Anxiety in check, Beljan living a dream on tour

Valley native Charlie Beljan ready for homecoming after overcoming anxiety to establish himself on Tour.

Valley golf fans might not remember native son Charlie Beljan, who won a state championship for Mesa Red Mountain High School in 2001 before moving on to the University of New Mexico. But once they get a load of the big-bodied, big-hitting, fun-seeking pro this week at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, they're going to fall in love with him.

“I’m treating this week as a prep week for a major,” Beljan said before he teed it up last week in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego. “For 10 years, I’ve been trying to play the Phoenix Open — ever since I won the US Junior Amateur title. I’ve finally earned my way, and I want to put on a show for the fans and my buddies.

“I feel bad for whoever gets paired with me.”

The 6-foot-4, 215-pound Beljan has always wowed spectators with his length off the tee and his ball-striking ability. But it’s his personality that draws an even bigger crowd.

“He knew how to have fun and the kids always gravitated to him, but he was also a true leader,” said Beljan’s high school coach, Randy Spilsbury. “He was always very competitive and confident, so he knew when to turn it on and how to win.”

After graduating from New Mexico, Beljan turned pro in 2007. He played on the Gateway Tour from 2008-11, winning seven times and leading the money list in 2009. He qualified for the US Open in 2008 and 2009 but missed the cut both times, leading him to take some advice from pro Vijay Singh to heart.

"He told me, 'Kid, as long and straight as you are, you should putt for money out here, but from 150 yards in you’re not very good,' " Beljan recalled.

With an improved short game, Beljan finally earned his 2012 PGA Tour card by finishing in a tie for 13th at 2011 PGA Tour Qualifying School. That’s when he realized he was living a dream.

“Two years ago, I made $60,000 on the Gateway Tour and I thought I was rich,” he said. “Now I’m making commercials for the Golf Channel where they’re blowing smoke and fake snow past me and they’re changing my clothes seven times.”

Heading into the 2012 Children's Miracle Network Hospitals Classic, the final PGA Tour event of the season, Beljan sat 139th on the tour's money list, with only eight cuts made in 21 tournaments. During the second round, he suffered a panic attack on the course and was taken to a hospital at the conclusion of the round.

“It was diagnosed as a panic attack, but it really stemmed from my diet,” he said. “My electrolytes and sodium and potassium were so low, they were at levels where people would normally have seizures.”

It wasn’t the first time Beljan had suffered such bouts. He once collapsed on an airplane on a flight home after the Reno-Tahoe Open, and he has suffered minor recurrences since. It’s an alarming facet of Beljan’s makeup that his wife, Merisa, had hoped would remain private. But Beljan has been more than willing to share his story in the hope that it helps others.

“Panic attacks or anxiety disorders aren’t something that a lot of people talk about, but when you get a guy like Charlie who’s so easy to talk to and so visible because he’s a pro golfer, it can really do some good,” said Beljan’s agent, Andy Dawson.

Beljan suffers from an anxiety disorder that creates all manner of reactions. He bought a motor home so he wouldn’t have to fly to tournaments, and he has a litany of food phobias. He can’t stand the sight of eggs, he’s not a fan of soup and he still arranges his food on his plate so the courses don’t touch one another.

But awareness, a recent prescription of the antidepressant Zoloft and a radically altered diet have alleviated many of the effects.   

“It’s unbelievable how much I eat on the golf course now and how much healthier I eat instead of downing 10 candy bars,” he said. “I eat chicken or steak, protein drinks, protein bars. I’m still eating some garbage, though. I’m not a total quitter.”

Quit wasn’t in Beljan’s vocabulary that weekend in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Despite the medical scare, the hospital visit and recommendations not to play the final two rounds, Beljan returned and won the event by two strokes over Robert Garrigus and Matt Every, earning him a two-year exemption and 63rd-place finish on the money list. He also earned entry into invitationals reserved for the top 70 money earners and the season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions, as well as an invitation to the 2013 PGA Championship.

The win capped a wild season for Beljan, who had hand surgery after Q School, got married and had a baby boy, Graham.

“My wife did all the wedding planning. I just showed up,” he said. “I do 1 percent of the workload for parenting, and I’m overwhelmed. I don’t know how she does it. I spend an hour and half with the baby and I want to scream. But I will say the 3-foot putts and the missed shots aren’t nearly as important as they used to be.”

Beljan earned $73,000 toward diapers and other bills with a 23rd-place finish in the season-opening Tournament of Champions at Maui. But missed the cut at the Humana Challenge at La Quinta, Calif., and at Torrey Pines last week.

He has reason to believe things at TPC Scottsdale in Scottsdale, Ariz., will be different. Beljan said the raucous atmosphere at the Phoenix Open — particularly at the notorious 16th hole — suits his personality.

“I’ve got all sorts of good stuff planned for the 16th,” he said. “I want the fans up and screaming while I hit. I love that atmosphere. You think you can prepare for it, but you don’t have a clue what it’s like until you get there.”

On the off chance that No. 16 doesn’t live up to its reputation this weekend, Beljan is bringing along some insurance in the form of a posse that could swell to as many as 150 friends and family members.

“I’m putting the over/under on people getting thrown out at 10,” he said. “Nobody will do anything too goofy, but the Phoenix Open is a party, and trust me, these people can party.”

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