Among peers, Golf Digest says these physicians rule the course

The top golf doctors say they play a couple of times a week but have no illusions about joining the PGA Tour.

By Damon Adams — Posted Sept. 4, 2006

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Ophthalmologist Dan Whipple, MD, readily admits he's no Tiger Woods.

"He was probably better as a 12-year-old than I am now," he jokes.

The physician, 44, also confesses that he's not as good as the PGA Tour's 197th ranked golfer, a friend he hit the links with recently. "He just killed me," said Dr. Whipple, of Avon, Ind., not bothering with the gory details. "I couldn't wait to get back to my buddies to get my game back."

For it is among his colleagues that Dr. Whipple is on the leader board.

So says the August Golf Digest magazine, which rates the physician as tied for 8th in the top golfing doctors in America. As part of a special health section, the 1.6-million circulation magazine ranked the top 250 doctors on the fairways and greens.

Golf and medical associations were consulted, as were doctors in the Castle Connolly annual guide, America's Top Doctors (4th Edition). Doctors listed in regional magazines were considered, too. Only practicing physicians made the cut, and the rankings were compiled using the U.S. Golf Assn. Handicap Index, a number based on a golfer's ability and course difficulty.

When told of how they fared, many on the magazine's list were as thrilled as hitting a hole in one. "I remember one doctor saying, 'This is the most exciting thing that has happened to me since I graduated from medical school,' " said Golf Digest contributing editor Lisa Furlong, who wrote the rankings article.

At first, Steve Samuelson, MD, figured it was a gag when told Golf Digest was on the line. Must be one of his brothers playing a practical joke, he thought. Turns out there's nothing to snicker about when Dr. Samuelson swaps his black bag for a golf bag. He is tied for 4th, an honor not unnoticed by his patients.

"They said, 'No wonder I can't get in to see you; you're out there golfing all the time.' I just say, 'Yeah, we'll get you in,' " said Dr. Samuelson, an ophthalmologist in Fremont, Neb.

Like most top golf docs, Dr. Samuelson has an athletic past; he played for the golf team at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, where he was an academic All-American. He won the 2003 Nebraska Mid-Amateur Championship.

"I enjoy the competition. Most doctors have a competitive streak in them," he said.

California hematologist/oncologist Patricia Cornett, MD, is the top female golfer and No. 7 overall on the Golf Digest list. She has competed in about five dozen USGA events, including U.S. Women's Amateurs and Curtis Cups.

How much does she love golf? Consider the names of her three dogs: Troon, Ailsa and Ballybunion.

"Those are golf courses in Scotland and Ireland," said Dr. Cornett, associate chair of education in the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

Golf Digest's No. 1 golfing doctor is Douglas Hanzel, MD. Slight in build at 5 feet 7 inches and 140 pounds, he waved goodbye to basketball and football years ago. He picked up a golf club at age 3, before he could ride a tricycle. He won the state high school championship in Ohio, then played for Kent State University in the Buckeye State. The Savannah, Ga., pulmonary specialist has qualified eight times for the U.S. Amateur and captured the 2004 Georgia Mid-Amateur title.

Kudos aside, Dr. Hanzel's first love is medicine, something he always wanted to do. On Thursdays, he makes patient rounds in the morning, then takes off the afternoon for a round of golf, a pastime shared with his teen-age son. "It's helped me hone my game while spending time with him," Dr. Hanzel said.

Omaha, Neb., anesthesiologist Hap Pocras, MD, doesn't take his tied-for-No. 4 ranking among golf docs too seriously. But that hasn't stopped co-workers from ribbing him and others from challenging him to a round.

Frankly, Dr. Pocras sounds like a humble player when he talks about his game: "I wish like all golfers I was a little more consistent." But he does offer one insight: Visualize your shot before you swing the club, imagining the flight of the ball. "To me, so much of golf is visual. If I'm able to see a shot before I actually hit it, I feel like I'm going to succeed," he said.

So what if they all can't be Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson? Dr. Whipple loves the camaraderie and said the game has helped his medical practice by allowing him to meet other doctors, peers he contacts when needed. Still, when you're in the top 10 among your colleagues, everybody guns for you on the course.

"I'll have friends who will hit a better shot and say, 'Well, I must be the 8th best golfer,' " Dr. Whipple said.

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Top of their game

Golf Digest estimates that 100,000 of the nation's physicians play golf. The magazine ranked the best of the bunch. Here are its top 10:

Specialty, location USGA Index, comment
1. Douglas Hanzel, MD Pulmonary medicine, Savannah, Ga. +2.3, Lives and plays at The Landings on Skidaway Island
2. Cris Barnthouse, MD Orthopedic surgery, Leawood, Kan. +1.6, Kansas City Chiefs team doctor, former college basketball player
3. Edward Vomastek, DO Anesthesiology, Traverse City, Mich. +1.3, Qualified for U.S. Mid-Amateur
4. (tied) Hap Pocras, MD Anesthesiology, Omaha, Neb. +1.0, Won Little People's Golf Championship at age 13
4. (tied) Steve Samuelson, MD Ophthalmology, Fremont, Neb. +1.0, 2003 Nebraska Mid-Am champ
6. Jonathan Valuck, MD Cardiology, Oklahoma City +0.5, North American Medical Golf Assn. champ in 2000 and 2004
7. Patricia Cornett, MD Hematology/oncology, San Francisco 0.0, Curtis Cupper in 1978 and 1988
8. (tied) Matt Weresh, MD Orthopedic surgery, West Des Moines, Iowa 0.2, Played in 1982 U.S. Junior
8. (tied) Dan Whipple, MD Ophthalmology, Avon, Ind. 0.2, Built network of expert consultants through golf
10. Peter Parker, MD General surgery, Winston-Salem, N.C. 0.3, Runner-up in 2005 N.C. Super Senior

Note: USGA Handicap Index is based on a golfer's ability and course difficulty.

Source: Golf Digest, August

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Playing up to par

Golf Digest's ratings of the nation's best golfing doctors listed 15 orthopedic surgeons in the Top 100, the most by any specialty. Urologists finished second, with eight making the Top 100. Here are some tidbits the magazine gathered by surveying 200 golfing docs:

87% have been asked for free medical advice during a round of golf.

46% have treated an ill or injured golfer on the course.

43% think sex the night before a round can have a positive effect on one's golf game.

22% would try to keep an appointment with Tiger Woods in a pro-am at Pebble Beach even if they woke up with heart attack symptoms.

10% say the pressure of a tough putt in a tournament could be hazardous to one's health.

Golfer docs' favorite joke: What is the difference between God and a doctor? God knows he's not a doctor.

Source: Golf Digest, August

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External links

Golf Digest magazine's health section that includes top golfing doctor rankings (link)

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