There’s a universal refrain shared at Augusta National Golf Club this week, from players and patrons to media and members: We’re lucky to be here.
Few, however, understand that more palpably than Australian golfer Marc Leishman.
“This time last year, everything was normal,” Leishman said before Masters Week. “My wife got sick the week before the Masters. It’ll be interesting to see how it feels going back there for the first time, because that’s where I got the call when I was there the week before for practice rounds.”
A year ago, Leishman left Augusta National in the wee hours after getting an emergency call from his wife, Audrey. His entire world was crashing down when she was barely clinging to life in a Virginia Beach, Va., hospital with toxic shock syndrome. He wasn’t sure he’d ever be back.
Golf, at least as Leishman knew it as a global professional golfer, was over if his wife didn’t beat the 5 percent odds of surviving.
“When it was at its worst, a lot of things go through your head,” he said. “I was thinking my boys need me. I couldn’t imagine traveling as a single dad with two kids.”
By the time Leishman got to the hospital, his wife was already in the intensive care unit. Doctors needed to put her into a coma to fight the infection, and there was no time to grant her request to wait for her two young boys to come to say goodbye. Her last delirious words to her husband before falling unconscious were, “Please look after my cats and take the kids to get their Easter bunny photos.”
“No ‘I love you’ or anything like that; it was quite funny,” said Leishman, noting that she left no instructions for their two dogs. “It was a last resort putting her in a coma. If they didn’t do that, she was going to die. If they did do that, she was probably going to die. It was her best chance. We said our goodbyes basically thinking that was going to be it.”
His mind raced for 96 hours as his wife lay lifeless, and all he managed to nibble on at her bedside was some fruit in a basket Charley Hoffman and his wife, Stacy, had sent. By the time he first left the hospital, he’d lost a lot of weight and was discombobulated.
“I backed the car into a pole,” he said. “I saw it and I knew I was going to hit it. I hadn’t eaten or slept. I couldn’t react. I shouldn’t have been driving.”
WHILE AUDREY’S DOCTORS scrambled to save her life, trying unorthodox strategies that included flipping her onto her stomach without inducing paralysis, Leishman felt helpless and hopeless.
“Everything,” he said of the scenarios that ran through his head. “You’re thinking about the rest of your life and how it’s going to be. You’re thinking at that moment with Audrey laying there and no life in her, it’s obviously rough and something I don’t want to have to do again for a long, long time or ever. You have to try and push forward for the sake of the kids. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”
It was the morning of last year’s Par-3 Contest when Audrey finally awakened from her induced coma. Her first words to Marc: “Sorry about the Masters.”
“She got pretty upset,” he said. “I told her not to worry about it, it’s just golf. She and the boys are more important than golf.”
It was an experience Leishman’s peers on tour couldn’t imagine.
“Of course it’s the hardest thing he’s ever had to go through,” said fellow Aussie Adam Scott. “I know it really shook him up. Thankfully she’s come out of it well and improving.”
Said Jason Day: “You don’t realize how important family is until you actually go through something like that, and he went through it and she came out better the other end.”
It was a month before Audrey was well enough for Leishman to get back to work. His season was already a struggle, with him hovering inside the top-125 bubble before his wife got sick. When he returned to play in New Orleans, he shot 74 in the first round. The next day, he flirted with shooting 59 before a bogey on the last left him with a year’s best 63.
“I played terrible early in the year and felt like I had to play, just trying to keep my card, really,” he said. “I wanted to make sure I had a job for the sake of my family. Just didn’t care. It was good to be back on the golf course, but I didn’t care where the ball went. I was noticing a lot of new stuff that I’d never really noticed before. Birds in trees, stuff that makes you appreciate life.
“I think I treat every tournament differently now. I’m more aggressive now than I was beforehand. It’s not life or death, golf. It’s a game, and that’s how I look at it now. I’ve been through that life and death stuff and it sucks. But I’m one of the lucky ones that Audrey’s still alive. She’s one of the lucky ones, really, that she’s still here to hug our boys.”
LEISHMAN’S YEAR improved after that mental reboot. He had a birdie putt to win the British Open in regulation before losing in a four-hole playoff with Zach Johnson and Louis Oosthuizen.
“A week later I was sitting at home thinking I had a really good chance to win the Open Championship and I didn’t take it,” Leishman said. “That doesn’t come around a lot. It was a bit of a downer. But I’m pretty good with that stuff. I’ve always handled not winning pretty well. With what happened with Audrey, it’s not life and death.”
Leishman went on to beat Jordan Spieth as a captain’s pick in their Presidents Cup singles match. He closed the year by winning the Nedbank Challenge in South Africa by six shots over Henrik Stenson.
“He was in the playoff at the Open last year and won Sun City, which is a great event,” Scott said. “He’s one of those guys when he’s in the hunt he’s hard to beat. Sometimes it’s easy to look past a guy like Marc because he’s not really outlandish or flamboyant. He’s just really a tough competitor.”
Though Leishman’s career is back on track, the emotional scars from the family experience aren’t so easily covered. He still gets worried and fears the worst every time he calls home and his wife doesn’t answer immediately. His doctors say he’s dealing with a version of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Now a song comes on the radio that was on at the time when it was happening and it almost makes me tear up,” he said. “It brings back memories you don’t really want to think about. But I feel like maybe I’m a stronger person. It’s changed my wife for the better. We don’t let little things worry us anymore.”
Audrey still suffers from a weakened immune system that will turn any minor illness into something worse.
“They said it will take about two years to know if she will make a full recovery, and it’s looking like she will,” Leishman said. “We’re almost a year into it now and she’s probably 80 percent.”
Their oldest son, 4-year-old Harvey, has only started in the last couple months to get his unconcerned childhood manner back.
“It really, really affected him,” Leishman said. “He saw a lot of things a 3-year-old should never see. It’s just good to have him back to normal.”
WHILE THE MASTERS is certainly Leishman’s focus, today’s Par-3 Contest will be a big day for the whole family – marking exactly a year since his wife pulled out of the coma.
Audrey has caddied for her husband twice before in the Par-3, but this time they will be joined by Harvey and Oliver, 2.
“It’s a cool day but it will mean a lot more this year,” Leishman said. “It will be a year then from when I didn’t think I was going to be playing golf anymore and just being a dad who stays at home. I’m even more excited about the Par-3 tournament really to have Audrey out there and my two kids. The boys will be out there in their little white overalls. Certainly something I didn’t think I’d ever be doing again.”
The Leishmans – who scheduled their wedding after his first appearance in the Masters in 2010 – have a bigger calling now in the aftermath of Audrey’s survival. They’ve started the Begin Again Foundation to raise awareness about toxic shock syndrome, adopting their family slogan “a new Leish on life.”
“She was down and out and we got told she was going to die,” Leishman said. “She feels like she’s had a new beginning, so we’ve named our foundation Begin Again. It was a rough time, but it happens every day unfortunately. Toxic shock syndrome. It brings down a lot of people and a lot of them aren’t lucky enough to survive it. My wife was meant to be here.”
With all of his perspective, Leishman returns to Augusta National, where he finished fourth in 2013 playing the final round with Scott, even fist-bumping the eventual champion after Scott drained a crucial putt on the 72nd hole.
Perhaps all the emotion and comfort at Augusta will swing Leishman’s way this time.
“It’s a golf course I love,” he said. “I’m excited about it and feel like my game is in a pretty good spot at the moment. I’m looking forward to getting back there and hopefully having another good performance. As golfers, we don’t win very often; I’ve had two wins in eight years – one on PGA Tour and one on European Tour. I definitely go (to Augusta) wanting to play well and win. Someone’s got to win the tournament. No reason it can’t be me.”