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How a tour pro’s autism diagnosis led to my own

When veteran golfer Billy Mayfair revealed he had Autism Spectrum Disorder, the author sought to learn more. He didn’t expect his own life to change in the process

Illustrations by Antoine Dore

By Joel Beall
Twitter is an odd place to start this story, but this is an odd story and that’s where it started. I was on my living room couch listening to an office-wide teleconference, which is to say I was aimlessly scrolling through social media, when this popped into my feed:

“Billy Mayfair Reveals Autism Spectrum Disorder Diagnosis”

The tweet led to a Sports Illustrated interview, in which Mayfair—a former talent on the PGA Tour but a man with a complicated past—explained how a rules controversy ultimately led him to discover he had autism. It was an extraordinary interview and one that left me curious. But curiosity can take you on an unexpected journey, and over the next month Mayfair would lead me to a life-altering destination of my own.

. . .

Mayfair, 54, was a decorated amateur and has enjoyed a fruitful career that spans over three decades. But it is a career primarily known for two things. The first is a badge of honour: He is the only player to defeat Tiger Woods in a PGA Tour playoff, doing so at the 1998 Nissan Open. The second, a badge of infamy.

Fairly or not, there were rumours in tour circles about Mayfair’s on-course conduct. Those whispers were given wider credence following a 2019 incident at a Champions event outside Los Angeles. Mayfair faced two rules issues in the same round, the first involving how much time was spent looking for a ball, the second a question if Mayfair caused a ball to move in the rough by patting down grass. In both circumstances, tour officials said Mayfair misrepresented what occurred. The second instance was caught before Mayfair left the tournament grounds, which added two strokes to his score. The first, however, was not realised until the next day, which led to Mayfair’s disqualification from the tournament.

Mayfair continued to play on the Champions after the episode, his name mostly out of the spotlight. That changed this April when, in the Sports Illustrated interview, Mayfair revealed his wife Tami prodded him to seek medical help following the rules fallout. She suspected the challenges Billy faced, some which caused battles with others and himself, were more than the routine stresses that come with professional golf. Following a series of doctor visits, Mayfair was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), in the range formerly known as Asperger syndrome.

Mayfair told SI he was going public for several reasons. He claimed his 2019 DQ was the result of miscommunication and misunderstanding. He was asking the tour for accommodations related to ASD’s effect on his play. He wanted to change the public’s perception of him. He also wanted to change the public’s perception of autism.

These are far from the only characteristics of high-functioning autism but they tend to be the more common flags. They’re also the ones that caught my eye. Because they applied to me.

Compelling as the interview was, I couldn’t quite see the correlation between ASD and Mayfair’s reputation. There seemed to be a story not being told in its entirety. Luckily, Mayfair’s representatives were eager to get him on as many platforms as possible. We had a date to chat.

Thanks to the Internet I was able to grasp the basics of the disorder, and though what I read were overviews, I quickly realized they were also maps, and not just to Mayfair’s story. I phoned several autism centers and experts, prepping for an interview with a guy who didn’t know he was autistic until his 50s while simultaneously seeing a different picture begin to take shape. And I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

. . . 

You’re thinking “Rain Man.” I get it. Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of an autistic savant in the 1988 Oscar-winning movie is credited for raising public awareness and dispelling some myths about the disorder. Conversely, the film is also accused of feeding a stereotype that has become autism’s conventional image. It is problematic because no individual or characteristic can encapsulate what we talk about when we talk about autism.

GOLF SAVED MY LIFE
A boy with autism and his father find happiness through golf.

Autism spectrum disorder is a remarkably complex developmental condition. The American Psychiatric Association describes ASD as “persistent challenges in social interaction, speech and nonverbal communication, and restricted and repetitive behaviours.” What we know about ASD is rapidly evolving. In 2005, Autism Speaks—the largest autism research organisation in the United States—found one in 166 children were diagnosed with ASD. Last year, in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Autism Speaks said the prevalence is now one in 54. It was news welcomed as a breakthrough while also underscoring how much more there is to explore.

How ASD is classified is changing, too. In 2013, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders replaced a series of autistic disorder subgroups, including Asperger syndrome, with the single umbrella term “autism spectrum disorder.” Though it is a disorder predominantly diagnosed during childhood, Mayfair’s case is not rare, as a growing number of adults are finding out later in life they have ASD.

No two cases of ASD are alike. There is a wide variation in the type and severity of symptoms people experience, which is why “spectrum” is often used when describing it. People with ASD could range from those prone to frequent physical ticks, people who are silent and developmentally disabled, to high-functioning individuals who have narrow interests, loquacious and monotone communication habits, and odd social approaches. One of Mayfair’s biggest challenges is processing information in a timely manner. He says it leads him to be constantly in danger of being put on the clock in competition, which in turn throws him off his routine and game.

Taxing as that might be for someone like Mayfair, there is a belief that golf—a sport that calls for a series of repeatable motions and can be played outside the team dynamic—can be helpful to those with ASD. Ernie Els, whose son Ben has ASD, founded an autism-based golf foundation which teaches the game while also practicing specific ASD learning concepts, such as communication, emotional regulation and motor and social skills. (Els also built an autism charter school in Florida.) The Brooklyn Junior Autistic Golfers Academy does the same, asserting the recreation helps build self-esteem and confidence. Moreover, Mayfair is unlikely to be the first high-profile golfer to have ASD: Moe Norman, golf’s troubled genius, is believed to have been autistic.

Because the spectrum is so vast I concentrated on the high-functioning scale where Mayfair said he sat. Some of these signs are:

Speech difficulties; odd, stiff speech patterns; problems with conversational give-and-take; impaired nonverbal behaviours (lack of eye contact, missing body language cues); socially naive; oversensitive to sunlight; repetitive behaviour; exhibiting strong, special interests; fixation on particular subjects or ideas; clumsiness; dislike of change; trouble regulating emotions and responses; anxiety and depression.

These are far from the only characteristics of high-functioning autism, but they tend to be the more common flags. They’re also the ones that caught my eye. Because they applied to me.

. . .

I am 34 years old, and many of those years have been marked by private frustration. It is a frustration that stems from an inability to speak coherently. From an early age I knew what to say and how to say it, but when I opened my mouth the words that were so eloquent and powerful and concise in my mind came out disjointed. A speech impediment took its toll early on, and though my stutter eventually subsided, I still tend to mumble, or speak in sentences that can run on or end abruptly.

I remember spending an entire year of recess sitting on a playground curb because it was easier than opening my mouth and divulging something worse. But by high school I realised more was amiss than how I spoke.

The impediment became a catch-all scapegoat for other failings. Sometimes it was a pretext for not venturing out. I remember spending an entire year of recess sitting on a playground curb because it was easier than opening my mouth and divulging something worse. But by high school I realized more was amiss than how I spoke.

I struggled to hold conversations. I couldn’t decipher if someone was mad at me or liked me or hated me. It was like listening to a different song than everyone else. Group settings were minefields. Someone would laugh, and I would have no idea why. I misread when it was my turn to speak. The constant unease left me with an ever-present scowl. Everyone saw it, except me. I was perplexed when told I was aloof, pretentious and arrogant. In short, I was not a “good hang.”

I was not a social pariah; I was pretty good at sports and counted my teammates as friends. I did not have those luxuries in college. My first two years were so isolating that I habitually thought of transferring or dropping out. But I stayed, and by providence, my junior year I was paired with five guys in a house who somehow saw past my quirks. Of course they drank a lot, so maybe they didn’t notice. Still, they accepted me as their own.

Now, I come from a family with loving parents and siblings. I have a wife who is my soulmate, and as much as they do enjoy their spirits, those college roommates have become lifelong friends. In that same breath … it is a lonely, demoralising existence to be incapable of telling the world who you are and how you feel and what you think, especially against the conviction that it is your reality now and forever.

My escape, the only thing that made sense, was writing.

Be it a notepad or white sheet of paper or a computer screen, I had space and time to put together all these seemingly disjointed pieces into a complete puzzle and show others the picture I was so desperately trying to describe. It began when I was a kid, writing to sports teams asking for free swag or providing unprompted lineup and roster advice. In high school I wrote for the paper, and by college I had a blog that gained a bit of traction. These writings … they weren’t always good. I tended to go overboard with big words and tangential theories to compensate for my shortcomings. But the material at least showed potential to allow me to get a job at a major sports publication at 23 that ultimately led to where I am today. On the surface, mine is a position that is tailor-made to camouflage my weaknesses.

Unfortunately, foundational cracks can’t be concealed. Last year I was invited on a podcast and was borderline incomprehensible, and when the call was over I heard a sound engineer tell the hosts, “I think I can clean him up to make it work.” Be it a chat with a boss or an interview subject, I still struggle to maintain a conversation. Whenever I pitch stories I can visualize their rhythm and flow, their message and their purpose, but often labor to distill that into two or three sentences.

And it’s just not my work. My wife’s job requires social gatherings, but she often leaves me home, worried that my perceived aloofness will become a distraction, reflect poorly on her, or make others feel awkward or unwelcomed. She contended I would zone out or show indifference if the subject was something other than golf. She was disheartened that I couldn’t expand my interests and expressed worry I was depressed.

Thing is, I had visited speech therapists and doctors and psychologists. There was never an overarching theme or sufficient answer. Each problem, the ones I acknowledged or was informed of, could be explained in itself. Some people don’t have a silver tongue. Some are fixated on their work. Some of us are introverts.

Some have two left feet and are blind without sunglasses and are obsessed with golf and, despite their best intentions, are aloof and emit a “Stay Off My Lawn” vibe.

What I received was a universal response: It sounds like you should see someone.

Then I read the signs of ASD that morphed my computer screen into a mirror and made the room spin like I was on a Tilt-A-Whirl. Within hours I called a number of autism-related centers and doctors—to get more information for my chat with Mayfair, yes, but also to throw a nasty “Oh by the way” curveball in each phone call’s direction. See, I am from the WebMD generation. We type in fatigue and loss of appetite into a symptom checker and deduce that we, indeed, are dying of (checks notes) water deficiency syndrome. Clearly one of these voices of authority, after reading the list of signs that worried me, would set me straight with a, “No, you’re reading too much into this.”

What I received was a universal response: It sounds like you should see someone.

I called my wife. Oddly enough she had asked a week earlier, during a small fight about house work, if I had ever been diagnosed with autism. I initially took it as something said in the heat of a tense moment. Now I was realising that question came from a different place. “Were you serious when you asked if I’ve been checked for autism?” I blurted out. She calmly said yes, stating much of the behaviour observed above. She encouraged me to get checked out. One of the experts I talked to was local, just a 20-minute drive away. I made an appointment for Monday. This was a Thursday. Friday was my chat with Mayfair.

. . . 

“I had struggled in school,” Mayfair said in late April. “I socialized, although I never felt like I fit in or understood what was going on. The biggest thing was school; I had tutors, but never performed well on tests. Some tests were OK but if it was a timed test, it put me under the gun. I spaced out. Never felt like I got the grades.”

Mayfair had just completed a full practice session, but he was energized by the opportunity to tell his story and happy that someone wanted to hear it. “I screamed and kicked,” Mayfair said at his wife’s suggestion to go to the doctor but realised “when the [2019] incident happened, I needed to stand up for myself.”

Mayfair did not take the diagnosis well at first. He was a professional athlete; how could he be autistic? More than just being skeptical, he went into denial.

“I fought it. This wasn’t me,” he said. Then he read the doctor’s report. “I thought, ‘Well, I do have that problem. And that problem.’ And I realized it wasn’t telling me my problems as it was giving me a blueprint to combat these problems.”

Mayfair began assessing his past through the ASD prism. He never understood why he would get so frustrated and upset at small things, or why he was so quick to lose his temper. He replayed many of the interactions he had with fans and rules officials over the years that left one or more parties aggrieved. He wondered why he was so stressed over moments that shouldn’t have been stressful.

“One more thing,” Mayfair said before the call ended. “Good luck.”

. . .

Since his diagnosis, Mayfair said he’s found peace. He’s more aware of situations and their environments when it appears things could go south. He does all he can to not feel rushed. Whatever reservations he had about sharing his story had dissipated. He was now on a mission, he said, to destigmatize what some think of ASD.

“Well, I think a lot of people think maybe I’m trying to use this as an advantage,” Mayfair says. “I’m trying to have an equal playing field with what I do. And I want to show people you can have a normal life with this diagnosis.”

Before our first chat I arranged for a second interview, as I wanted to revisit the conversation after I went through my own evaluation. I wasn’t sure how Mayfair was going to take this information; the platform he thought he had may now be shared with a writer he had never met. But when I told him my story, he was encouraging and did his best to defang what could lie ahead. He even seemed galvanized, as if my revelation had given him conviction in what he was trying to do.

“Good on you for exploring that about yourself,” Mayfair said. “You might not like what you hear. I didn’t. But it’s good to find out and take the first steps.”

It was a productive chat but one that left me harbouring guilt. Mayfair was gracious with his time and his story, how he felt and what he went through. I initially reached out because I was curious about the story rather than who the story was about. Plus, I still didn’t see the parallels between his controversy and ASD. That would have to wait for the follow-up.

“One more thing,” Mayfair said before the call ended. “Good luck.”

. . .

My appointment was with a psychologist who specialises in diagnosing ASD, ADHD and learning disabilities. I learned a bit more about autism; for example, some of the aloofness and scowls could be the result of underdeveloped social cues in the brain. However, because I arrived with a framework of the disorder, we dove in—into my past and present, of who I was and who I wasn’t able to be. That sounds like a purge, and in ways it was. It also felt like we were trying to solve a mystery that had long ago gone cold but was now revived with a new lead.

A few days following the meeting I was given an assessment to take at home. My wife was given a similar questionnaire about what she had observed in our time together. There was homework, charting my daily routine. Two weeks later there was an in-person two-hour evaluation. More than once—like when I was asked to imagine aliens landed and was tasked with teaching them to brush their teeth; or to narrate a story about flying frogs invading suburbia—I felt this was a spectacularly stupid endeavour. Just when I came close to asking, “All right, what the hell are we doing here?” I was told the tests were over. I would know the results within the week.

I thought the interstitial between the evaluation and its outcome would be a reflective period. It was mostly excruciating. I read all the same articles on ASD I already had, hoping to glean something new. I checked my emails and call log to make sure I didn’t miss a note from the doctor, then would check again five minutes later. When you’re on the precipice of something big, a week to wait is weekend-round-at-the-muny slow.

Finally, the psychologist asked if I could meet. A Zoom call would have to suffice as it coincided with the PGA Championship, which I was covering in South Carolina. In a media center where other writers were conducting virtual interviews with Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas or pounding out stories, a psychologist filled my screen.

The call took 45 minutes. It felt like five. My psychologist diagnosed me with autism spectrum disorder. I wish there was a more climatic way to deliver the news, but that’s how it was delivered to me.

The psychologist reminded me at least a half dozen times I was still the same person now as I was before the call began.

The conversation was surgical and sober. I was in the range formerly known as Aspergers. It was a mild case, emphasized by a lack of social-emotional reciprocity. Most of the call outlined how we could improve some of those problem areas, along with the psychologist reminding me, at least a half dozen times, I was still the same person now as I was before the call began. When the meeting was over I called my wife, who said the same thing: I was still the same person. I then walked out of the media centre and onto Kiawah’s driving range, watching players try their best to hit into howling wind without really paying attention to who was in front of me.

I’m still the same person today as I was yesterday. I suppose that’s true. It feels true. I still have a job and a family and friends. But my past and future are forever altered. My horizon is now dotted with behavioural therapy trying to address areas I long thought were irreparable. That is for the good. There is hope.

My former self does feel different. There is clarity, a connective tissue to the horde of frustrations I thought were singular beasts. There’s relief in knowing why I am the way I am. But if I’m being honest, one of my first emotions when hearing I was on the spectrum was, if only for a moment, heartache. Not for the diagnosis itself, but all the moments that led to it and how they could have been different.

I thought of all those frustrations as a kid and teenager and adult. Those frustrations were tormentors, bullies. If you’ve dealt with a bully you know it’s not just the fear but how that fear can siphon so much energy and time. There’s a weight that you’re unable to shed. I wish I could tell that guy it’s going to be OK, to ease the pain only he knew but couldn’t explain. It would have saved so much hurt.

. . . 

You mentioned the 2019 incident caused you to seek help, I asked. Knowing what you know now, how would you handle that situation differently?

The diagnosis made me see Mayfair in an altered light. There was awareness where there had been curiosity, empathy where there was judgment. There was admiration and gratitude for what he did for me. In return he seemed touched that he could play a small role in this discovery.

However, this journey we were now on began with a rules controversy, one that led some to label Mayfair a cheater as a result. Mayfair said he wanted to change his public perception. What did the public need to know that they didn’t?

“People are going to be understanding now,” Mayfair said. “It’s all about communication. You have to know what they’re saying and how to respond. Communication is better now. It’s just a different form of communication and people are going to have to get used to that.

“A lot of times on the PGA Tour officials or fans would say things and my reaction offended them. It just took more time for me to process what was happening. I did that to my closest friends. Hopefully people see I wasn’t trying to offend anyone.”

If Mayfair’s critics are hoping for an apology, he isn’t offering one. In his mind there’s nothing to apologise for. But to say he’s avoiding the question is unfair. Mayfair knows what people think of him. He’s not asking people to overlook his past, just to give his past another look.

I am biased. Ironically, a strong sense of justice is a common strength of those with ASD, which might explain why I was intrigued with this story involving a rules fiasco in the first place. And it’s easy to take the allegations as fact. It would also be hypocritical to look back on my life and think of all the frustrations rooted in being unable to say what I wanted to, and not give Mayfair the same compassion. I may not fully grasp what happened at that tournament in 2019, but when Mayfair says he’s misunderstood, I understand.

There’s one area his message needs no interpretation, however. Billy Mayfair said he’s sharing his struggle to be a force of good, and whatever the motivations were for doing so, the story’s power to help others was never in doubt. Just turns out one of those “others” was me.

For more information on Autism Spectrum Disorder, including a guide to specialists near you, go to Autismspeaks.org.

 

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