Michael Hendry is recovering after a shock leukaemia diagnosis. Photo / Photosport
Top Kiwi golfer Michael Hendry – hit by a leukaemia diagnosis just weeks ago – isn’t out of the woods yet.
But just hours before we turned up for an interview, the 43-year-old Aucklander received amazing news about his recovery and is already targeting a return to the game.
Hendry’s career was zooming upwards when the scary test results came back in early April.
He had been experiencing unusual tiredness while walking to elevated tees, vague flu-like symptoms and skin problems that weren’t healing. But not even his doctor suspected leukaemia.
Hendry – who heads back to hospital for more lengthy treatment on Monday – chatted at his Silverdale home about the illness, his two pro sports careers, the rudest golfer he ever met, favourite world star, the LIV influence, good mate Ryan Fox, his British Open plans, and more.
What is the latest on your health battle?
Since the initial diagnosis, every post has been a winner. A specialist told me today I am in complete remission after one cycle of chemotherapy. There are no signs of cancer in my body at all, which is unbelievable.
But there will be dormant cells and if I stopped treatment now would definitely relapse.
The doctors have been surprisingly forthright in their positivity – I’ve probably got a 90 per cent chance of a full recovery.
There is still plenty to go in the journey. I need at least four cycles in to get every last bit of it.
It must have been such a shock?
My GP initially thought I had a pulmonary embolism. I went straight to North Shore hospital, had some x-rays, and they took some blood. About 20 minutes later a couple of emergency department doctors came in with faces as white as ghosts and gave me the bad news, and promptly put me in an ambulance to Auckland Hospital.
I definitely knew what the deal was. I knew Australian golfer Jarrod Lyle, who played on the PGA tour, who died of leukaemia.
The burning questions were: how severe is it, will it take me out, is it terminal, how long have I got? None of those could be answered straight away.
They run all sorts of test, the most important of which is a bone marrow biopsy, a rather unpleasant procedure during which you are awake. There was a week of unknown, waiting for the results from Germany.
What lies ahead treatment-wise?
I’ll be back in hospital on Monday and on one drug for eight days, and then another called Midostaurin for 13 days.
It costs $25,000 a course, and is not Pharmac approved. The insurance company is still deciding if they will help. Thankfully my year had been very successful so we have some money sitting there to pay for it. We may need up to 14 months of that treatment.
How tough is the treatment?
I was carrying a bit of weight anyway but I went from 102kg to 89kg, like I was melting every day. The chemicals are basically poisoning you – there’s a lot of diarrhoea. There were days I would struggle to muster the strength to walk five metres to the bathroom.
The ward is full of patients and you get to know them and their stories. I came to realise that even though I was a very sick man five or six weeks ago, I wasn’t the sickest on the ward.
You have had amazing support…
Phenomenal. I’ve got messages from all over the world, people like Frank Nobilo. Steve Williams was quick to get in touch even though he was in America. Members of the PGA have sent their best. The golfing fraternity is pretty tight. It has been completely and utterly overwhelming in a good way – my phone battery is still constantly running out.
The medical world has also been brilliant, including those undervalued nurses.
Tara [Michael’s wife] was with our two girls at a cousin’s wedding in Christchurch when I got diagnosed – she promptly excused herself and took the first flight home. She has been an absolute rock, unbelievable. The family has been great – a real team effort. Hopefully, it will be a bit easier for them after today’s news.
You had hit such good form before the diagnosis, including victory at the Victoria Open.
I’d been searching and struggling for a while but had a bit of a think during a rain break in a Japanese tournament last year. I’ve always been a natural fader of the ball, but liked to play with the draw. I thought ‘why do I continually fight this?’. I missed the cut still but spent the weekend on the driving range hitting left to right and suddenly found the club face more, with better control, more consistent flight. It simplified how I played, and had positive influences on my technique.
Asian results meant you had qualified for your third British Open…
I’m hopeful the Royal and Ancient will extend the exemption so I can play next year.
Any vivid memories from your previous appearances?
The first tee shot at my very first British Open was one to remember. They build amazing grandstands and you are completely enclosed, by 8000 people I think. The cauldron…the atmosphere is palpable. I was so nervous my hands were shaking and it was hard to get the ball on the tee. The goal was to just hit it forward and get back to my bag as quickly as possible.
Memorable Open playing partners?
For the first year at Royal Birkdale (2017) I played with Brian Harman, who would be one of the most awful human beings I’ve ever met. He was a dickhead…the rudest person ever to the volunteers. It was disgusting how he and his caddy treated them.
The second year I had a fantastic group – Lee Westwood and Kelly Kraft. It was special playing a British Open with Lee Westwood at Carnoustie. Great bloke.
The amount of chatter depends on the people and we chatted plenty. Often, it’s the caddies who initiate the conversation, so if you’ve got a bit of a character in the group it tends to gel.
And your caddy is…
It was Jordan Dasler, still one of my very best friends, until Foxy (Ryan Fox) poached him. I told Jordie it was an opportunity he couldn’t turn down and Ryan chatted to me first. It was a bit like someone asking the father-in-law for someone’s hand in marriage. I told Ryan that if he thought Jordie could help him, you couldn’t pick a better guy. Unfortunately, they only got a year together before Covid hit.
Ryan Fox is doing amazing things in world golf…
Foxy is Foxy, no airs or graces. He’s probably more interested in fishing than golf.
You could always see he had that ability but he’s done it in such emphatic style.
We used to practise together on the Gold Coast in winter and I’m really happy for him and extremely proud, being a good mate.
Do you have a favourite golfer to watch?
I’ve always liked watching Rory McIlroy in full flight. I played a few holes with him in Mexico one year and the way he hits the driver is unbelievable. The way it comes off the club face is just so different to everyone else. It’s faster, higher and the ball gets like a second wind halfway through the flight. It’s just his efficiency. But I think if you are really good at one thing it often hurts other parts of your game. Because the driver swing is different, I think his irons suffer a bit. He should have been closer to winning the PGA but his iron play was pretty average.
What are your thoughts on the breakaway LIV tour?
The PGA is probably pretty sore about Brooks Koepka winning the PGA Championship, while the LIV tour will be cock-a-hoop. It shows that even with that style of golf, with shotgun starts, 54 holes, crazy atmospheres, it hasn’t affected the players’ games for now at least.
As a player the spectator involvement is fantastic but it can get over the top. Scenes around the hole-in-one by Chase Koepka in Adelaide showed it might be going too far. Beer on the green? You can’t alter the course like that.
Friends of mine who went to the Adelaide tournament said it was the best sporting event of any kind they had gone to. There’s the cloud of Saudi money, but LIV is doing cool stuff for spectators which is fantastic.
Has your experience as a golf professional helped you deal with this health crisis?
Definitely. In golf, you can’t think about the results. You go through the processes – yes, all the cliches – one shot at a time. It’s the same mental approach to this whole cancer thing, just a bit more at stake with this one.
I have a good perspective anyway, but my sports psychologist is heavy on being grateful. You can get into some deep dark holes as a professional sportsperson but I’ve still got a bloody good life.
With plenty of achievements…
If the cancer did lead to my death, I didn’t have an issue with that because I’ve managed to do so much in my life. I’ve chased my dreams and achieved a lot of them including my cricket days.
I played three years for the New Zealand under-19s and professionally in England for Ealing, in the Middlesex leagues. I even had the honour of a couple of World Cup warm-up games against Sri Lanka and Pakistan. I went all right…I clean-bowled Sanath Jayasuriya in the first over which I was pretty chuffed about. A busted shoulder slowed my development, which is when I moved towards golf.
I’ve never had a real job – I’ve only done what’s fun – had a great life, travelled the world, done amazing things, met amazing people.
But I haven’t fulfilled my responsibilities as a dad – my girls Maddy, 8, and Harper, 5, are still young and need me around for a few years. That’s at the forefront of my mind.
And do you dream of standing on that first tee at a British Open again…
Absolutely. After this good news I’m excited to go back to hospital…move on with my life having gotten over this speed bump.
And if I could win another New Zealand Open it would mean the world to me. Any form of success would, after what I’ve been through.
I’ve got maybe four months of rehab before I can compete again. I might dip into local pro-ams or Charles Tour events around November – I’ll see how I’m tracking.
I don’t want to make up the numbers in that first event either – I want to go out and win it. That might be a lofty goal but why not? A good story huh?