Vertigo Can’t Stop Jason Day, Who Finishes 9th in U.S. Open Golf

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Jason Day
Jason Day of Australia reaches for his golf ball on the first hole during the second round of the 115th U.S. Open Championship at Chambers Bay on June 19, 2015 in Washington. Photographer: Harry How/Getty Images

Finishing all four rounds of the U.S. Open was a victory for Jason Day, who tied for ninth place while battling a case of vertigo that left his arms and legs shaking as he stood over shots during the golf tournament.

Day was a fan favorite for his gutty performance, though he slipped from a share of the lead at the start of the final round by shooting a 4-over-par 74 Sunday at Chambers Bay Golf Course outside Seattle.

“I really made a lot of Jason Day fans out there this week, even though it didn’t end up the way I wanted it to end up,” the 27-year-old Australian said after finishing at even par for the tournament. “I fought a good fight. And I think everybody that watched the telecast knows that I never gave up. It was a battle.”

Day was diagnosed with benign positional vertigo after collapsing Friday on the final hole of his second round. He fought through the rest of that round, and on Saturday managed to shoot a 2-under-par 68 although his hands and legs were shaking as he stood over shots and putts.

Dr. James Phillips, director of the Dizziness and Balance Center at the University of Washington, said in a phone interview that it was “quite extraordinary” Day was able to perform the way he did in his condition.

Day’s caddie, Colin Swatton, said the third-round 68 was a “superhuman effort” that rivaled Tiger Woods’s playoff victory at the 2008 U.S. Open with two stress fractures in his left leg and damaged knee ligaments.

Day has been plagued by vertigo that in the past year has forced him to withdraw from at least two events, including the Byron Nelson Championship last month near his home in Texas. He also pulled out of the World Golf Championships Bridgestone Invitational last August because of dizziness.

Tilting, Turning

Phillips, a research associate professor in Washington’s Department of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery, said Day has a condition in which part of the inner ear that senses turning suddenly becomes position-sensitive, so it starts trying to tilt. A typical cause, Phillips said, is that a part of the inner ear has broken off and floated into another area, causing confusion in the brain between tipping and turning.

“The turning isn’t gentle,” Phillips said. “It’s actually quite dramatic and abrupt and there’s nothing you can do to overcome it. Your brain feels like you’re rotating and the world is rotating. Not only that, but your eyes kind of rotate in your head, moving to compensate for a movement that doesn’t exist.”

‘Extraordinarily Disorienting’

Phillips said the condition is “extraordinarily disorienting” and affects the touch of those affected in relation to their vision. The symptoms of vertigo therefore make it challenging to play a golf course like Chambers Bay, which presents curved horizons and uncertain footing that may be difficult for the brain to interpret, unlike a city street.

“You’re deprived of the tactile cues of solid ground and true vertical and horizontal lines,” said Steven Rauch, a professor of otology and laryngology at Harvard Medical School.

One of the challenges of treating and understanding vertigo is that our sense of balance is composed of inputs from the ears, eyes and positioning of the body, Rauch said. The brain takes information from those body parts to create a picture of where the body is and how to keep it upright. That’s what gives us the ability to keep our eyes still while driving down a bumpy street, to dance, or to swing a golf club.

Any problem with these systems can affect balance, said Rauch, who is chief of the vestibular division at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston.

Wiping Brow

A U.S. Open runner-up in 2011 and 2013, Day opened with three straight pars Sunday before a bogey on the par-4 fourth hole. He shook his head, squeezed his eyes and wiped his brow on several occasions after missing his par putt on the hole. After a birdie on the fifth hole, Day made two consecutive bogeys to slowly slip out of contention.

Day would finish with two more bogeys, a double bogey and two birdies the rest of the way.

“I think I hit 13 greens and just didn’t capitalize at all on the stuff that I had,” said Day, who appeared to try keeping his head still and level most of the day. “It’s unfortunate because I felt like I gave myself enough opportunities.”

Day said he now plans to take some time off to try to “get a handle” on his condition.

“I’m just glad that I got it in on the weekend,” Day said.

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