Every golfer at the New Zealand Open this week has a back story but none more interesting than Queensland rookie professional Rika Batibasaga, who four years ago was arrested naked at gunpoint and ended up in a mental institution. MATT RICHENS reports.
As he sits relaxed, overlooking the 18th green at the Clearwater Golf Course this week, you'd never believe what Aussie golfer Rika Batibasaga has been through.
Even as he explains it so casually, the gleam in his eye, his cheeky smile and encapsulating laugh aren't that of a man that has been in a place as dark as this 25-year-old has.
The "little bit of trouble" as the Queenslander with an Australian mother and Fijian father flippantly calls it, happened four years ago.
In 2008, Batibasaga was in the United States having just turned professional.
He was playing on the pay-to-play Gateway Tour, but took an opportunity to caddy for good mate and now world No 34 Jason Day on the PGA Tour.
"I saw first hand how those top guys played and thought, ‘wow, I'm not too far away, if I really push myself and work harder then I can do this'," he said.
That started a near fatal journey.
Batibasaga pushed himself too hard. Twelve-hour days of practice and gym work followed by more physical activity were the norm. All of a sudden he stopped sleeping.
"I was pretty stressed out," he said.
"Basically just because of the pressure I put on myself . . . I couldn't handle it. I wasn't ready mentally or physically."
Then one night, having not slept in five, he snapped.
He left his house wearing just his underwear, jumped into a mate's car and crashed it into a garage.
Without batting an eyelid, and as a mate confronted him and asked him what he was doing, Batibasaga jumped into another car and drove off.
He was eventually arrested by Orlando police outside Universal Studios and had guns pointed at him.
He was arrested and as he screamed at police, had his hands and legs cuffed.
They took him to a hospital where he told the doctors he wanted to die.
Tests revealed no alcohol or drugs in his system and Batibasaga remembered everything the next morning.
"A chemical imbalance is what the doctors say it was. It wouldn't have mattered what sort of sleeping pills or drink that I would have taken because the chemicals in our brains are stronger than anything you can get your hands on.
"It was crazy, unbelievable. I remembered it all. That's what is amazing and what I really don't understand. You're out of control. I mean, there was nothing that I could do or that anyone could do to stop it."
Day organised for Batibasaga's mother to fly to the States and she brought her son home to Brisbane where he was admitted to an institution.
"I was mental," he said.
"Seriously, the term I went through was psychosis. It's a loss of, well, you lose touch of reality. Basically you're out of your mind.
"The fact that I came back to being myself is because of the treatment I got when I came back to Australia and the support I got from my friends and family."
Apart from the year off golf, Batibasaga said the "incident" ended up being a bizarre blessing in disguise and one that has made him a better person and golfer.
He regained his amateur status but is now a professional again coming to the end of his rookie season.
"Golf is such a mental game and after everything that's happened to me, things on the golf course don't worry me anymore," he said.
"It put everything in perspective to me. It's just a game, a game that I love, but mate, it's not life and death is it?
"It's just things like being able to walk around and appreciate your health. When I was on the medication - which I hated - I wasn't able to physically play golf.
"I'm now able to do that again and appreciate that, I mean, you're going to have bad rounds and you're going to miss cuts, but that's life, that's the way it is."
Batibasaga not only turned his brush with mental illness into a strength in golf, he's used his experience to tell school children about the affects and coming through the other side.
He worked with an organisation called Early Psychosis where he can see the effect his story has, first hand.
"They [Early Psychosis] seem to like my story because my issues weren't drug-related, it's just a could-have-happened-to-anyone story.
"And the kids' reaction is a massive eye-opener for me. It seems to hit home for them because I'm just an ordinary-looking guy."
He was originally worried about the stigma around having a mental illness, but is a smiling, walking, golf ball-hitting advertisement for coming through the other side.
He said the other players on tour had been nothing but supportive and felt telling his story was the best plan for him and for others just to show that there is a light at the end of the tunnel for anyone suffering the same issues.
Batibasaga's brush with the law and the resulting battle with his mental health is interesting enough, but his story doesn't end there.
As if being watched by a golfing guardian angel, he went from being one of the unluckiest golfers to one of the luckiest.
While warming up before the opening round of the Australian PGA at Coolum last year, Open Championship winner Darren Clarke came up to the rookie for a chat.
"Darren asked me why I didn't have my name on my bag," he said.
"I was like, ‘hello, I'm a big fan, hope you have a good week' and explained to him that I was a rookie and that's why my bag had no name on it .
"He said, ‘that's why you need it on your bag in big effin letters, so people know who you are."'
Clarke's agent and golfing personality Andrew "Chubby" Chandler was also there.
"Clarke turned to Chubby and said, ‘this kid makes a nice move at it' and Chandler ended up talking to my coach.
"It was a pretty cool thing, but even then I just thought what a cool story to tell the boys and that nothing more would come of it."
Soon after Batibasaga got a call from Chandler offering him an opportunity to play events in the UK, all expenses paid.
"I couldn't believe it, I just told him I'd be wherever he wanted whenever he wanted," he said.
He had two top-10 results on the Euro Pro tour and finished the year in 43rd place on the money list. He is now 30th on the Australasian Order of Merit and picked up an A$18,459 (NZ$23,450) cheque for his 25th equal at the A$2m Perth International.
After a disappointing 77 on day one of the New Zealand Open this week at Clearwater, Batibasaga raced up the leaderboard yesterday with a two-under 70.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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