Unless you are the Rain Man of golf trivia, you've probably never heard of Steve Gilley. Not that he's completely obscure: Gilley has won over 25 professional events on the Hooters Tour, Tar Heel Tour, Gateway, Dixie, Peach State, and No Name tours in front of crowds numbering in the dozens. He has played in about 20 Nationwide Tour events over the years, and was the first-stage leader in at least two PGA Tour qualifying schools, but never earned his PGA Tour card.
In 2005 he made news for a practice round he played in Martinsville, Virginia before U.S. Open qualifying. Prepping with his Nationwide Tour companion Jerry Wood, Gilley made three eagles and 10 birdies to shoot 55 at Lynwood Golf and Country Club, the lowest verified round of golf ever recorded on a regulation course. That earned him a mention on the Golf Channel and a call from the Guinness World Record people.
But the 55 wasn't Gilley's greatest golf accomplishment. None of the winning tournament rounds were either. He didn't know it until this week, but his finest round, his gutsiest performance, and the moment in the game for which he might always be remembered, came this past Monday. And while you might not have known his name before, you will find him hard to forget, because his is the most inspirational golf story of the year.
It was a routine three-under-par 69, six birdies and three bogeys, during local U.S. Open qualifying at Miramont Country Club in Bryan, Texas with his wife, Kelly, on the bag.
And it came exactly 45 days after Gilley was hospitalized after suffering a stroke.
On the morning of March 31, he was on the second fairway at his home course in The Woodlands when he realized that he couldn't see the green 150 yards away. He tried to press on, but quit when he realized he had no feeling or grip pressure in his right hand.
"It was really scary," he said of the diagnosis. Men in their early forties don't have strokes, or so he assumed.
Hospitalized for the better part of a week with IVs and oxygen and one test after another, Gilley wasn't sure he would regain function in his right arm. His doctor told him that if all went well he might play golf again, but not at a high level.
"You don't play golf for a living, do you?" the doctor asked.
"Well, yeah, I have for the last 15 years," Gilley said. "It's all I've done."
"You probably won't be able to do that anymore," he was told.
That's when Gilley found the reservoir that rests deep in the souls of a select few. He went to physical therapy and worked ten times harder than everyone else there. It took two weeks before he had enough strength to grip a golf club, and another week after that before he could feel the club in his right hand.
He couldn't practice much, and had only been on the course four times since being released from the hospital before Open qualifying. None of those rounds were competitive. He hadn't even kept score.
"I am the most anxious person in the world when it comes to being prepared for a tournament," he said. "I was very nervous, because my biggest fear was going out and shooting 90. A couple of weeks ago, I couldn't get a putt close because I couldn't feel anything. So, I just hoped that I would play okay, maybe shoot around par."
Kelly, a former college golfer at FSU, provided more support than most caddies, bucking him up and reminding him that he still had what it took. But 16 holes into the round, Steve turned to her and said, "I don't think I'm going to make it."
"I think you're right on the number," Kelly said. "Come on baby, one more birdie and you're in for sure."
"No," Steve said. "I mean I don't think I'm going to make it through the round. I'm exhausted."
He did make it, not just through the round, but on to the next stage. The Gilleys qualified with a shot to spare and will move on to Sectionals at Lakeside Country Club in Houston, June 4.
"It was very special," Steve said. "I've never made it. I've been in playoffs and missed it by a shot, but in 15 years of trying, this is the first time I've gotten through. To think that this time, when I wasn't even sure I could play and I really wasn't worried about making it, that's when I get through, it just goes to show you that priorities and perspective matter."
So does heart.
There will be lower scores posted and bigger news made in golf this year, but you will have to look long and hard to find a more inspirational moment than the one Steve Gilley shared with his wife last Monday in Bryan.
"My attitude was to just have fun and know that my wife and my kids are happy to see me out here," Gilley said. "That's all the matters."
Then he paused, as if the magnitude of what he'd done had just hit him.
"It's amazing," he said, "how things work out like this sometimes."