Read this and all of statewide coverage in the Oct-Nov. issue of Golf Oklahoma.
By Ken MacLeod
Golf fans in Oklahoma and around the country are familiar with the story of Edmond’s Scott Verplank and his career-long battle with Type I diabetes, the toll it’s taken and the millions of dollars he and wife Kim have raised to help other young athletes overcome the same affliction.
One of those who has been inspired by Verplank is University of Oklahoma redshirt junior golfer Jaxon Dowell, who was diagnosed along with his twin sister Eden at the age of 3. His father Matt, a physician, has dealt with the disease since he was 12.
Those who have watched Dowell win two Class 3A state championships at Oklahoma Christian School along with numerous other junior events and go on to become a productive member of one of the nation’s top collegiate squads may not have known he is constantly monitoring his glucose levels and responding with food, drink or insulin shots during competition.
The device that monitors his glucose levels is provided by diabetes technology company Dexcom as part of its NIL (Name, Image and Likeness) program called Dexcom U, in which Dowell and 19 other collegiate athletes with diabetes share their stories in hopes of inspiring other younger athletes with diabetes.
Dowell wears the Dexcom device, about the size of a quarter, on his upper buttocks, and it sends his glucose levels to his phone and to the phones of his parents. If levels are low, it’s time for a Nature Valley bar or other snack. Too high and he quickly can do a glucose injection with a pen.
“For the most part, I feel normal but I do have to check my glucose levels about every three holes,” Dowell said. “If levels are high and I have to take a shot, I just take it in my arm or stomach. I’ve gotten pretty good about making it nonchalant.
It’s not something most people would notice but just something I have to deal with.”
When Dowell joined Oak Tree National in 2021, he spent an hour chatting with Verplank on the putting green about his methods of dealing with diabetes over the course of a career that has included a U.S. Amateur Championship, NCAA Championship, six PGA Tour victories and two Ryder Cup appearances. But also one that has included numerous surgeries on slow-healing injuries attributed partly to his diabetes.
“I know Coach (Ryan) Hybl had also reached out to Scott to see if there was anything he should be concerned about. But with the technology we have now, we can really keep it under control. We talked about Dexcom and it was just really cool to be able to talk with him about what he’s been through.”
Dowell said he checks his levels frequently just before competition and right before bedtime to make sure he is stable. The instant feedback of the monitoring is crucial because he said if you wait until you feel off, it’s too late.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is you can only feel the extremes,” Dowell said.
“That’s why the importance of checking your glucose levels is very important. If it’s low, you can get sweaty, have blurry vision and feel generally weak. If it’s high you have to pee a lot, you get thirsty, your body aches and you just don’t feel good.”
Verplank experienced all those symptoms numerous times as a competitor. He concurred with Dowell that once you start to feel the stress of high or low blood sugar, it’s too late to prevent the inevitable even with an insulin pump or by eating.
“More times than I could possibly tell you,” Verplank said. “You just have to hold on.
What I grew up with was like the stone ages compared to the technology of today. It was the ABCs and now it’s like algorithms. A lot of it was just guessing and you needed to be on as tight a schedule as you could. And playing golf is hard to be on a tight schedule. I somewhat jokingly say that I don’t know how I made it through college.
“These technologies are great for the young kids. You have a chance at being healthier than ever before. And that’s what it’s all about.”
Dowell redshirted in 2020-21 and played in four events as a redshirt freshman in 2021-22, including a tie for seventh at the Colonial Collegiate. Last year he played in five events while trying to crack the lineup on the deep and talented Sooners roster, shooting four rounds in the 60s. He has a 10-0-1 record in match play and this fall tied for 28th while helping the Sooners finish second at the Husky Invitational at Bremerton, Washington.
“He’s become a great putter and his ball striking keeps getting better and better,” Hybl said. “He has the belief in himself and the work he’s put in. Also I can’t speak highly enough about he deals with his health. He loves working out and is in arguably as good a shape as anyone on the team. I don’t even know what’s going on most of the time (regarding his diabetes) because he and his team are monitoring everything.”
Hybl has taken Dowell to postseason events as a potential sub even when he hasn’t made the starting lineup.
“I’ve been right on the edge the last two years but this is a deep team with nine or 10 guys who are pretty much interchangeable,” Dowell said. “Going to those postseason events is cool to get the experience but it’s also been torture when you know you’re not going to tee it up. But I’ve learned a lot over my three years here and I think I’m hitting the ball as well now as I ever have.”
Dowell is excited about the opportunity to share his story with other young athletes as part of the Dexcom U program.
“The biggest thing is telling our stories as college athletes,” he said. “It could be social media posts, zoom interviews, just spreading the word and showing the next generation that you can take control of your diabetes and live a good life.”