RAND JERRIS: It's a pleasure to welcome Brian Kortan to the interview area this afternoon at Torrey Pines. Brian is playing in his first United States Open chip this week.
Start us out and tell us what happened to you in August of 2006.
BRIAN KORTAN: August of 2006 I was playing a little golf tournament up South Dakota, up on the South Dakota Tour, and I went to bed one night and had a heart attack. And I got up out of bed and got to the hospital and they air lifted me to Sioux Falls, South Dakota and I was there eight days and had three stents put in. Since then I've had a defibrillator planted in my chest, I've lost about 40 to 50 percent of my heart function and had some changes in my life, I guess.
RAND JERRIS: Was there a point where you thought you might not play golf again?
BRIAN KORTAN: Every day for about eight or ten weeks. But I played through that and it was ‑‑ it's been an experience that I sincerely hope nobody else has to go through.
RAND JERRIS: Talk a little bit about qualifying. You qualified in Littleton, Colorado. What was that experience like and what was it like when you knew you qualified to play here?
BRIAN KORTAN: Qualifying was ‑‑ it's just two tough rounds of golf and you're working hard to try to get to the Open. And that being said, after I did know I qualified it's a gratifying experience to understand what I've been through in the last year and a half to 16, 18, 20 months, has come to a place where I feel comfortable with who I am and what I do.
I'm comfortable on the golf course and understand that I am okay and I'm able to play golf and compete and it's pretty important to be able to live, I guess. And for a while there you're kind of scared to live because of what happened. But over time I've become comfortable with my ‑‑ I don't know if you call it a condition or my problem, my heart problem, and I understand what's going on. I feel like we kind of have things under control as best we can.
RAND JERRIS: You went through sectional and local qualifying?
BRIAN KORTAN: Yeah, local and sectional. So it's a good process to get here. It's not easy.
Q. At age 37, Brian, is this a comeback?
BRIAN KORTAN: I don't know, I guess some people say you have to be somewhere to come back to something. But for me it feels, I guess, something like a comeback, because I was able to play on the Tour in 2004 and had some success here and there. And then for about a year and a half I really struggled with some things. Now I've qualified for the Open and hopefully things are going in the right direction.
Q. Just a follow‑up, to make the U.S. Open put that in perspective. I imagine with all your travails being here is quite an accomplishment.
BRIAN KORTAN: It's a very gratifying ‑‑ it's going to be a great, gratifying experience. To put it in words, you really can't, because I don't know how many people have been sitting some place and hoping to see the next sunrise or something, and that was kind of me for six, seven, eight days.
So to be here, yeah, it's an experience that I'm grateful for. I'm glad I'm able to have this experience, because there was definitely some times over the last year and a half that I didn't know if I'd ever get to experience something like this, never again.
Q. Two questions, first can you talk about being such a young age and having a heart attack. Were doctors able to figure out why you had it?
BRIAN KORTAN: Genetically speaking it was because of ‑‑ basically because of my family history. They point to that as being the main risk factor that might lead you to a heart attack or heart disease or any of those things.
I had family history, but I was ‑‑ I don't look much different today than I did the day I walked into the hospital having a heart attack. I was virtually the same weight, the whole nine yards. I didn't have a cholesterol problem, I ate well. It was just an experience that happened because of basically genetics.
Q. And the second part, is it true that you carry defibrillators in your golf bag, I wonder does your caddie know how to use them?
BRIAN KORTAN: I wish I had a defibrillator in my golf bag. I have an implant abdominal defibrillator in my chest. No heart monitors or nothing like that, just an implantable defibrillator in my chest.
Q. Could you explain how that works or what that is, exactly?
BRIAN KORTAN: Well, if you're familiar with how a defibrillator works, it's one of those, but really small. It has some lead wires that lead into my heart to monitor the activity in my heart and make sure that ‑‑ they have settings on it so that it understands if your heart is operating under the function that it should. And if it's not, it can give you shocks.
Fortunately, mine hasn't had to kick in yet. But it's even to the point where if it does, if I went into some sort of cardiac arrhythmia, it would actually shock me. And when it does shock you it puts you to the floor.
Q. I think at the beginning they asked, did you ever think you'd play golf again. How important was golf to your quality of life? I would assume that in the aftermath you were just happy to be alive, A, but how important was it to you to be able to come back and do this or is this just like bonus?
BRIAN KORTAN: No ‑‑ well, I guess I liken it to you have your job, and what you do as a reporter or writer and I'm a golfer, that's what I am. I'm a golfer. I'm fortunate to be able to do it and not many of us are able to do it. But that's what I am.
So perspective‑wise, it's not like it's a job, but it's something that I do. And I was glad to be able to continue to do it. The only problem was and to maybe answer your question a little better is I didn't know that I would be able to do it at the level I had done it prior to the heart attack. And that was a question mark for a good 12, 14 months.
Q. Did your folks pass away with heart attacks?
BRIAN KORTAN: No, they didn't.
Q. You said you have it in the family.
BRIAN KORTAN: But we have it in the family. It's prevalent on my mom's side of the family. And fortunately ‑‑ I guess fortunately, after my heart attack, my mother got checked and she ended up having I think six stents put in. And my whole family has been checked and my brother is a little younger than I am and he's been checked and he's doing well. Some of my friends even got checked. I kind of put the scare in a few people, and rightfully so, because it's not something you want to mess around with.
Q. This is not the easiest of venues to compete. And by its very nature it is stressful and a strain to attempt to do something with the world's best players. What do the doctors say about you coming out, one, to play golf; and two, to play golf in the U.S. Open?
BRIAN KORTAN: Well, I guess as far as being stressful, the nerves are what get you a little bit. My doctor called me, ironically before I came, and we were talking about some things. He said if you have any problems, let me know, because I take some pretty good meds to control some of the things I've got to take care of.
But I played on Tour in 2004 and I would say that playing here isn't as hard as walking around Castle Pines at seven thousand feet. And I think you probably get that ‑‑ or playing in Memphis when it's just sweltering hot. So I think it's actually probably a decent venue for guys, because it's not going to be too hot. It's not a grueling walk. The only hard part is there's so many people around that you've kind of got to watch where you go, so there's a little stress level there.
But there's definitely some nerves, but as far as being physically challenging, it's not the most challenging event as far as physically speaking, if that answers your question.
Q. Do you have any restrictions, physically? Can you work out?
BRIAN KORTAN: Oh, yeah, I work out regularly when I can. Regularly when I can, that doesn't make sense. When I'm home I do spend a lot of time in the gym. I can run, run on the treadmill. I do the whole bit. I've been through a couple of stress tests since my whole deal. I've done well. I've lost a lot of heart function. But the heart function that I do have is pretty strong.
RAND JERRIS: I was going to follow up on that. You said you lost 40 to 50 percent of your heart function, has that changed your game in any way? Does that make you feel different when you're out there on the golf course.
BRIAN KORTAN: I think there's days I have good days and bad days, as far as energy, because of that, maybe over a duration of time. But other than that I may get rundown a little faster. But as far as ‑‑ like I played 18 holes today and walked around with a couple of guys. And we had a good time and played 18 holes. And I'm going to go practice a little bit. And I feel just fine.
Q. This is maybe an obvious question, but some of the players professionally consider it a success only if they win. What's success for you this week?
BRIAN KORTAN: Success for me is playing well. If I go out there and can walk off the golf course feeling that I played well, I can compete. I can compete with these guys. I have done it before. To me that's being successful. Doing something that you do and do it well.
Now, if that's good enough to compete and finish near the top then that's great. If it's finishing in the middle that's great, too. I just want to go play well. I was asked if I have a goal and a lot of guys are thinking win, win, win. I think in a lot of cases it's a dream to win. It's a dream to win. But a goal for me is just to play well. Because there's some ‑‑ if I play well and Tiger plays well, it's not going to be ‑‑ that's a whole different ballgame. Or Phil. But if I play well I can compete and I can finish somewhere where I'd be real satisfied with.
Q. Your message is one of a golfer, but also as one of maybe preventive awareness of what's going on in your body?
BRIAN KORTAN: Yeah, definitely. I've had a few print articles done when I was down in Albuquerque back home. My biggest concern is that people don't understand it can happen. It can happen to young people, it can happen to old people as well.
But if you understand the risk factors and know how to prevent some things you can really ‑‑ you can get by with a family history like I had. You can do things to allow your heart to work properly. You don't have to go through what I went through. A lot of people don't understand it. They don't get checked out. They're naive to the fact. And I hope that goes away. I hope people understand that if there's a lot of problems in your family history with heart problems, I guess that didn't sound right ‑‑ if you have heart problems in your family history, you owe it to yourself, you owe it to your family and friends to get them checked out.
You don't want to go through the other side where you have a heart attack and struggle. It's very difficult.
Q. I would imagine this fear has passed, but you were talking about you would get shocked and it would put you to the ground when you returned to golf and would be in the middle of the round and boom, get it?
BRIAN KORTAN: I didn't until now. I never thought of that.
Q. National television and all.
BRIAN KORTAN: I have no fear something will happen on the golf course. I've been very well taken care of. I understand my situation. I have the defibrillator in my chest for that reason. I take the proper medications, the Bayer aspirin every day, the Crestor, the Lisinopril, I take those, they all take care of my heart, help me function better. And you take those and you have the defibrillator and you work out, you eat right, you do all you can, and you get checked out and that gives you the confidence to be able to do what we do. Travel around, play golf, compete, get nervous, get unnervous, unwind and get tired. I've done it all in the last three or four months. I've played a lot of events. I feel pretty comfortable that nothing is going to happen.
Q. What was the low point?
BRIAN KORTAN: Calling my wife when I was ‑‑ right after it happened, calling my wife and letting her know what happened. That was tough. But I've done golf for a long time and that was probably the hardest thing I've ever done.
Q. Can you talk about the time that you had the heart attack through the last two years, what kept you going? Did you have a strong support structure or was it a faith, what kept you going?
BRIAN KORTAN: Man, I mean I've got a great ‑‑ I have a great family. I've got two young boys. Just a great family, two young boys. A lot of my friends are golfers and they understood what I was going through.
But since I was a little guy, a little kid back in South Dakota I've loved to compete and I've done it my whole life. And when I wasn't able to or I thought maybe I wasn't going to have that chance to do it anymore, it was really ‑‑ it was hard.
I think that's kind of what kept me going, kept me working out, fighting through some of the bad days. And just the opportunity to compete. This is a great place to do it, to compete against the best on great golf courses. In general I'm a competitor, I love to compete and I love golf. It's such a fair game. I'm just fortunate enough to still be able to do it.
Q. What are the priorities now in your life? Where was golf, where is golf, and how has your aspect on life changed since this point?
BRIAN KORTAN: I feel like I've been someone that's always had a pretty good perspective on where golf was in my life. Like I said, I've got a great family. If anybody that has a great family, they're obviously ‑‑ they're the top of the list.
But once you get past top of the list, family and friends and things, golf is what makes me who I am. It makes me the person who I am. It will be there. It will be there when I'm done. When I hang the clubs up and I decide to do something different some day, it's still going to be a part of me.
I'm fortunate enough to understand that as great as it is to be able to compete at golf, it's going to end. I'm not scared that some day it's going to end. After the last couple of years it doesn't frighten me at all that I may have to walk out of here and put the clubs away because it's something I can't handle physically anymore.
But as long as I can get home and take my boys to school and cook dinner for the family, I'm happy.
Q. There were probably times, a little younger, when you tried to play in the U.S. Open and you thought you'd be here time after time. And now here you are. All this time has gone by, and you're playing in your first U.S. Open. How odd.
BRIAN KORTAN: Yeah, I guess you could think of it as odd. I really hadn't tried that many times. It had been ‑‑ I've played so many different places. I hadn't really had an opportunity to try that many times. I've only been to the local qualifier half a dozen times and the sectional qualifier twice. And just really wasn't that ‑‑ I just never could really get to it. It didn't fit my schedule.
I think since I was on Tour and got through Tour School when I did it became more of a priority, because I wanted to play in a Major. And as everyone knows you can't qualify for another major unless the ‑‑the PGA of America you can qualify as a PGA professional, I'm not a club pro though. This is the only opportunity for me to play in a Major.
So odd, maybe, but more of a ‑‑ I guess if there was a goal I had, I did want to play in a Major before I was done playing golf. And I'm happy it was this one.
Q. Golfers, if you're not on the PGA TOUR, sometimes it's a struggle financially. Were you okay as far as health insurance and things like that? Sounds like you've gotten some pretty good medical attention.
BRIAN KORTAN: I've had some great medical attention. My wife is a school teacher. One of the benefits of being a school teacher is you've got pretty good insurance. That was really a savior, because I was not on ‑‑ I was two years removed from the PGA TOUR. I was out there and I did well, but I saved some money when I was out there. But I didn't make a windfall, as far as that went.
But I was pretty fortunate to have good medical coverage and have been around some real good doctors and some real good people that happened to be pretty big golf fans. And most of them called me before I got here. I was pretty lucky.
Q. Had you been feeling bad before you had the heart attack or were there any signs that ‑‑
BRIAN KORTAN: I had the classic signs, but I was naive to think that they were really happening. I had some chest discomfort. I had a soreness in my jaw and they would come and go, they'd come and go. I was just completely naive. They were real classic symptoms.
And then when finally I did have the full‑blown heart attack, it was even more so the classic symptoms, the jaw, the chest, and my arms, felt like they weighed a hundred pounds. And when my arms went then I knew, oh, yeah, this is bad. So I knew exactly what was happening.
Q. How did you get to the hospital?
BRIAN KORTAN: I was staying at a friend's house in Yankton, South Dakota, where I grew up, and put on some shorts and put on a T‑shirt and walked upstairs in my shoes and said, "We have to go to the emergency room." It was a little before midnight. I'd been reading a book, and just walked upstairs, said, "We've got to go." And I got there and they took care of me and put me on a plane and I went to the heart hospital in Sioux Falls.
Q. Have you tailored how many tournaments you play? Do you ever not play back‑to‑back tournaments or three in a row or do you tailor your practice schedule because of this or has it gone back to the same schedule?
BRIAN KORTAN: Initially, yeah, initially I scaled back a lot of the things I did. But now I just go and go and go. If my body says slow down, I do. I've played quite a bit this spring on the Adams Tour. We'd walk and carry our own clubs. There's little glamor in it, but it's good competition and in a lot of ways it probably helped me get here.
Q. Do you have family here to share this with you?
BRIAN KORTAN: My wife's coming in tomorrow. My mom and sister and brother‑in‑law are coming in tonight. So, yeah, they're going to get to experience the whole bit, I think.
Q. Will they be following you or Tiger and Phil?
BRIAN KORTAN: Tiger is like three or four groups in front of me, so I bet they probably sneak a glimpse if they can get close. I mean, how do you ever see Tiger? I played on Tour for a year and I thought he was a ghost.
Q. You've never met him?
BRIAN KORTAN: Never met him. It's got to be hard. I'm just walking out here playing a practice round saying, look at all these people. And it's like a normal day for Tiger. I played with Phil and he couldn't get to the shuttle from 9 back to here for his media conference, because he was kind enough to sign a whole bunch of autographs. I can't imagine what they go through. Yeah, I bet they try to find Tiger. I would. He can ‑‑ I'd go watch the guy. Like I said, he's a ghost, I've never seen him.
RAND JERRIS: Thank you very much for your time, wish you luck this week.