Robert Morris golfer's battle starts before he steps on tee


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Above all, golf is a game of complete mental concentration and physical discipline.

It takes a steady hand and a mind that doesn't drift far, if at all, from the task at hand -- going through the proper motions to hit the ball while enveloped in complete and sometimes imposing silence.

Given the game's strict parameters, Ryan Prokay is not someone who is supposed to succeed on the course. He was diagnosed at an early age with Tourette's syndrome, a neuropsychiatric disorder characterized by physical and vocal tics. But, when faced with adversity, Prokay created a new, more successful reality for himself.

Prokay just completed his sophomore season on the Robert Morris men's golf team and recently won the Golf Coaches Association of America David Toms Award, presented annually to the men's collegiate golfer who has overcome adversity to achieve excellence.

"It was just kind of a weight lifted off my shoulders," Prokay said. "It was saying all my hard work is for something, that people do notice it.

"Even in the times where I felt like giving up but I haven't, this just has all paid off to that."

The award was a validation for Prokay in his constant battle with Tourette's.

He was first diagnosed with the syndrome in third grade, when he started displaying minor eye rolls. As Prokay got older, the involuntary movements -- most frequently eye rolls and indecipherable grunts, along with arm and eye twitches -- got more severe. To compound the problem some of the tics worsened on their own.

At other times, complications caused the syndrome to get worse and impact other areas of Prokay's health. While playing in a tournament at age 17, he quickly tired, and later it was discovered he had Lyme disease.

The antibiotics prescribed for the Lyme disease improved that condition but worsened his tics. Furthermore, a virus left him allergic to a vitamin supplement he had taken since fourth grade, making him extremely weak to the point where he had difficulty doing something as simple as walking 18 holes.

It was a vicious pattern, causing Prokay a great deal of anxiety and depression, in addition to self-hitting that got so bad he broke several ribs.

Once the college recruiting process came around, Prokay felt his Tourette's discouraged many coaches from pursuing him.

But Robert Morris coach Jerry Stone did not share such a fear. Where some saw potential problems, he saw someone who deserved an opportunity.

"I didn't have a problem with him playing for me because he's a great player and a great kid," Stone said. "When you put that combination together, it was easy.

"The disability that he has, it doesn't bother me and it doesn't bother any of the kids on the team. He's just a normal kid."

His accomplishments in two years at Robert Morris have been anything but normal. Despite the distraction caused by tics and other involuntary actions, Prokay has managed to build a 3.96 grade-point average.

On the golf course, he has a career stroke average just below 77, a mark that has been achieved by learning how to work around his syndrome in a measured, nearly regimented manner.

Depending on how stressful a shot is, Prokay's tics can last from five to 30 seconds as he approaches the ball. He takes the time to calm himself down before the shot, a process that can sometimes last as long as two minutes. Since a golf swing generally takes no more than a handful of seconds, Prokay said a tic never has disrupted him when he was about to hit the ball.

With considerable resiliency and a positive attitude, Prokay has found success.

"It's hard to tell if it affects him because he's always in a great mood and always fun to be around," Robert Morris team captain Brock Pompeani said. "At times, you can definitely imagine it would be tough, but he doesn't show it."

Prokay has two years remaining in his collegiate golf career, but this Grove City, Mercer County native has no plans to play professionally after graduation. Prokay plans to continue his hard work in the classroom and be named an academic All-American next season.

It would be another step forward for someone who has defied the odds throughout his life. But even though he has accomplished so much, Prokay would much rather be seen for who he is and what he has achieved not for the Tourette's that hampers him daily.

It's a syndrome that might always be with him, but he never wants to be defined by it.

"I've always wanted to be known as a good golfer," Prokay said, "not a good golfer with Tourette's."

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Craig Meyer: cmeyer@post-gazette.com and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG


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