When you have been officially classed as dead twice in seven minutes and still recovered to resume your job as a golf professional, you can fairly assume that you know how to jump back from adversity. It is with this self-belief that Jay McLuen will on Thursday start his first PGA Tour event since lockdown and, more notably, since watching his wife defying her own mortality when buried under a tractor mower.
This tale of a journeyman like no other will surely inspire every reader to root for him in this week’s Sanderson Farms Championship in Mississippi, where he will tee up in the $6.5 million (£5 million) event alongside the likes of Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia and rising stars in the world’s top 30 such as Scottie Scheffler and Sung-jae Im.
Down in 1,989th in the rankings, McLuen battled through qualifying on Monday, a day after telling himself it might be the moment to hang up the spikes. “I’m 40, have been out here grinding for nigh on two decades and have been playing so badly and thought to myself, ‘How much more can I take?’ ” the American told Telegraph Sport.
“But I must have a streak of stubbornness running through my Scottish heritage, because I decided, ‘I’m not quitting.’ After all, what we’ve been through in the last few years makes the trials of pro life seem pretty low beer.”
Best to start at McLuen’s home in November 2017. It was Saturday morning and his thoughts were on yet another crack at PGA Tour qualifying school the following Wednesday. “There was no warning whatsoever, been healthy my whole life, but the lights were on and suddenly then went off,” he recalled. “The next thing I remember is waking up in a hospital on the Tuesday and saying to my wife, ‘Hey, we gotta get out of here – it’s Q-School tomorrow.’ ”
Reye told her husband he was going nowhere and filled him in on the previous 72 hours. “She had been upstairs having a shower at 8.15am and I had our toddler, Max, in my arms and was watching TV with our daughter, Miller, who was then four. Out of nowhere, I collapsed and had a seizure. First Reye thought I was joking around with Miller, but she quickly realised this was no act and rang 911. The paramedics were apparently there in five to six minutes.
“There was no heartbeat, I was gone, but they somehow resuscitated me. Yet just as they’d got the stretcher out to get me to the ambulance, they lost me again. They used those electrified paddles to shock me seven times, but nothing. That’s when the paramedic started punching me in the chest, trying to break though my ribs so he could get compression directly on to my heart. It worked and even though the tests all came back fine and they didn’t have an explanation, a day or so later I had a pacemaker with a defibrillator fitted. Then I woke up and I was out by Thursday.”
The medical staff demanded a long rest but, just two months later, McLuen was playing in the Bahamas on the Korn Ferry Tour, the main feeder league to the PGA Tour. “It’s funny, I played with Erik Compton and, as most golf fans know, he’s had heart transplants,” McLuen said. “Yeah, like me, he was on big medication, but Erik didn’t let that stop him [finishing runner-up at the 2014 US Open]. I think I’m one of the toughest guys I know, but still, Erik highlighted what was possible. No moaning, just grinding.”
McLuen went back to work and although the results on the recognised circuits remained indifferent – “I won a stack of times on the mini-Tours and that kept me going” – he reached the start of this year with hopes high of finally earning his Tour card. In February, he Monday-qualified at the Puerto Rico Open and although he only collected $6,600 for his efforts, it was just the third cut he had made in 12 PGA Tour starts across seven years.
Even when the coronavirus hooter sounded, the hiatus was not too inconvenient. “My wife’s parents gave us some land in Georgia, 10 miles away from our old house, so we decided to build ourselves a new home,” he said. “That gave us the time.”
Except fate and the indiscriminate spectre of impending tragedy elected to revisit the McLuens. “It was in May and I was out cutting the grass – there was 21 acres of it so it wasn’t a job for a lawnmower but a tractor and a bush hog [a rotary mower]. I was almost done when the hog got caught up in barbed wire. So I turned off the tractor, called my wife to bring the wire cutters and we got under there. Then the hydraulics gave out and it landed on us – 1,800lb. We were pinned down and she was suffocating and I couldn’t do a damn thing but call Miller to go get the neighbour. He had to get his own tractor to lift it and as I lie there I could see her face first tuning purple and then blue. She’d taken her last breath three minutes before.
“We performed CPR, but when the ambulance arrived they said she’d been in cardiac arrest. They got her breathing, but the hospital warned me that she might not make it through the night and if she did there was a big chance she’d be in a vegetative state. But it was another blessing – she is back to 100 per cent health. We had Miller to worry about as well, because again she saw it all. But we’ve talked her through it and it is helping all of us to appreciate the gift of life.”
It is an attitude that McLuen is certain will count in his favour as he relaunches another mission. “I wasn’t at all wound up on Monday, just went out there, enjoyed myself and shot a bogeyless six-under 66 and topped the field [of 71]to get one of the four spots. I’m going out with that same mindset here – just have four fun days.
“You know people ask why at my age I’m still trying to get on Tour and that I have no chance. But I know I’m good enough and the way I’m looking at it is that you’re only six per cent likely to survive when being resuscitated after a heart attack and I did so twice in seven minutes. My wife did it, too. So I like my chances. We are getting used to beating those odds.”