I WAS EIGHT when I knew I had a problem. A friend invited me over to ride horses, and already being a lover of the outdoors and animals, I was excited about the adventure. But it ended before it began. I stepped out of the car and was struck full blast by the smells of the barn, the horses, the hay, the fields of blowing grass, the flowers. In other words, pollen and mold were everywhere. Within minutes my head hurt, my nose was running and my eyes were red and secreting so much watery goo that they became glued shut. The crowning touch was a bulging sty under one lid. There was no denying it—I had allergies.
This is not exactly the kind of medical trauma that shows up on an episode of ER, but it's more serious than a lot of people think, especially when you're a golfer. As many as 40 million people in the U.S. suffer from nasal allergies, which means that up to four million golfers might get more from a day on the course than simply a little sun and some exercise.
In 1995 I was playing in a Futures tour event in Ocala, Fla., and my allergies were so bad that every time I bent over to address the ball, fluid came rushing out of my nose. It became such a problem that I had no choice but to put tissues up each nostril to stanch the flow and allow me to finish the round. I can't tell you how thankful I am that there were no photographers around. I also can't tell you how sad I am that I've had to resort to the tissue trick many more times during my career.
I never want to say that my allergies have cost me any sort of success, because I don't like to make excuses, but they can definitely have an impact on your game. There were times when I couldn't practice or play as long or as well as I would have liked because I couldn't focus or simply felt too tired. That's one of the frustrations about allergies. In your head, you think, Ah, it's only a runny nose. I should be able to play through it. But in reality, allergic reactions can hit as hard as the flu, complete with headaches, sore throats and general fatigue.
I know I'm not alone in my misery, either. My sister, Shelley, a teaching pro at Timarron Country Club near Dallas, suffers so bad that sometimes she has to leave work by 2 p.m. so she can go home and lie down. On the LPGA tour lots of my fellow pros are afflicted. In fact, at the Franklin American Mortgage Championship outside Nashville, a place notorious for high pollen counts, we had a saying: You know it's going to rain, and you know all the tissue boxes will be empty.
To make matters worse, people who don't have allergies can't relate to the feeling at all and often look at you as if they're trying to figure out if you're faking or making a big deal out of nothing. Those of us on the other side know it's not nothing. Still, golf is the kind of game that keeps you coming back, despite the suffering. I just wish I were as allergic to double bogeys as I am to dandelions. That's one affliction we should all be so fortunate to endure.
Jill McGill, an LPGA member since 1996, is working with the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America to promote awareness. For information go to www.challengeyourcourse.com.
Will next appear in the March 24 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.