Kathleen Klawitter’s ‘Direct Hit’
Santa Barbara Author’s Medical Memoir Is Subtitled ‘A Golf Pro’s Remarkable Journey Back from Traumatic Brain Injury’
By Matt Kettmann
Kathleen Klawitter’s life as a professional golfer was destroyed when she was struck in the head by an errant golf ball in 1998, causing a traumatic brain injury.
She recovered with the help of a neuropsychologist in Santa Barbara and became a fixture during social events at Jodi House, where she now serves as an ambassador. Klawitter began writing her memoir in Cork Milner’s writing class at the Schott Center almost 20 years ago and last year finally finished Direct Hit: A Golf Pro’s Remarkable Journey Back from Traumatic Brain Injury.
She explains her journey below.
Tell us about your background and your career, up until the accident.
In the late 1980s, I resigned from a stressful job in Chicago, sold my home, and moved to California to become a golf professional. In one year, I had my LPGA (Ladies Professional Golf Association) card to play, compete, and teach. Now that’s how quickly things can come together when you start living your passion, and what I call your true normal!
I would hit hundreds of golf balls on the range each day, and people would ask me how I hit the ball so far and so straight. I started to coach them one by one, and I soon realized my true gift and fulfillment came in helping people to believe in themselves so they could become better golfers.
As a teaching professional, my entrepreneurial skills soon kicked in. Besides golf lessons and short-game clinics, I facilitated a one-of-a-kind ladies’ golf league for beginners with on-course instruction — and no score was kept. It was very popular, and the players had fun while learning to make golf shots.
I coached a women’s college golf team, where we remained undefeated, won a couple of championships, and I was named Coach of the Year. I wrote golf articles on the body, mind, and spirit of the game, not just the mechanics, and offered guided meditations to quiet the mind for higher golf performance. I was a pioneer in this new golf approach, which was cutting-edge in the early ’90s.
I was guest speaker in the Fall Health Classic Series in California, along with Dr. Benjamin Spock, Michio Kushi, and Dr. Saul Miller. I was on top of my game, making a difference not only for people in their golf performance, but their daily lives as well.
And then you were hit in the head by a golf ball.
It was a warm summer day in late July 1998, where I was facilitating a women’s golf league at a country club in Northern California. The aroma of freshly cut grass was everywhere as I started to walk from my car in the parking lot to the clubhouse.
I glanced over at the putting green, where women from my golf league were practicing. I was going to yell “Hello” but decided not to disturb their concentration. Plus, I knew I would be joining them on the links in a few minutes. I continued down the path to the clubhouse, stopping momentarily to write names on a scorecard.
Suddenly, without warning, something struck me in the head. It felt like a railroad tie had been driven into the top of my skull and out my left eye socket. The pain was excruciating, as if a bowling ball had fallen on my head and shuttered through my whole body.
It was in fact an errant speeding golf ball that was hit from the ninth tee! In seconds, darkness consumed me as I fell to the ground. I lay motionless, glassy-eyed and drooling.
My very young, vibrant, and motivated life as I knew it changed in an instant. My entire golf career, everything I had worked for was gone — all wiped out. Everything I had lived for was shattered.
After a short hospital stay, I returned to my apartment, and I began exhibiting bizarre behavior, such as dizziness, confusion, being disoriented and forgetful. I was an independent woman, living alone, and I couldn’t even figure out how to get to the grocery store, let alone buy groceries. I was a golf professional, yet, when I tried to remember basic teaching skills, I would fumble over words, double-book, or forget scheduled lessons altogether. It was difficult to speak, read, and write. I stopped driving altogether.
Then a close friend finally grabbed me and said, “We’ve got to get you down to Santa Barbara, where there is a good neuropsychologist named Dr. Cheryl Smith.” Over the next three months, I went through some extensive neurological testing and evaluations. I learned I had suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI), the silent disease, from a silent shot. That’s all it took.
How did you learn to live again?
The rehabilitation process was long and painful. It took years to recover. I had to relearn how to speak, read, and write.
I worked with Dr. Smith, and she helped initiate my seeing a speech therapist, a neurocognitive therapist, a vision therapist, physical therapist, and occupational therapist, to name a few from Western medicine.
The sections of the brain that were injured were the frontal lobe, which houses judgment, problem-solving, motor planning, personality, emotions, and executive functioning; the temporal lobe, which affects language, memory, understanding, and hearing; the parietal lobe, which affects the sense of touch, recognition of sizes, shapes, colors, and visual/spatial perception; the occipital lobe, which controls vision; and finally, the cerebellum, which rules balance and coordination.
Although my path was challenging, I kept going. I persevered because I wanted to live. I continued to forge ahead, at the pace of a turtle.
What was it like not to have basic brain functions?
I’d forget what day it was and where I was, and I’d wonder why I was so hungry when I’d just plain forgotten to eat. I even wore the same blue sweatshirt and rust-colored jeans every day because it was just too hard to choose an outfit without taxing my brain.
How did you cope?
I couldn’t fight it. I had to surrender to the moment. I had to move more through my body, and deepen into myself more than I ever thought possible. I was in a dark tunnel, a black hole, reaching to find a way out.
Yet, once I dropped into my body, a resonance began to occur, from this invisible, intangible force. My left brain, which is the doer and initiator, wasn’t going to figure it out. It couldn’t.
So I had to rely on my body’s inner guidance system. I moved from my thinking place to my feeling place, and soon I became more presently aware, because I could only be in the moment. There was no going back and no going forward; I was just right here, right now.
Then surrendering to those moments, I began to drop into myself at a deeper octave, communing with nature more. I’d feel my feet firmly on the earth, and as I walked, feeling the dirt or asphalt, it was like the ground was coming up to meet my every step, and it supported me. I realized that when one sense was taken away, like my vision, another sense would take over: my sense of touch, and intuition, which is part of the right brain functioning.
Fascinating, huh? I even followed the phases of the moon to help me complete goals. I would start a project on the new moon, the planting phase, then finish on the full moon, the ripening phase. It was easy and fun, and it didn’t hurt my brain.
I also began to look at life with curiosity and wonderment, just like when I was a child. I would breathe with the trees and watch healing hummingbird shows.
What parts of your experience contradicted what doctors thought would happen?
I was told that my brain injury was permanent and therefore everything I experienced, everything I couldn’t do, would probably stay that way.
But here’s what I learned about the brain: It is magnificent, resilient, and changeable! No matter what others tell you is permanent, or what you tell yourself is permanent, you can change it. It might be just a little bit different, but you can do it, by taking one tiny impossible step at a time.
How did you turn that traumatic experience into a book?
During my rehabilitation process, I started to remember the High Five System I used to teach my golfing clients back in the ’90s. It’s five points to living life fully on or off the golf course, but it works in life too.
Create a daily routine, stay in the present moment, focus on exactly what you desire, believe in yourself, and give yourself some good ol’ TLC (self-trust, self-love, and self-care.) I drew on these principles to help me optimize my own personal performance day in and day out during this time period. This High Five System was in a holistic golf book I was writing for lady golfers. It was 60 percent done back in 1998.
My neuropsychologist also suggested I do activities of high interest, those that were more fun, to help accelerate my rehabilitation process. Along with my curiosity of the night sky, I used to enjoy writing, so she suggested I take a writing class down at the Schott Center here in Santa Barbara. I took an eight-week course three times in early 2000. As a TBI survivor, I had to over-learn information to finally learn it. Repetition of that writing class helped me to write what is now the first chapter of my book, Direct Hit.
It would be years later when a friend helped me progress the manuscript further. She plunged into heaps of handwritten papers, notebooks, and articles, and, using a color-coded method of categorizing, typed everything into the computer for me. This created more of an expanded outline of a book in 2012.
Then, a few years later, I searched out a brilliant editor through a Toastmasters conference, and she saw the grander picture of my life and, moreover, believed in me. She skillfully transformed and rebuilt a fragmented manuscript into a compelling full-length journey, including a golf chapter! I mean, she really extracted everything she could from my brain through continuous inquiry and writing out questions for me. We finished the book in January 2020.
What messages do you hope readers take away from your book?
Remember who you are! Many people are talking about getting back to normal, or this new normal, but I want to know, what is your true normal?
We have the life force within us; it’s innate. We can atone to any shift and keep living and growing, just like in the spring when life bursts forth from the dirt, rocks, and leaves. From this inner connection, answers will come, new directions will birth forth, and you can create something out of nothing, and sometimes even far better than you could ever imagine. You just have to surrender and allow the space for it to appear.
It took an errant speeding golf ball to stop me in my tracks, and for me to deepen into the silence.
What other work are you up to in Santa Barbara?
I have since become the ambassador for Jodi House, and I’m on their board now, which helps give the perspective of a traumatic brain injury survivor. We’re entertaining the idea of having another “Klawitter Golf Classic” fundraiser golf tournament at some point in the future. Jodi House did this type of event back in the early 2000s at Sandpiper Golf Course.
I am also a member of the local AIMS accordion club and enjoy playing the accordion. In 2001, in the foothills of Santa Barbara, back in my little trailer is where I first learned this five-variable instrument with a private music teacher. It was one of those “high-interest” activities I was guided to do, to move through my rehabilitation easier. If you listen quietly in the twilight hours, you may still hear me playing “La Vie en Rose,” albeit missing notes here and there, with the tempo slowing, but never stopping. Music fills me and is uplifting.
Finally, I did a virtual book discussion at Chaucer’s Bookstore May 18 of this year, where you can pick up a copy of my book or watch the video replay on their website. It was a dream come true, and long overdue.
After over 20 years, my life has come full circle back to my home, Santa Barbara.