Double the pressure Braxton Kuntz deals with irregular heartbeat as well as high-stakes putts
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/08/2022 (228 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Braxton Kuntz paced on the ninth green at Elmhurst on a sweltering day in late July, about to mark and pick up his golf ball. The Winnipeg teen, struggling through a competitive round for the first time in weeks, sensed the pressure mounting as he clung to a two-shot lead that had dwindled from six to begin the day at the Manitoba men’s amateur championship.
Bending down, he immediately felt it.
Kuntz’s perpetually calm demeanour suddenly turned desperate as he returned to the front edge of the putting surface, eyes closed and chin pressed to his chest, taking deep breaths. He was lightheaded, placing his right hand over his heart as he used his putter to hold his balance.
His heart rate had shot up to about 200 beats per minute – faster than a sprinter’s rate at full stride. A typical resting heart rate is anywhere from 60-100 beats per minute, depending on the individual.
Indeed, it was awful timing for the brilliant young golfer, but certainly nothing new.
Kuntz, 18, suffers from a heart arrhythmia condition known as supraventricular tachycardia (SVT). The abnormality occurs when faulty electrical connections in the heart set off a series of early beats in the upper chamber.
When the sporadic episodes are triggered, his heart rate skyrockets and his breath shortens.
“For me, it’s a mixture of stress and golf, which kind of go hand in hand because I’m competing a lot,” Kuntz told the Free Press, earlier this week. “It’s obviously uncomfortable, but I think the less I think about it and the more I just think about golfing, it definitely helps slow it down.”
Kuntz has built a name for himself across Manitoba and Canada over the past few years. This summer, the phenom from Breezy Bend has enjoyed one of the best runs of his career, capturing wins at the Manitoba junior men’s championship — where he flirted with a course record in his final round at St. Charles — and the Manitoba men’s amateur championship, making history as the first player to defend both titles in the same year.
He put his hot streak to the test last week at the Canadian junior championship in Kamloops, B.C., finishing tied for fifth. This week, Kuntz makes his first start in a professional tournament in the Manitoba Open at Southwood, courtesy of a sponsor’s exemption.
“For me, it’s a mixture of stress and golf, which kind of go hand in hand because I’m competing a lot.” – Braxton Kuntz
He tees off in Round 1 at 2:40 p.m. on Thursday. It’s likely he’ll experience an episode during the tournament.
Kuntz said the heart episodes occur when he does something as vigorous as swinging his driver or as innocuous as leaning down to retrieve his ball from the hole. They can last anywhere from 30 seconds to an hour.
This summer, they’ve lasted for 45 minutes on average – about the time it takes to play three holes in a competitive round of golf.
Kuntz said he experienced his first arrhythmia last fall while he was on the driving range during freshmen year at Nicholls State University in Louisiana. His heart rate picked up for just a few minutes and then settled.
“I was kind of confused, maybe a little concerned. I thought it was the energy drink I had before,” Kuntz said.
But the episodes kept recurring, each time lasting a bit longer than the previous one. Kuntz said he was more annoyed than concerned because he’d have to stop what he was doing for a few minutes to let his heart reset.
But in November, Kuntz had to call his father, Danny Kuntz, amid a fearful episode that had lasted for a then-record 45 minutes.
Danny, who suffers from a slight arrhythmia himself, suspected it was the Louisiana heat that had thrown his son’s heart out of whack.
“We (both Kuntz’s parents) were, as you can imagine, very far away and somewhat panicking,” Danny said.
After Braxton’s golf trainer helped him through the episode, the teenager went to a cardiologist and was given a Holter monitor —a battery-operated portable device that measures and records the heart’s activity — to monitor his heartbeat for a week.
“We (both Kuntz’s parents) were, as you can imagine, very far away and somewhat panicking.” – Danny Kuntz
“At that moment, as parents, we had to start dealing with what was going on. He’s thousands of miles away … a thousand things going through your mind and we were very concerned,” Danny said.
“Here’s a boy that you raise and he looked forward to going down south and he was fortunate enough to be able to play and things are going fairly well — and then this hits. It kind of throws everything into turmoil, you might say.”
When Braxton returned to Winnipeg in the spring, his attacks worsened, averaging 40 minutes per bout, which prompted the teenager to visit the hospital.
Doctors reassured him his condition was common, especially in young people, and that it’s usually not life-threatening.
Professionals offered the teen three options: live with the condition, as many do, if his episodes became less frequent; take medication (beta blockers) to help regulate his heart rate; or, undergo surgery.
“I’m just happy that while it might be affecting me for now, I’m gonna have that surgery shortly and as long as everything goes well, I should be back to normal life.” – Braxton Kuntz
The surgical option, Braxton was told, is a common route for young people, especially athletes, as it’s a fairly simple operation that is over 90 per cent effective in preventing the attacks from happening again.
Braxton said while the thought of going under the knife was concerning, it was a better option than the medication he’d been taking for three months.
“I wouldn’t say it’s been working too well, but who knows, maybe I would have more (episodes) if I wasn’t on the medication,” he said.
He opted for the procedure – which he presumes will happen by the end of September – knowing it will keep him in Winnipeg for longer than expected.
Kuntz was supposed to be back in class on Monday. But he won’t return to university this fall due to insurance issues in the U.S., owing to his condition. For the time being, he’s doing online classes.
After successful surgery, he’ll be eligible for insurance after a grace period and return to school in January for the winter semester.
“It could be worse if I’m being honest,” he said. “It is a heart problem — and it sounds bad when you say that — but really, it’s not life-threatening and there’s a lot of people that aren’t fortunate to have a condition like this that can be treated.
“I’m just happy that while it might be affecting me for now, I’m gonna have that surgery shortly and as long as everything goes well, I should be back to normal life.”
For now, Kuntz will have a chance to see how his game stacks up against the pro competition this week at the Manitoba Open, an event that will serve as the next step to fulfilling his aspirations as a pro golfer.
“Being able to start for the first time on the Canadian Tour is something I’ve looked forward to for a long time,” he said. “I’m really excited to compete this week.”
Joshua Frey-Sam happily welcomes a spirited sports debate any day of the week.