From encephalitis to first PGA event: Brett White’s miraculous comeback leads to WM Phoenix Open

In 2017, Brett White couldn’t walk or talk after a diagnosis of encephalitis. After a long and challenging recovery, he is playing in his first PGA Tour event, the WM Phoenix Open. (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

SCOTTSDALE – Brett White has had the fortune, or misfortune, to learn the game of golf twice. After battling a debilitating brain infection nearly six years ago, he has defied the odds to make his first PGA Tour start at the WM Phoenix Open.

White was diagnosed with encephalitis, commonly known as swelling in the brain. The symptoms of this infection impaired White’s ability to talk or walk. The disease affects about one in 200,000 people each year in the U.S., according to WebMD.

“This gave me some perspective to how fast life can change,” White, 29, said. “It gave me some perspective about why I’m playing a game I love. It definitely changed me and matured me.”

Throughout White’s rehabilitation, his desire to play golf once again had to first start with learning to walk all over again.

“Golf was the main driver,” White said. “Golf was great for my rehabilitation because I was having trouble walking, walking on uneven surfaces and being outside. Getting those reps in helped me get back where I am.”

White was diagnosed in 2017, after experiencing the feeling that his equilibrium was off. At first doctors though he had vertigo, or that he had contracted a disease during a recently visit to South America. But as he grew progressively worse, including suffering from temporarily paralysis, he was eventually diagnosed with encephalitis.

White’s daily progress showed his determination to someday walk and compete at the highest level of golf again. While rehabbing, White received a tremendous amount of support from his family and Eastern Michigan University men’s golf coach Bruce Cunningham.

“He has great support,” Cunningham said. “His wife at that point, she was a fellow athlete at Eastern Michigan, and from his parents as well. When he went through that, he had all our support.”

Ten months after he suffered the brain infection, White started playing golf competitively again.

“He accepted it and it was just a challenge,” Cunningham said. “The tenacity and perseverance to overcome, to triumph over this, he was not afraid to put himself out there.

“He came to practice multiple times where his balance was off and his equilibrium was off and he wasn’t afraid. Anybody else would have stayed in their house and not want to be seen, but he was not afraid. It was a part of his progress.”

Since then, White has made a miraculous recovery and is on his way back to playing golf among top-ranked competition. To get to the WM Phoenix Open, White had to qualify at McCormick Ranch on Feb. 6. He qualified by shooting a round of 66, which included eight birdies, and tied for second place.

Qualifying for this event is step No. 1 in his pursuit of a championship trophy.

“It’s just another step forward in my career,” White said. “Anytime I can make a step forward progressing towards the PGA Tour, it’s a big step.”

He now has the opportunity to live out his dream on the biggest stage – the WM Phoenix Open.

White has never played the rowdy Scottsdale tournament, but he doesn’t fear playing in the spotlight or playing in front of thousands of people.

“I don’t know if there is any way you can prepare for it,” White said. “You just go and you say I just want to make the crowd applaud and that’s all you really need.”

Cunningham believes White feeds off of energy in a crowd, so he shouldn’t be too worried.

“The energy that is so unique to the Waste Management Phoenix Open, he will feed off that,” Cunningham said. “He’s a former hockey player, and he’ll really feed off of all the energy the fans give him.”

During White’s practice round, he got some great advice from a fellow PGA player and caddy.

“I got my practice round in on Tuesday,” White said. “We played all 18 and took our time, we let a few groups play through. I ended up pairing up with Jason Dufner for the back nine, and he and his caddy were gracious enough to give me a few little tips on where the pins were.”

Dufner explained to White that since the greens were soft on this day, he would be able to stop his shots on a dime, but come Sunday those greens will be dry and fast. This advice should help White throughout the weekend.

White really appreciated Dufner’s advice for the upcoming tournament and offered some advice of his own to people struggling with serious physical ailments.

“Lean on your support system, try to get better every day, hit your physical therapy hard,” White said. “If you have any shred of doubt or take the foot off the gas, you’re going to start losing progression that you’ve already made.

“Constantly challenge yourself, never be a victim, never say you can’t do something. If you put your mind to it, your mind is very, very powerful and you can do amazing things and surprise yourself.”

Aaron Healy AIR-in HEE-lee (he/him)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Aaron Healy expects to graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Healy, who is assigned to Cronkite News this semester, has covered sports events for Varsity Xtra in Phoenix.