Fate unkind, but golfer is a lesson in courage

Fighting aggressive ALS, Julian faces a struggle well beyond Kemper Open

May 30, 2002|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

POTOMAC - Until last fall, Jeff Julian was like any other golfer who would grouse about a seemingly perfect tee ball finding a divot in the fairway or about shooting a 75 when it should have been a 70.

Until last fall, Julian was like scores of semi-obscure players trying to chase a dream in golf's major and minor leagues. He is still in pursuit, but his goal now is much different.

He is merely fighting to stay alive.

Julian, 40, was found in October to have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a deadly and incurable neuromuscular disease that attacks nerve cells and pathways in the brain and spinal cord. It first came to public attention in 1939 when it afflicted Yankees star Lou Gehrig.

This week's Kemper Insurance Open, which begins today at the Tournament Players Club at Avenel, represents another opportunity for Julian and his wife, Kimberly, to bring attention to the disease during ALS Awareness Month.

"Some people have the attitude that this is going to happen and they're complacent," Julian said yesterday. "We've decided to do anything and try anything to fight this disease."

Julian suffers from the more aggressive form of ALS called bulbar onset, which has affected his speech and ability to swallow and will ultimately affect his breathing. He also has some weakness in his right arm, but his handshake is firm and his gait steady.

He is taking a combination of antibiotics intravenously and homeopathic remedies. With some difficulty, he swallows some 60 pills a day. Kimberly Julian has stopped being his caddie to help monitor his treatment.

"There are people out there willing to try different approaches," said Julian, whose treatment is also being closely watched by the Massachusetts-based ALS Therapy Development Foundation. "In order to find the cure, you have to find something different. Who knows what will happen?"

Those who suffer from the more typical type of ALS usually live from two to five years after the diagnosis. Cases of bulbar onset advance more rapidly, but some can live just as long.

Although the disease was named for Gehrig, others who have died from ALS include former U.S. Senator Jacob Javits, Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Catfish Hunter and jazz musician Charles Mingus.

Julian first experienced the symptoms of ALS, which also can lead to paralysis, last spring when he was bothered by a persistent sore throat and had some trouble swallowing. After seeing numerous doctors, ALS was diagnosed.

"It was devastating. We were in shock," said Kimberly Julian, who met her husband at a Buy.com tournament in Springfield, Mo., two years ago and married him in February 2001. "But we got over that quickly and decided it was happening for a reason."

They decided Julian's position as a professional golfer could give ALS a bigger audience.

While Julian has not made the cut at any of the six tournaments in which he has played this year, all on sponsor's exemptions, his performance has been nothing short of remarkable.

All 11 of his rounds have been in the 70s, his best being a 1-under 71 in the second round of last week's Memorial Tournament. It came as Julian is beginning to lose his ability to speak.

His speech is slurred, but his message is clear.

"I still expect to play well," said Julian, who was in contention here for the first two rounds last year before finishing tied for 37th. "My arm is a little weaker and it limits me somewhat, but I've made adjustments. When I wasn't playing well earlier, I wondered if it was my health. But the last two weeks has showed me it was just golf."

Julian's most memorable achievement this year came two weeks ago when he made it through local qualifying in St. Louis for next month's U.S. Open. He knows that next week's sectional qualifying - 36 holes in one day - will be much tougher.

"The last nine is going to be difficult," said Julian, who has played in three Opens and in one, at Shinnecock Hills in 1995, holed out for eagle. "Adrenalin is going to help me get through. I have to pace myself."

Julian has received words of consolation and encouragement from fans and fellow players alike. Last week, he got to play a practice round at Muirfield Village Golf Club with tournament host Jack Nicklaus. Next month, Julian will host his own tournament in his native Vermont.

"I didn't think they knew who I was, but a lot of them came up to me last fall," said Julian, who has played both the PGA Tour and Buy.com Tour since graduating from Clemson. "They've been very supportive. That has meant a lot to me. It's a family atmosphere. That is something you can take for granted."

Said tour veteran Tom Lehman, who has known Julian since playing together in the last round of local PGA Tour qualifying school in 1990, "He's in a tough spot. But I think it's great for him and his wife and kids to see him doing what he's doing."

Julian said he is not afraid of dying.

"It's hard to think ahead," he said. "I think more about being a spokesman. I want to do that as long as possible."

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