Justin Wileman sees his way through tragedy
By Tom Ward
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye,” Antoine de Saint-Exupery said.
A few weeks ago at The Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial Pro-Am, I had a chance to catch up with some old friends that I hadn’t seen in a while. My buddy Mike Wileman was playing in the Pro-Am and had his son Justin caddying for him when I caught up with them on the 11th hole. I only had a few moments to visit because they were in the middle of their round. I let Justin know how proud I was of him because he had recently graduated with a Master of Science in Medical Sciences from UNT Health Science Center.
As I headed out to catch up with other golfers I teach that were playing in the event, I couldn’t help flashing back to the first time I met this exceptional young man when he was just 9 years old at Timarron C.C. in Southlake. I began working with him in 2001 and I knew immediately that he had the potential to be a terrific golfer. His dad once told me that you could see the passion in his eyes and they wouldn’t have to wake him up, because he was ready for his mom, Deanna, to take him over to the course at 7:30 in the morning. As the years went by and he grew physically, his golf game took flight and he began to win tournaments all over the Dallas/Fort Worth area in his respective age group. As he branched out playing around the state, he won the Texas-Oklahoma Junior Championship title in 2002 and 2004. He won the Texas State Junior Golf Championship and Starburst Junior Championship in 2005. He just barely missed out winning the prestigious Junior World Championship in San Diego, finishing in 3rd place. From the time I met him until the age of 15 he won roughly 50 tournaments. Justin was well on his way to his dream of one day playing on the PGA Tour.
Then, on February 5th, 2007, his whole world was turned upside down. During a high school practice round his sophomore year, where he was the number one player on his team, one of his fellow teammates goofing around like players occasionally do tossed a stick at him as he was chipping near the green. Justin abruptly turned around and the stick hit him directly in his left eye. He was rushed to the hospital and over the next few months visited numerous doctors trying to salvage his vision, to no avail.
Justin recalled, “At this time the doctors did all they could, which was a lot as the doctors did a great job. They brought back more than they expected, but it’s still pretty much unusable.” Justin attempted a comeback months later to start playing golf again. Initially, as expected, the shots that gave him some trouble were the ones around the green and putting, as his depth perception was disturbed judging distances due to his impaired vision. Eventually, he could go out on the course with me and shoot under par; however, when he entered a tournament, he would end up shooting a score in the 80’s, which he hadn’t done since I knew him as little kid.
Justin said, “It was mostly psychological after the accident that really played havoc with my golf game. I guess just coming back and feeling like I had lost a lot of time messed with me. It was a real struggle getting back at first. Then I got into college (Dallas Baptist University) and for some reason it seemed when I went out to the course I didn’t feel that drive anymore. I just wasn’t that into it and I don’t know why. I started to focus more on my studies and worked on trying to get into med school. It was tough as I had to choose either golf or medical school, and I saw more potential in the medical field now. I enjoyed my time with golf, but it was time to move on in my life.”
Justin and I lost touch for a while as he put golf on hold and went ahead with his studies. During his time in college, he met a lovely woman named Melinda that he would end up marrying. He graduated from Dallas Baptist in December of 2012. After graduating, he went to UNT Health Science Center for a one-year accelerated Masters program starting in May of 2013 and just finished this past May, where he received his Master of Science degree. Justin told me he starts medical school in July in Fort Worth at the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine, which is part of the UNT Health Science Center. Justin added, “It’s a four-year program. I’ve always had an interest in ophthalmology ever since I had my eye accident. That’s what got me into medicine and made me pursue pre-med in undergrad. It was through all my doctor visits so that’s where my focus is right now.”
I asked Justin what kind of vision he has after all these years in his left eye. He replied, “The easiest way I can explain it is it’s really blurry, but I can see colors. The lines aren’t straight they’re more jagged. Glasses or contacts won’t correct it. It’s basically not usable so I have to rely on my good eye to drive and do normal things. If I lost that I would be blind. There is no current technology to help me, but in the future who knows what they will come up with.” These days Justin told me he plays golf about 2 or 3 times a month and usually shoots between the mid 70’s to mid 8’’s. He has such a great attitude about the accident saying, “I don’t hold any grudges personally. I’ve forgiven and forgotten. It’s not awkward if we ever run into one another (his former teammate). It was an unfortunate event that could happen to anybody.”
Recently, I spoke with Justin’s dad, Mike, who really put things in perspective about his son. Mike said, “It’s been really cool to see his maturity as he’s gone through this journey, for lack of a better word. He struggled trying to play college golf and probably knew he needed to put his energy elsewhere, but he didn’t want to give up because that’s what he was always taught. He finally realized he wasn’t giving up, he was just going into another direction. Seeing where he’s at now doesn’t really surprise me because of what he did in competition as a kid. He was always very focused growing up and he’s always understood what his end goal was and how to put a plan in place to reach it. When he was going through those surgeries, it was a new thing that was giving him some excitement to get locked in to do what he had to do. In undergrad, he graduated a semester early. Then he goes out and gets his master’s and he had to work hard applying to different places and finally getting into med school. On one hand it’s not surprising, but to see how he handled adversity from the age of 15 on is pretty special. You just feel blessed because sometimes as a parent you just get lucky.”
During my conversation with Mike, who was a good collegiate golfer himself at Ohio University, he mentioned a few things that I didn’t know involving Justin that occurred earlier this year. Wileman said, “Another thing that was kind of interesting was when he quit playing in college for over a year and a half I told him one day, ‘You can turn that page in your life, but don’t dismiss what a huge experience golf was to you.’ I think it was earlier this year that he got a little validation about his golf career because his wife didn’t really know the high level of golf that he played as a teenager. They were in Dallas at a restaurant and local PGA Tour sensation Jordan Spieth came in. Justin told me it was so cool because he and Jordan sat there and he introduced Jordan to Melinda and they talked for over an hour and a half about their days when they played junior golf and what they’re doing now. He thought it was so cool that someone else knew about him and told his wife about him. It felt like it was a validation and maybe helped him turn that last page and close the book and get focused on his new career.”
Mike continued, saying, “At this year’s Pro-Am pairings party I ran into my buddy Doug Hickok and his son, Kramer, who plays golf at University of Texas. We all ran together back then because all of our kids played in the same tournaments. He was talking to a few guys about when the kids were young and he made a comment saying how Justin was one of the best players there was. Finally, I have to tell you a funny little story after Justin received his master’s in May. We had a little dinner party after his graduation and I made a little toast. I told everyone that I think Justin was about 13 or 14 years old when he told all of us by the time he was 23 he wanted a Masters title and we all believed him. I said,’It just goes to prove that you have to be more specific when you are talking to God and praying for things.’ I told him, ‘You’re 22 now and you’ve got a master’s’ and we all laughed. Dreams really do come true!”
Over the years, I’ve taught numerous young golfers and proudly watched many of them go on to college, earning degrees thanks to receiving a golf scholarship. Justin was not only one of the most gifted players I ever worked with, but was a joy to be around on or off the golf course. He would have been a highly successful PGA Tour player I’m sure, as well as a terrific role model for millions of kids around the globe. An unfortunate accident changed his goals and direction of his life, but instead of wallowing in self-pity like many of us might have done, he rose above all the adversity to make sure he wasn’t going to be victimized by the curve ball life threw at him. He is a great example of a person who got a lemon and decided to make lemonade with it. He’ll always be a golfer, but it will be more as a recreational player instead of a touring professional. Last week,I had the opportunity to tell him that I’m more proud of him achieving his master’s degree in Medicine than if he had won the Masters golf tournament. So, instead of donning a green jacket that the winner receives, he will be putting on a white jacket that is awarded to gifted professionals in the medical field. Justin is such a quality young man who you can’t help rooting for such an inspirational person whom I truly believe will not only turn out to be a great eye doctor, but may become a game changer in that profession, leading to some incredible medical breakthroughs. Justin may no longer have 20/20 eyesight, but his vision for his future is crystal clear.
Tom Ward can be reached at www.teetimewithtom.com