Karen Garloch

Golf commentator Peter Oosterhuis talks about dealing with Alzheimer’s

Over a 20-year professional golf career, London-born Peter Oosterhuis collected 23 victories and defeated big names like Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. And later, over 20 years as a golf analyst for the Golf Channel and CBS Sports, he was known for his attention to detail.

So in 2014, when he missed a meeting at work, his TV colleagues and his wife, Roothie, knew something was wrong. “He just doesn’t do that,” she said.

Several years earlier, Oosterhuis – known as “Oosty” by his friends – had seen a neurologist in Charlotte, where the couple has lived for nine years. He was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, got a prescription for a medicine and continued with his 36-weeks-a-year TV schedule.

In summer 2014, around the time he missed the meeting, Peter Oosterhuis returned to see his neurologist. This time, after some tests, the doctor concluded that Oosterhuis, then 66, had early onset Alzheimer’s disease.

“I couldn’t even speak,” Roothie Oosterhuis recalled. “I just went into total denial.”

She and Oosterhuis had been married since 1992, about the time his TV career took off. And they have traveled together – from Dubai to Manila, Augusta to Pebble Beach – following golf tournaments around the globe. “Golf takes you to some pretty nice places,” Peter Oosterhuis said.

For several months, the couple told no one about his diagnosis. Neither wanted to believe he would have to give up the career they both loved. “I thought I could talk enough about the player and the shot he’s trying to play … to still be a decent commentator,” Peter Oosterhuis said. “I didn’t have to have all the stats.”

He finished the 2014 season last fall. But by that time, his longtime agent was wondering if something was wrong. And Roothie Oosterhuis realized she had to tell him the truth. They agreed Peter Oosterhuis would retire. So began what Roothie Oosterhuis calls “a very dark time. …We lost our life basically.”

That’s when their longtime friend, Jim Nantz, the well-known CBS Sports announcer, reached out. Nantz, whose father had lived with Alzheimer’s for 13 years, helped create the Nantz National Alzheimer Center in Houston. He encouraged Peter Oosterhuis to consult doctors there.

Eventually, the Houston doctors referred the couple to Carolinas HealthCare System, where Dr. Oleg Tcheremissine is lead researcher for a clinical trial testing a new drug that could slow progression of Alzheimer’s. It works by inhibiting the development of amyloid plaque in the brain, one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s.

Solanezumab is one of a new class of drugs that would, if it works, modify the disease instead of just treating symptoms, Tcheremissine said. About a half dozen drugs have been approved for Alzheimer’s since 1993, but they treat symptoms only.

Researchers hope the new drug will prevent future plaque buildup that interferes with messaging between neurons in the brain. Results are not yet available because enrollment ended last February, and all patients must complete at least 18 months of treatment.

Peter Oosterhuis enrolled in the trial earlier this year and doesn’t know if he’s getting the new drug or a placebo. His wife believes she has seen improvement in his memory, but she knows the drug will never be a cure. “All this drug can do is stave it off,” she said.

Once they went public with his disease, Peter and Roothie Oosterhuis got involved in fundraising and awareness events on behalf of Alzheimer’s research.

“We want to help people understand Alzheimer’s,” she said. “There’s a lot going on in Alzheimer’s research now, and people can be helped more than they know.”