Matthew Sughrue lived out the ultimate nightmare scenario for anyone who loves the game.
He was told his golf career may not continue.
The news came in the summer of 2019 on the heels of Sughrue playing some of the best golf of his life. The Arlington, Virginia, resident started that year as the No. 6 senior in the World Amateur Golf Ranking buoyed by a three-year stretch in which he recorded 11 top-10s in major national or international events, finished runner-up in a U.S. Senior Amateur, reached match play of the U.S. Mid-Am twice and qualified for a U.S. Senior Open where he missed the cut by only one stroke.
And then his competitive aspirations nearly ended with one ill-timed swing.
Sughrue’s physical woes began when he tore a tendon in his right elbow while working out at the gym in January 2019. The pain was manageable with cortisone shots and consistent doses of Advil that enabled him to keep playing, and he planned a relatively simple surgery once he made it through key events that summer.
However, he wouldn’t make it that far. Leading the British Senior Amateur on the final day at North Berwick, Sughrue birdied the first hole and then stood in the second fairway to play his approach.
“I hit a shot and my elbow just sort of exploded,” Sughrue said.
R&A officials stopped play for an extended period of time. Sughrue took two Advils and two Tylenols to go along with a bag of ice. He would gut out the rest of the day, settling for a tie for 10th.
Sughrue had officially torn the same tendon in two places now, which greatly complicated matters. The prognosis suddenly was far bleaker than he had anticipated.
“When I got back to the states, the surgeon told me it was inoperable and I may not be able to play golf again,” Sughrue said. “It was shocking to hear that. My arm had atrophied substantially at that point. It was a scary time.”
Severe injuries happen every now and then in senior amateur golf as players get older. There have been many forced retirements from competition. That wasn’t an option in Sughrue’s mind.
Instead of accepting his surgeon’s diagnosis as gospel, he decided to try an experiential treatment developed at the Mayo Clinic. It was, to use Sughrue’s word, an “extreme” path to getting better. He underwent a unique tenotomy procedure which uses a large needle to recreate an acute injury so the body can heal on its own. His previous chronic usage of cortisone and Advil had originally prevented this from happening. During a 40-minute session where Sughrue was awake the entire time but had a numbing agent on his arm, the surgeon pulverized his elbow and removed scar tissue.
“I left with an elbow that looked like it had a grapefruit stuffed in it,” Sughrue said.
There was a lot more work to be done. For three and a half months, Sughrue had to do physical therapy twice a week, trying to strengthen the elbow. And then the surgeon decided Sughrue would be best served by repeating the process. He went back to have his elbow pulverized one more time and then did another three and a half months of physical therapy.
By the time Sughrue had finished this process in the back half of 2019 and early 2020, he had finally become a candidate for a much simpler procedure that involved putting a screw where the tendon had torn. That was what he planned on getting done back in 2019 once a couple of USGA championships were behind him. Now his body had healed enough to make it work. But the surgery wasn’t available during the initial stages of the pandemic, so he was advised to go forward until his discomfort became unmanageable.
“I’ve just kept going and gotten better and better,” Sughrue said. “I haven’t needed the surgery. It’s pretty remarkable.”
Sughrue played a few local events in 2020 and had middling results in a few starts early in 2021, falling well down the rankings as a result. But as his elbow became healthier, the form he maintained before the injury returned. His run began when he reached the round of 32 in last year’s U.S. Senior Amateur and then got to the final of the Crump Cup where he fell to Mike McCoy.
Now, at age 62, Sughrue is arguably the hottest player in senior amateur golf thus far in 2022. He won the National Senior-Junior alongside partner Justin Young before finishing runner-up in two meaningful national events, the Golfweek Player of the Year Classic and the Society of Seniors Spring Classic.
That all led to last week at the Jones Cup Senior Invitational. The 54-hole tournament held at Sea Island Golf Club boasts one of the top senior fields of the year. Sughrue entered the final round four strokes back of ironman Allen Peake, but that deficit was slowly erased as he opened with a 4-under 32 and navigated his way to a one-stroke lead by the time he stood on the 18th tee. A wayward tee shot into the penalty area led to a bogey and a playoff with Peake. Unfazed, Sughrue made a lengthy birdie putt on the second playoff hole to capture the title.
It’s the type of win he envisioned while recovering from such a gruesome injury.
“I’m so grateful to just be playing golf,” Sughrue said. “To be able to play this well at this high of a level, it’s just icing on the cake.”
This type of sacrifice is nothing new to a man used to facing challenges. Growing up in Bethesda, Maryland, Sughrue had a strong junior career that led to him playing golf at the University of North Carolina. He was, as he calls it, “a pretty big disappointment” for the Tar Heels before transferring closer to home at the University of Maryland, where he graduated in 1983.
He played virtually no competitive golf after college until he reached the age of 40 and slowly started working his way back with the help of instructor Wayne DeFrancesco. In 2007, Sughrue qualified for the U.S. Amateur at the age of 48. He relearned how to become a tournament golfer.
It’s indicative of more than just competitive golf. At the core of Sughrue’s life is an unrelenting desire to push his own boundaries, both on and off the course.
He started a commercial insurance business in 1998 but remained unsatisfied with a singular focus; Sughrue began mentoring work at jails and mental institutions while also becoming heavily involved with the First Tee of Washington D.C., for which he served as a member of the board and later on the executive committee.
“With all the schooling, clinical internships, research, thesis writing and a three and a half year residency, it took a long time. It was a long road, but I made it.”
His volunteer experience led him to consider whether he could be doing something else with his career. Many of us would start looking at jobs with minimal experience necessary to get started – Sughrue took the opposite approach. He was interested in psychotherapy, so he sold his insurance business and set off on an eight-year journey to becoming a therapist and sports performance coach with a private practice.
It started in 2008 when he took the GREs and then enrolled in Virginia Tech’s marriage-and-family-therapy program at the school’s Fairfax campus. He defended his thesis in December 2012 and then embarked on his residency.
“With all the schooling, clinical internships, research, thesis writing and a three and a half year residency, it took a long time,” Sughrue said. “It was a long road, but I made it.”
Sughrue, for the most part, put away his clubs while he was in school. But once he reached 2013, he suddenly had more time and flexibility, which enabled him to play more. He qualified for the U.S. Senior Open that year and began to play consistent golf, leading him to this stretch of senior amateur success. To this day, he has the ability to play in tournaments by stacking patients on the days around the event “which can be very stressful,” he says.
This is heavy work. Sughrue deals directly with patients who have anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, substance abuse and marriage issues, among other intense troubles. In the sports performance area, he gets deeply involved with the athlete’s life to identify performance or psychological hurdles. Sughrue may work with not just the athlete but their entire family in an effort to help them think differently.
When asked how he is able to separate the emotional nature of his work with the mental battle of playing in a tournament, Sughrue answers that his work gives him perspective and golf is in the right place for his life.
“But to play elite competitive golf is stressful,” he said. “It’s a real mental challenge. So I do practice what I preach. That’s certainly been helping me manage disappointing results at times or moments during a competitive round when things could easily come off the rails.
“I do think to myself, ‘What would I tell somebody else?’ ”
As Sughrue is relishing some of the best golf of his senior amateur career at the moment – and given his extensive knowledge of the human psyche, it’s a certainty every golfer reading this would like to know what he has been thinking about on the golf course.
The answer: He’s been thinking about something completely unrelated to the game. Sughrue and his wife, Carolyn, recently became godparents to a 2-year-old named Ford. He is the son of Sughrue’s niece, Jenny Konko. The Sughrues do not have children of their own, so being godparents has been a particularly special experience.
During the National Senior-Junior earlier this year, Sughrue was sent a video of Ford enthusiastically cheering on his godfather with the repeated chant of “Go Uncle Matt!”
“It’s the cutest thing, and it just makes me laugh,” Sughrue said. “So whenever I get stressed out on the golf course, I just walk from the green to the next tee and I start saying to myself, ‘Go, Uncle Matt!’ I picture Ford in that video.”
The positivity has worked. And with everything he has been through, his perspective is earned.