The prognosis from the doctor wasn’t good.
Although there weren’t any guarantees, the experimental back surgery about to be performed by Dr. Donald P. Atkins at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, would essentially end any hopes of James Gallagher playing golf again.
At the time, only one other patient had undergone the process, which included inserting two titanium rods that were screwed into three vertebrae on either side.
Gallagher, who first injured his back during a B-52 aircraft mission over Iraq in 1991, had already endured one unsuccessful surgery a year earlier when Atkins performed a foraminotomy, an operation designed to relieve pressure on nerves that are being compressed by the intervertebral foramina, the passages through the bones of the vertebrae in the spine.
So in 2002, Gallagher signed a release form agreeing to never play golf or any other jumping sporting activity such as basketball or volleyball.
"I signed it because I hurt," said Gallagher, who retired from the Air Force in 2008 after 27 years of service and multiple tours of duty in the Middle East.
The operation, which has since become a standard procedure, was a success. Gallagher not only returned to work, but 18 months removed from the surgery, doctors cleared him to hit golf balls again.
A decade later, the 54-year-old from Yorktown, Va., qualified for his first USGA championship. He is among the 264 golfers competing in the 32nd U.S. Mid-Amateur at Conway Farms Golf Club and Knollwood Club, the companion venue for stroke-play qualifying.
Then again, Gallagher has always found ways to overcome obstacles. He was born with Poland Syndrome, a condition where one arm is shorter than another. The condition also left him without a left pectoral muscle and he doesn’t have a knuckle in one of his thumbs. Nevertheless, Gallagher learned to play the game at a high level, competing at Division III Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., and later on the Air Force International Team.
During his college days, he also tore up his knee playing intramural basketball, a setback that he said kept him from giving a professional golf a look.
And now with his back condition, Gallagher has readjusted his swing and game to accommodate the lack of flexibility. He’s lost about 25 yards of distance, but focusing harder on the short game has kept him competitive with longer players.
A steady diet of what he jokingly calls Vitamin M (1,200-miligram tablets of Motrin) alleviates some of the pain, although after the second of two practice rounds on Friday at Knollwood, Gallagher felt his back stiffening as he sat down for an interview. At home, he regularly visits a massage therapist and on the road, he’ll find a hotel Jacuzzi to keep the back loose. Unfortunately, his accommodations this week don’t have a whirlpool.
"You don’t know what you can do until you try," said Gallagher. "Fortunately, I’m lucky enough to play at a pretty reasonable level."
When you are over a 5-foot putt, at least nobody is shooting at you.
Gallagher has faced many shots – both on the golf course and in combat – since he joined the Air Force on April 1, 1981.
That wasn’t his initial career goal. Midway through college, his adopted father’s mail-order business went belly-up, thanks in part to a strike by United Parcel Service employees near the holiday season. Gallagher dropped out of school for a year to help his father get his feet back on the ground financially. When he returned to school a year later, he wound up taking a night job with UPS to help pay college expenses.
Buried with student loans and debt after graduating in 1981, Gallagher at first thought about professional golf and even had a sponsor lined up. The knee injury and his financial situation changed that. He thought about getting into accounting, but that required additional schooling and more money that he didn’t have.
When the Air Force offered to defer some of his school loan payments, Gallagher decided to give it a shot. His adopted father had served one tour of duty in the Korean War.
His biological father, whom he never met, was in the Flying Tigers, the 1st American Volunteer Group of the Chinese Air Force in 1941-42 that was composed of men from the U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corps and commanded by Claire Lee Chennault. Gallagher’s plane was shot down in southeast Asia and he contracted malaria in Burma before returning to the U.S., where he was later deployed as a spy during the Cold War.
Gallagher’s biological parents were never married and his mother – also a Cold War spy in Eastern Europe –quietly returned to Washington, D.C., where James was born and later adopted from the St. Anne’s Orphanage. Gallagher also grew up with three other adopted siblings.
Recently, Gallagher was able to connect with his birth mother through Catholic Charities. She is now 87 years of age and never told any family members about James, who was born in 1958. His birth father later started his own family and one of his sons, Bob Brown, later joined the Air Force and flew AWACS missions.
"She was an amazing woman," said Gallagher of his biological mother. "I’m in awe what she went through."
Gallagher had aspirations of being an Air Force pilot, but couldn’t get through the training and later was assigned to navigator school, eventually working his way to bombardier on B-52s. Bombardiers are responsible for targeting bombing sites.
By then, his golf had gone completely on hiatus. Between operations, which often took 18 hours, and training, he had little time to play. So between 1981 and 1995, he rarely touched a club.
During one mission, Gallagher literally flew around the world because a typhoon in Guam prevented his crew from landing there. Through a series of diversions and mid-air refueling, he spent 52 consecutive hours in the air, eventually landing back at Griffiths Air Force in Rome, N.Y. "We got off the plane 40 feet from where we left," he said.
It also didn’t take long for Gallagher to get a taste of combat. One of his first missions in Operation Desert Storm saw his B-52 receive 132 bullet holes from enemy fire. During another mission, a bomb accidentally found a storage unit containing rocket fuel, setting off a fireball so large that the ballasted missile sensors in space detected the explosion. Gallagher was immediately given the nickname Crater for the gigantic hole the bomb created upon impact.
On another mission, eight radar-activated surface-to-air missiles were sent toward his plane. Through a series of maneuvers, the pilot managed to dodge the attack by dipping from 35,000 feet to 23,000 feet, leaving the B-52 vulnerable for attack from other weaponry. Gallagher’s team escaped unscathed.
"It was a real eye-opener," said Gallagher. "You can hear [the shells] hitting the plane. It’s like someone is throwing gravel on a tin roof."
In fact, the only time he was hit was during ground maneuvers in Baghdad when a sniper’s bullet grazed his body.
Gallagher first injured his back midway through his 1991 tour. He can’t publicly get into the details, but he’s fortunate the accident only hurt his back instead of taking his life. Yet despite the agonizing pain, he continued through with the tour, saying he wasn’t going to give up his spot on the team for a replacement.
Doctors told him he had a broken back, but the initial prognosis was that the injury would heal on its own without surgery.
It never did. He began losing the feeling in his feet. Then during a training operation at Fort Polk near Leesville, La., in 2000 the pain flared up significantly.
So Gallagher, who received a Distinguished Flying Cross from the Air Force for his missions over Iraq, underwent the first surgery at the Brooke Army Medical Center. A year later (2002), he was back in the operating room for the experimental procedure that thus far has managed to stabilize the spine.
By then, Gallagher had long given up B-52 missions for Command and Control ground operations to support air strikes in Iraq.
"Command is building a plan to utilize your assets," said Gallagher, explaining the process. "Control is monitoring that plan on the fly and making sure that things go well as it executes."
About a year after his experimental surgery on Feb. 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia was making its re-entry to Earth when it exploded not far from Gallagher’s Louisiana residence. The radar in his home had picked up the shuttle’s descent and when pieces of debris were scattered everywhere, his command team, along with officials from NASA, were called in to assist with the collection process.
The good news out of the tragedy was that his back held up. A few weeks later, he was sent to Iraq for another six-month tour. Working with heavy equipment, Gallagher made it through another operation without any physical setbacks. When he got home, he contacted Atkins about breaking the pact he signed about never playing golf. If he could survive the rigors of combat, certainly he could swing a club. He was told to see the orthopedic specialist at Fort Polk and if things went well, he could resume playing.
Slowly, Gallagher’s game rounded into form, even though he had lost some power. In 2004, he competed for the Air Force International Team against a team from the Royal Air Force. During a three-year exchange with the RAF – he was involved in air operations over Kosovo – in the late 1990s, Gallagher had befriended many of the unit’s top golfers. He played all the courses used for the British Open rota and had even made an attempt at qualifying for the world’s oldest major championship. The RAF players recognized his talent and provided encouragement. Gallagher, who has never had any formal instruction outside of a few junior golf clinics, was motivated, just like he had been as a kid when he first learned the game from his father.
By the time he retired from the Air Force on April 1, 2008 (the anniversary of the day he started 27 years earlier), Gallagher, who now works as a strategic lead for Intelligent Software Solutions, was ready for a return to competitive golf. By now, he had relocated to Yorktown, where he began competing in Virginia State Golf Association events as well as USGA qualifiers.
"You don’t learn how to keep your patience to grind out what you have to do in qualifiers unless you have been there a couple of times," said Gallagher of his early travails with USGA events.
This year has been a breakthrough for Gallagher. He got into the Virginia State Open as an alternate and made the cut. He qualified for the Virginia State Amateur and finished ninth at the Virginia State Public Links. He also was close to qualifying for the U.S. Amateur.
With the U.S. Mid-Amateur qualifier at Independence Golf Club in Midlothian, Va., the same venue where he made the Virginia State Open cut, Gallagher felt relaxed and confident, even though only two spots were available.
"I felt like I was having a good year and playing good golf," he said. "I wasn’t under any pressure that I had to play a round that I had not played before."
Gallagher posted a 68 to share medalist honors with Scott Bemberis. He had finally attained a lifelong dream.
"It’s been everything," said Gallagher, who has good friend and fellow Golfweek Amateur Tour player Eric Neidermeyer, of Hampton, Va., on his bag this week. "This is a thrill."
With both golf courses set up at more than 7,000 yards and fairways a little soft from recent rains, Gallagher knows making the cut will be a challenge. During his two practice rounds, he shot 1-over 72 at Conway Farms and a 2-over 73 at Knollwood, which is where he begins the championship on Saturday.
Considering that a decade ago playing in this championship would have been a pipedream, Gallagher feels fortunate just to have the opportunity. And he doesn’t know how many more will come his way, whether by performance in qualifiers or if he’ll physically be able to play at the elite amateur level.
"Are you kidding me?" he says rhetorically about having any pressure. "I am here. The goal is to make the cut. Once you make match play, anything can happen."
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.