(The following article first appeared in the September edition of Golf Canada magazine)
When Eric Banks suggests he’s going to one day play on the PGA Tour, don’t be too dismissive. The 20-year-old product of the Truro Golf and Country
Club in Nova Scotia has plenty of game – as e videnced by his qualifying for the 2013 RBC Canadian Open and his selection t o the Canadian amateur golf team for the second year in a row – but it’s his determination that might set him apart.
We’re not talking about making a meaningful 10-foot putt when the chips are down. Not to be overly dramatic, but we’re talking life and near death. Eric’s story, one that is still unfolding, goes well beyond the scope of an unlikely rising star in Canadian golf. It’s a story of modern medicine. It’s a story of luck. And it’s a story of one young man’s determination to not only return to health but to achieve his goal of one day playing on golf’s grandest stage - the PGA Tour.
Eric Banks took up the game after curiosity got the best of him. He and his buddy, Robert Allen, snuck onto the course at the Truro Golf and Country Club when they were 10 years old. Banks quickly took to golf and despite his relatively small stature - he’s gained 20 pounds in a year and is listed as 5-foot-9, 165 pounds - enjoyed a starry junior career. In 2011, he became just the second player in history to win both the Nova Scotia junior and amateur crowns in the same season.
He also earned a golf scholarship at the renowned University of Florida, where coach Buddy Alexander has made a habit of turning out PGA stars, such as Camilo Villegas, Billy Horschel, Matt Every, Brian Gay and Chris Dimarco, among others.
“I have no idea where he got the talent,” Eric’s father Hazen Banks said. “He was always doing something with a stick and a ball. He found it easy.”
What hasn’t been easy are the health issues the golfer has endured over the past two years. Two days after competing in the 2011 Canadian Amateur where he finished tied for 20th, he began his freshman year at Florida. As part of the athlete orientation, Banks submitted to a complete physical exam.
“The physician Dr. (Nahum) Beard asked Eric if he had a history of heart trouble,” said Hazen Banks through a diary he kept. “Eric replied ‘No’. Then he was also asked if he was short of breath and tired.”
The golfer was, indeed, tired, but he thought it had more to do with a busy summer on the course than anything else.
“Dr. Beard told Eric that he had a third heart sound (S2) and that he basically had a hole in his heart.”
In typical teenage fashion, Banks sent his parents a shocking text message: “I have a hole in my heart.” They were floored.
The youngster was sent to a cardiologist in Gainesville, Fla., and an echocardiogram confirmed the diagnosis. He also had several other investigations but somehow managed to keep his focus on the golf course. Despite everything that was taking place off the course, he played in three of the four tournaments in the fall season as a rookie. Banks returned home for Christmas and spent plenty of time visiting cardiologists in Halifax.
On January 5, 2012, when he was in Arizona with Team Canada, Dr. Simon Jackson called and delivered the diagnosis. Eric did have a hole in his heart between the two atrial chambers and a special one at that, a sinus venosus ASD. The right side of his heart was two-and-a-half times its normal size as blood was being shunted from the left side to the right through this hole, a special type of atrial septal defect. A sinus venosus ASD is a congenital defect and should be repaired in the first two decades of life for most patients if they are to have a normal life expectancy.
Eric’s parents flew to Gainesville in February 2012 to tell their son, face to face, that he would need open heart surgery. His sternum would have to be divided, his heart stopped and opened, and a patch applied to cover the hole. After the shock was absorbed, his response was matter of fact: “Well it’s got to be done.”
Banks said his discussions with the surgeons about possible complications - four per cent chance of losing the use of one or more of your limbs, four per cent chance of stroke, the risks of going on and off of the heart-lung bypass machine, etc. - was “the hardest thing I have ever been through.”
The successful surgery was conducted by pediatric cardiovascular surgeon Dr. Camille Hancock Friesen on June 25, 2012, which happened to be the 22nd birthday of Banks’s only sibling, sister Lauren. Banks was on the road to recovery the next day and left the hospital after only five days. Before he left, he asked his doctor what would have happened if surgery wasn’t performed.
Dr. Hancock Friesen’s reply is engrained in his memory. He remembers it going something like this: “The ongoing shunting from the left to the right side of your heart would have enlarged your right side even more. At some point, the shunting would have reversed, leading to irreversible lung damage. You would have slowly turned blue and died uncomfortably.”
Banks earned a medical exemption berth on the 2013 Canadian national team and attended a training camp in Phoenix during the first week of January. His comeback was complete when he qualified and competed in the Gator Invitational in early February.
But he wasn’t happy with just playing. He took it one step farther and was the highest finishing Florida player - a tie for 10th - with rounds of 72, 71 and 68 in the final round, which gave him his second career top-10 finish.
He then participated in every event in the spring for the Gators. His stroke average of 73.43 was 16th best among sophomores in University of Florida history. He closed out his college season with a tie for 69th at the NCAA championship. The school honoured him with its Comeback Player of the Year award in April.
The icing on the cake came in July, where Banks bested two others in a playoff to earn the final qualifying spot in the RBC Canadian Open.
Aside from any physical complications, Banks said his biggest challenge might be not getting ahead of himself.
“We have a sports psychologist with Team Canada and the message she told me was that I shouldn’t compare myself to what I was a year ago but rather to what I was the day before,” Banks said. “I kind of took that to heart and because of that I can see the small gains.”
Team Canada head coach Derek Ingram can’t say enough good things about the smooth swinging left-hander.
“Great kid, love him . . . smart, talented, driven and an extremely hard worker,” Ingram said. “It is always difficult to predict future success but I like his chances. He has a big upside and is a quality guy. He has worked very hard and is getting better and better.”
Like many collegiate golfers, Banks is setting his sights high.
“I haven’t put a time restriction on my ultimate goal because golf is a process,” he said. “When I turn professional, I won’t lose sight of that. Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not opposed to getting out of college and going straight to the tour, but if it takes some time to get there I will not be panicking. I believe in what I’m doing, on and off the course, and I’m confident in my golf future.”