Queen Creek High School golfer Riley Wortman returns to golf after losing an eye to an errant shot
Riley Wortman was less than a year old the first time he picked up a golf club.
When he couldn’t hit a tee, he watched his father play on the green in the backyard of their Queen Creek home.
“Dad used to go out all the time, and when I was 10 or 11 months old, I started crying at the back door and he finally let me out,” Riley said. “I started getting into golf like that.”
The Wortman family lives across the street from a golf course, which contributes to Riley’s passion for the sport. He first played golf when he was 7 years old and today he is a member of the Queen Creek High School golf team. He not only competes in local tournaments but across the country and internationally.
But last year Riley’s future on the course was in doubt, after an errant shot at a local high school tournament hit 16-year-old Riley, knocking out his left eye.
He needed to relearn how to read, drive and golf with his right eye to do all the work.
A shot gone wrong
Riley wasn’t sure what was wrong when he was hit in the face with a golf ball on September 23, 2021.
At the time of the errant shot, Riley said he was leading a high school golf tournament by four shots at the Dobson Ranch golf course in Mesa.
“I think after the second hole that day he looked at me and he was like, ‘I’m going to win the tournament, coach,'” said Alex Lobeck, who was in his first season l fall as coach of the Queen Creek Boys. golf team. “Obviously I had no doubts that he was going to win because…it’s the best golf I think I’ve seen him play.”
Riley reached the 13th hole, still leading the tournament. He stood next to a tree on the right side of the fairway, waiting for one of his opponents to leave.
The contestant lunged and his bullet ricocheted off a tree, hitting Riley in the face.
“I thought I broke my nose early on,” he said. “…There was a lot of blood, so I put my towel over my face. And the EMS came and they said, ‘Well, that’s not your nose.’ And it turned out to be my eye.
At the time, Riley’s mother, Kimberly Wortman, was sitting in a golf cart setting up her phone to film her next shot. Lobeck was at the tee box, checking on his other golfers. After hearing someone shout “Help”, they rushed to the fairway.
Paramedics at the scene didn’t think the injury was going to be serious, Lobeck said, because the wound on Riley’s face was below his eye.
But after Riley and her mother arrived at the hospital, they learned the injury was more serious than they had anticipated.
“The paramedics looked at him and were like, ‘OK, as bad as the situation is, it could have been worse,'” Lobeck said. “…It felt like there would be just a few stitches and some painkillers and everything could be fine. And as the day dragged on and her mother communicated with me, the news was getting worse and worse.”
While Riley’s mother was at the scene, her father, Matt Wortman, dropped off Faith, Riley’s sister, at school.
Matt was unable to join Kimberly and Riley in the hospital emergency room because COVID-19 rules at the time only allowed one parent per patient. So, Matt had to keep track of Riley’s condition through text messages and phone calls.
“I was taking care of our daughter for [Kimberly] was doing all the other stuff with Riley and stuff and it was hard. It’s still tough to this day,” Matt said.
Deciding to remove the injured eye
Riley underwent three surgeries in two weeks.
Initially, he underwent surgery which attempted to repair his left cornea. He was referred to a retina specialist after this operation, who told him the best option would be to remove his eye.
“We saw about three different specialists at Phoenix Children’s Hospital for second and third opinions to make sure we were making the right decision,” Kimberly said. “But we all knew, based on them saying there would be no vision in the eye and it was so badly damaged, keeping a damaged eye could damage the good eye, so we took the decision to remove it.”
Riley’s second operation removed her left eye. Almost a week later, Riley said, he underwent plastic surgery to repair his broken bones.
He had to wear an eye patch for a few months after his operation and received a prosthetic eye on January 13.
“I have three titanium plates and six screws,” Riley said. “And I mean, I look good thanks to plastic surgery, but if plastic surgery wasn’t an applicable option, I’d be physically screwed.”
Riley’s parents help her put eye drops in her prosthesis three times a day. Because Arizona is so dusty, Riley says, he takes the prosthesis out once or twice a week to thoroughly clean it. Every six months, he will go to a professional to have the prosthesis cleaned.
Back to course
Riley was cleared to play golf again in December 2021, but he still had depth perception issues. That didn’t stop the avid golfer from helping his teammates.
Lobeck said that shortly after his injury, Riley joined the team to attend practices.
“He helped me a lot as an assistant coach,” Lobeck said. “So he would travel with us to games and just watch from the cart, and his overall presence there I think elevates our team and helps everyone even when we’re having, you know, a bad day.”
His parents, who had no idea if he would return to the sport, made sure not to push him.
“We didn’t know if he would ever take over a golf club,” his mother said. “But we let it be. And whatever he decided, that’s what we were going to do. And so, we didn’t force it. We asked him: ‘Do you want to go to practice? Do you want to go play?’ Until one day he said yes, so we were like, ‘OK, let’s go.’ »
Riley started hitting balls again shortly after being cleared, Lobeck said, but he didn’t return to play a hole until March.
That month, Riley said, he started playing in tournaments and won two of the first three he’s entered since his injury. He traveled to Scotland in June as part of a US high school golf program, playing six different courses in the island country.
On his trip, he shot a 68 at Brora Golf Club.
But as he prepares for his senior year of high school golf this fall, Riley is still working through some anxieties related to his injury. On the golf course, he avoids standing near trees, he said.
“Golf is great, but it was the tree that hit me in the first place,” Riley said. “If the tree wasn’t there, the bullet wouldn’t have hit me.”
He also did not return to the Dobson Ranch golf course. He said he would refuse to play tournaments there for the foreseeable future.
Queen Creek High School is hiring a new athletic director and golf coach ahead of Riley’s senior year. Lobeck left to become the head golf coach at Chandler-Gilbert Community College.
His parents said they spoke to Queen Creek’s new athletic director about limiting the number of times Riley’s high school team will play this fall at Dobson Ranch.
“We understand that games and tournaments need to be held there,” Kimberly said. “We’re just going to leave it to him to decide whether or not he chooses to go. At this point, the answer is no.
Although Lobeck is no longer on the Queen Creek golf team schedule, he said he plans to communicate with his new coach to make sure Riley’s wishes are heard.
“[I want to] make sure he feels comfortable,” Lobeck said. “Because, I mean, it’s obviously just about accommodating a player, but I think as traumatic as the situation is, you want them to feel as comfortable as possible going back to golf. .”
Golf still in future plans
Riley was supposed to get his license shortly after the day of his injury. But as he worked to navigate life with one eye, driving was put on the back burner. Now he’s preparing to get his license after learning to drive without seeing out of his left eye.
“So when you’re driving and looking straight ahead, I can’t see anything to the left, because my nose is blocking it,” Riley said. “So when I look to my left, the farthest I can see is the edge of the mirror. So the whole left window can’t see anything. So I constantly have to look everywhere.
He also missed his first year of golf, the best year for recruiting, because of his injury. He plans to be a full-fledged participant on his high school’s golf team this fall and hopes to field local offers in his senior year.
“Last year would have been a good year for me because I was on track to be top 10, top 15 in the state and I would have had offers last year, but for the moment, it’s nothing,” Wortman said. “But I would like to go to community college for a year and then transfer to a bigger school.”
Lobeck, a freshly minted college coach, said recruiting Riley was on his mind. Lobeck said Riley has the talent to be a Division I golfer.
Riley has said he would like to become a professional golfer after college. But if he can’t make it to a golf tour, he wants to stay in the golf industry, whether as a coach, broadcaster or analyst.
He has also noticed that his return from injury has inspired others and hopes to keep cheering him on.
“I don’t take anything for granted anymore, and I shouldn’t have before,” Riley said. “But I think about everything positive these days, and that’s really changed because what happened to me, I noticed, made other people happy and encouraged by what I’m doing.”