A year ago, R.W. Eaks came to the Baltimore Country Club for the Senior Players Championship playing the best golf of his life. Another strong finish, and possibly even his first major championship, seemed within reach.
After an opening-round 67, which left him tied for the tournament lead, it looked like his dream season was only about to get better.
A week later, he could barely walk.
"I kind of sprained one of my knees [walking the hilly Baltimore Country Club course], and it kind of snowballed from there," said Eaks, who tumbled down the leader board and finished tied for 47th, 19 shots behind winner Loren Roberts.
Eaks spent the next six months in so much pain, he had to sleep upright - in a recliner - because a bed made him so uncomfortable. And he never slept for more than two hours at a time. He had lost close to 70 percent of his strength in his knees and legs. But he didn't stop golfing.
"It's hard to find a hotel all the time that's got a La-Z-Boy in it," said Eaks, grinning behind a thick salt-and-pepper mustache. "You get used to the no-sleep thing, though. It's kind of like being in the military."
A basketball player at Northern Colorado University in the 1970s, Eaks had suffered knee injuries before, but not like this. Bone was grinding on bone. His doctors told him it was time to face the truth: He needed to undergo double knee-replacement surgery.
"Back in the old days when you had knee surgery, they'd just take your cartilage right out," Eaks said. "I knew this day was coming. You just can't do bone on bone forever."
That fateful day, however, has not yet arrived. Eaks is still grinding, and competing - he's 17th on the Champions Tour money list with $911,074 and ranks fifth in driving distance and 10th in greens in regulation - even though he hasn't had the surgery. He said he loves the game too much to quit and fears that if he did take a year off to recover, he might never make it back.
"I'm not having the year I had last year, but, shoot, I'll probably never have a year like I had last year," said Eaks, who won twice and was voted the Champions Tour Comeback Player of the Year. "Until they tell me I can't play out here anymore, I'm not having it done."
He has knee braces he wears at night that send electronic stimulation to his muscles and joints, and they have helped ease the pain considerably. A number of Champions Tour events also allow the use of a cart, which has helped Eaks reduce the wear on his joints, but the Senior Players Championship requires competitors to walk, meaning Eaks will march the hilly Baltimore Country Club fairways just as everyone else does.
"I think this is probably the toughest course to walk on our tour," said Andy Harris, Eaks' caddie. "This week will be a test, especially toward the end of the week as you get tired."
Walking downhill is so painful, Eaks is planning on trying something different this week, on the recommendation of his doctor. On the steepest parts of the course, he's going to walk backward during his round.
"I've been trying it at home, walking the dogs," Eaks said. "We'll give it a try this week. Some of these hills are pretty steep, so hopefully I won't fall on my butt. You've got to trust what's behind you, I'll tell you that."
When the day does come when the pain is either too much or the game too difficult, you'll likely find Eaks on the back of his Harley-Davidson Road King, cruising the lonely highways near his Fountain Hill, Ariz., home.
"I'll try to ride between four to six hours a day when I'm home," said Eaks, who has the thick forearms and golden tan of a highway traveler. "People call up my house, and it's not, 'Is he there?' it's more like 'When will he be back?' I have two or three buddies, but I'm more of a loner. I like to just get out there by myself. There is nothing like being out there on that open road and listening to that motor humming. You can think about anything you want. You're your own boss."
IF YOU GO
What: Constellation Energy Senior Players Championship
When: Today through Sunday with first round tomorrow
Where: Baltimore Country Club at Five Farms (East Course), Timonium
Schedule: Today, pro-am, 7:20 a.m. and noon tee times (gates open at 7); tomorrow and Friday, first tee time 7:30 a.m. (gates open at 7); Saturday, first tee time 8:45 a.m. (gates open at 8); Sunday, first tee time 8:30 a.m. (gates open at 8).
Tickets: $10 in advance, $15 at gate for today and today's practice/pro-am rounds; $22 in advance, $27 at gate for tomorrow-Sunday rounds.