x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Gary Birch Jr's surprisingly healthy outlook on Mena Tour

After illness, car crash and mounting debt, that the Englishman is still playing at all is achievement itself.

Gary Birch Jr will play at the Al Ain Equestrian, Shooting and Golf Club over three days to prove he has prevailed over a personal crisis.
Gary Birch Jr will play at the Al Ain Equestrian, Shooting and Golf Club over three days to prove he has prevailed over a personal crisis.

When Gary Birch Jr, a professional golfer with major-tournament experience, was bitten by a mosquito four years ago, he thought nothing of it.

The bite was sore and looked redder than usual but he thought some ointment and maybe a tablet or two would resolve it.

That tiny wound, in fact, ended up destroying his health and was the first in a chain of incredible events, including a car crash, a form of chemotherapy and pneumonia, that left him all-but financially ruined and wondering if he would ever strike a ball again.

Birch, 34, is now restored to full health and ready to pound the fairways at the Al Ain Equestrian, Shooting and Golf Club over the next three days for the fourth and final event of the Mena Tour, which starts on Monday.

"My body seriously over-reacted to the bite and for six months I was on all sorts of serious medication because the doctors didn't know what to do with me," Birch said.

"I actually finished runner-up to Martin Kaymer in that year's [2007] German Open when I was drugged up to the eyeballs.

"But I had a multiple system infection which made my immune system eventually collapse under the stresses of all the medication that I had to take."

Birch, an Englishman who has been based in Hamburg, Germany for the past 20 years, underwent a "dampened form of chemotherapy" for a period of 14 months and required a further six month of convalescence.

Then the outlook for Birch started to look brighter. He felt like his old self, his game was in good order and he was looking forward to capturing the form that saw him compete in the 2003 British Open.

But disaster struck again.

"I was in a car crash in Russia [for the 2008 Russian Open in Moscow] and suffered spinal trauma, which took me out for four months," Birch said.

"That [accident] effectively cost me £250,000 (Dh1.45m). I had a major bank in Germany and [a credit card company] willing to back me. All I had to do was sign the papers. But the financial crisis that happened at that time, coupled with the accident, ruined all that."

Hoping a change of scene would provide a much-needed change in luck, Birch headed to South Africa in late 2009, emerged through qualifying school and obtained his card for the Sunshine Tour. But he was still struggling to find sponsors.

"I was stuck," Birch said. "Health-wise I was back, although not 100 per cent because these things take time, but nobody wanted to touch me because I had been away for so long. I had some backers lined up before I was set to leave for South Africa, but then they pulled out and I was back to square one."

Birch was left to combine work as a golf instructor in Hamburg and play in small tournaments but was still "struggled to make ends meet". Just to compound matters, his health started to deteriorate once again when he contracted pneumonia in 2010, flooring him for another four months.

"I rushed back too early because I was so desperate to play," Birch said. "I'd had no luck whatsoever and felt that my life was going nowhere."

Birch, whose father, Gary, was a European Tour player in the 1970s and 1980s, had looked a prospect in his early 20s.

Those years were relatively successful, as he finished inside the top 10 in three of the first six tournaments of 2002, his debut year on tour, including second place at the Austrian Open, long before his problems began.

But Birch's fellow professionals had no idea what he was going through when he disappeared from the game.

"One minute Gary was there and the next he's gone, and nobody knew where he was," Simon Dunn, an English player who is also on the Mena Tour, said.

"I played with Gary a lot when we first turned pro and he had established himself as a good tour player, and then he's nowhere to be seen.

"The guy has been through so much and I feel for him. It's been great to see him over here on this tour. I think just playing again is a bit of an achievement for him."

Birch said he has "only felt good in recent months" and that has been reflected in two steady performances in the three Mena Tour events so far, with a couple of top 20 finishes.

"What I wanted to show, coming into this tour, was that I have been playing, even with no sponsorship and that I'm doing OK," Birch said.

"I have taken on a whole bunch of debt, but what is a few grand more to come and play in four tournaments in the sunshine?

"I am just pleased to be healthy. I have put some good rounds together. It's a start if nothing else," he added.

"And if all that isn't a story, then I don't know what is."

ncameron@thenational.ae


””Follow The National Sport on @SprtNationalUAE & Neil Cameron on @NeilCameron5