of Sullivan and Burton are just two of the personal tales that emerged from this year's PGA Professional National Championship at Sunriver (Ore.) Resort.

Butch Sheehan, the 57-year-old brother of LPGA great Patty Sheehan, qualified for his first major championship; Don Yrene of Scottsdale, Ariz., will get the chance to duplicate his success in the 2006 PGA Championship, when he was the low PGA Professional; and Brad Lardon of Bryan, Texas, made the jump from PGA assistant professional to PGA director of golf at Escondido in Horseshoe Bay, Texas, while keeping his game sharp enough to qualify to play against the best in the world here in Oklahoma.

It would be easy to say Sullivan's story ended with him holding the Walter Hagen Cup following the PGA Professional National Championship. But Sullivan, PGA head professional at Ashley Plantation in Daleville, Va., prefers to see it as another step in a continuing process.

"I like to think big," says Sullivan, who dreams of returning to the PGA Tour, where he played with little success in 1997.

Last Christmas, Sullivan wasn't feeling well and eventually decided to see his doctor. Blood tests revealed that Sullivan was suffering from two serious but manageable conditions -- diabetes and hemochromatosis, causing acute iron levels that can potentially poison organs and lead to death.

"I had no warning," Sullivan says. "You find out this is something you have to live with for the rest of your life."

Three years ago, Sullivan's sister, Kerry, died from hemochromatosis, so he understood the gravity of the situation when the doctor told him.

To lower his iron levels, Sullivan had more than 25 pints of blood removed from his body over a three-month period. Twice a week, he'd have a pint removed and it left him fatigued.

With three young children, Sullivan focused on getting healthy again. The treatments worked as anticipated and now he has one pint of blood removed every two to three months.

Then there is the issue of diabetes. Sullivan is 100-percent insulin dependent and gives himself as many as six shots a day to keep his blood sugar at the proper level.

Sullivan didn't touch a golf club for three months while concentrating on his treatments. He was coming off a 2006 season in which he won 11 events in the Middle Atlantic PGA Section.

He missed the cut in two Nationwide Tour events prior to the PGA Professional National Championship, but his game showed signs of coming back in a couple of nine-hole rounds with members before he went to Oregon.

Now Sullivan thinks about all the places golf might take him. His $75,000 first-prize check was nearly double what he won in his only PGA Tour season, and it came with the opportunity to play in six PGA Tour events beyond the PGA Championship.

"Winning won't sink in for probably 12 months," Sullivan says. "Who knows what can happen out there on the PGA Tour? If I can catch fire out there ..."

For Burton, 44, advancing to Southern Hills is a triumph of will.

He had known for a time that he had two bulging discs that were causing him to lose the feeling in his arms. But a subsequent exam seven years ago revealed that Burton, in fact, had three bulging discs.

Surgery can fix the problem but, as a golfer, Burton has resisted the approach, choosing to deal with his condition.

Burton says he has hardly any feeling in his arms now because of the disc problems, but he has managed to continue playing by relying on technique and mental discipline.

He switched to the belly putter because he had lost feeling with a short putter. The longer putter "seems to work a little bit better and get the job done," he says.

Pitch shots don't bother Burton but long-iron shots are difficult because he can't feel whether he's squared the clubface. Hitting drivers has always come easy to him and that hasn't changed.

"Most of my feeling is in my brain and my visualization," explains Burton.

As the Boise State coach, Burton plays regularly with his team and has worked to keep himself in good physical condition despite the disc problems. He said he is invigorated by the time with his players.

"At my age, every tournament you play means more," says Burton. "To accomplish what I wanted and beat younger players in the process (at the National Championship), it means so much to me."

Ron Green Jr. is the golf writer for the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer. This story appears courtesy of the 89th PGA Championship Journal.

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