Before Nov. 8, 2003, Jamie Nieto was a lot like any other teenager addicted to golf.
Having grown up in Franklin Park, Illinois, with boyhood dreams of being a first baseman for the Chicago Cubs, Nieto started caddying at the Oak Park Country Club as a way to make extra cash heading into high school. What started as merely a job turned into a fascination. When one of his neighbors decided to sell a mixed set of clubs, Nieto offered his lawn-mowing services – just like that, the clubs were his and his passion for the game continued to expand with each round.
He made the varsity team at East Leyden High School and continued to excel at the game, leaving him hungry to make it at the college level while also pursuing a career in education, perhaps as a high school teacher. Nieto walked on at Northern Illinois University and wasn’t quite good enough to make the team, which prompted him to transfer to a local community college. Not long after that, he was offered the chance to play for Monmouth College, a small liberal arts school a few hours southwest of Chicago. He would get to play college golf and become a teacher. He envisioned the day that he could give lectures during the school year and spend free time in the summer at the golf course.
But on Nov. 8, 2003, the day he turned 20 years old, all of Nieto’s plans changed.
He had come home from work early that day and decided to light a fire in his yard for warmth while he was outside doing yard work. Using a different accelerant than he was accustomed to, fumes from the can got too close to the flame causing it to explode in his hands. He was engulfed in flames, suffering third-degree burns on 55 percent of his body. If not for his mother being nearby and rushing to help, it’s likely Nieto would not have survived.
Before the excruciating reality of the burns had fully kicked in – a couple of minutes into the ambulance ride from his home is when he began to feel the pain – Nieto’s mind had flashed to golf.
“I remember after the accident happened and I was getting walked to the ambulance, I looked down at my hands and the skin was peeling off of them,” Nieto said. “My first thought was, ‘How am I going to swing a golf club again?’ It wasn’t ‘Oh, am I going to live through this?’ ”
As he came to realize, survival had been far from a sure thing. Among doctors and patients, a common calculation for chance of survival is to take the percentage of third-degree burns and add 20, then subtract from 100. In Nieto’s case, that left him with a 25 percent chance of staying alive.
“When Tony came in and mentioned that he played golf, I looked at his hands and saw that he had less fingers than I had. I kind of thought, ‘Well if Tony can play golf then I can figure out a way to do this.’ ”
He was taken to Loyola University Medical Center where he was put into a medically induced coma for a month while doctors performed surgeries to keep his body free from pneumonia and infections. He lost the tips of his fingers and most of his right thumb. Shortly after awakening, Nieto was transferred to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (now known as the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab) where he went through a four-month program to get back on the path toward living a normal life again.
While in the rehab center, Nieto also harbored aspirations of playing golf again. Therapists kept golf in mind as they designed Nieto’s rehab program, emphasizing flexibility and rotation. A visit from another burn survivor, Tony Gonzalez, made Nieto believe that golf was a realistic possibility. Gonzalez, an avid golfer who returned to the game after sustaining third-degree burns on 93 percent of his body, met Nieto through a program called Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery, a group formed through the Phoenix Society of Burn Survivors.
The two had an instant connection and eventually became best friends. In fact, when Nieto got married last month, Gonzalez was his best man.
“When Tony came in and mentioned that he played golf, I looked at his hands and saw that he had less fingers than I had,” Nieto said. “I kind of thought, ‘Well if Tony can play golf then I can figure out a way to do this.’ In order for me to recover from this injury and feel like myself again, I need to be able to play golf.”
From Gonzalez’s perspective, he saw the value of being a mentor to Nieto. It was the beginning of a relationship that helped spur Nieto’s belief that he could make it as a golf professional. During the arduous rehab process, Nieto decided not just to play the game again but to try to make it a career.
“Nobody should have to go through this alone,” Gonzalez said. “It’s one thing to hear encouragement from doctors or therapists, but seeing someone who has gone through a similar experience and looking them in the eye is something completely different. … I hope what I instilled in Jamie was to never give up, and as I’ve seen him grow as a person and a professional, I see that he has also taught me the same thing.”
Slowly, Nieto inched closer to becoming a PGA professional. He played his first round of golf in spring 2005, a year and a half after his accident, shooting 85. Nieto was thrilled with not just the score but also his relative lack of pain. Shortly after getting reacclimated to the game, he attended the now-defunct Golf Academy of America in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, in 2006 and 2007.
When he arrived back in Illinois, Nieto quickly proved he could be a successful golf professional. He started as an assistant for two years at Chalet Hills Golf Club in Cary, northwest of Chicago, then moved to the Bridges of Poplar Creek Country Club in Hoffman Estates, slightly closer to the Windy City, for another two years after that.
With those two jobs on his résumé, Nieto then landed a head professional job at Pheasant Run Resort a little further to the southwest in St. Charles, where he remained for seven years. His game improved greatly as the years went forward – Nieto shot a course-record 64 at Pheasant Run.
To reach the heights of holding a steady job in the golf industry, Nieto overcame the mental burden of being a burn survivor.
“There was a lot of self-doubt in the beginning,” he said, referencing his early days as a club pro. “I wondered how people would accept me as a golf professional. I thought they would look at my hands and think whether I could actually play golf.
“And like a lot of other burn survivors with facial burns, it was just having to face the world with facial scarring. You worry that people aren’t going to be receptive to a guy who doesn’t look like everyone else.”
Last year Nieto became the head pro at the Preserve at Oak Meadows in nearby Addison, a course that he considered his favorite growing up. He’s been a central figure in making sure people are enjoying their experience at the facility, especially in a year like 2020. Nieto said the facility was expected to finish with around 28,000 rounds of golf, well ahead of the 22,000 the staff budgeted for.
“It felt like a homecoming when I took the job,” he said. “When I was a kid, I would come here and play as many holes as I could. I loved it from the moment I first came here, so it was a perfect fit to come back.”
Now, as one who wears the many hats of a head professional, Nieto also feels a responsibility to show how it’s possible for a burn survivor to accomplish whatever he or she sets their mind to. He now spends time as a motivational speaker in addition to helping Gonzalez with an annual Burn Awareness Golf Outing. And in 2016, the Illinois PGA section recognized Nieto with its Distinguished Service Award.
All of his work is in the name of giving hope to those who struggle with regaining their lives after burn trauma.
“There is a lot of attention for AIDS or cancer or diabetes, but you never really know about burn survivors because it’s not a disease that you can pass from person to person,” Nieto said. “It’s the worst type of injury your body can go through.”
In the end, Nieto hopes his legacy shows what can be done if you keep persevering.
“There were people who told me I would never play golf again, but I’m living proof that it could happen,” he said. “Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something.”