(USA TODAY) - As ESPN's Sean McDonough today works golf's U.S. Open, he has a fabulous way to explain away any on-air glitches: "It's been a great excuse, because if I mess up I can say, 'I have a hole in my head.' ''
He's not kidding. McDonough, 50, told USA TODAY Sports' Michael Hiestand that he has been diagnosed with superior canal dehiscence syndrome and will have surgery Aug. 7 to fix a small hole in the bone that separates his left inner ear from his brain. He wanted to wait until then so he could work this week's Open and next month's British Open and U.S. Senior Open. Now, he's putting up with some bizarre symptoms: "When I'm in a real quiet place, I can hear my eyeballs move."
That's not an uncommon symptom with SCDS, which wasn't discovered until 1998.
It's still an "underrecognized phenomenon" says Daniel Lee, an ear and skull base surgeon who will perform McDonough's surgery at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston. Some sufferers, says Lee, used to get a "psychiatric diagnosis" after they described their symptoms.
"When you tell your doctor you hear your eyeballs move, it's a pretty crazy complaint," Lee said.
And for McDonough, joking aside, it's a pretty big deal.
"I remember hearing Dr. Lee say they'd have to open up my head and, 'We'll gently move your brain to the side and fill in the hole.' I remember thinking this is going to be a lot more involved than I thought," McDonough said in his first public comments about the diagnosis.
It all started with McDonough, who also calls ESPN college football and basketball as well as MLB games, accidentally bonking himself on the head with a putter while playing golf in Arizona in February.
"It didn't hurt, didn't even leave a bump," he says. But it prompted strange sensations: "I immediately heard loud squealing in my ears. My own footsteps sounded so loud -- like bang, bang, bang -- and my voice sounded louder in my head."
When those symptoms didn't go away -- and he started "hearing my own heartbeat in my left ear" -- he was checked out and diagnosed. SCDS is caused when a small hole is created in the bone that separates the inner ear from the brain. That can result from someone being born with that bone being very small and then something happening to create a hole. Says Lee: "Likely for Sean, it was about to break through and it was just the blow from the golf club that triggered the onset of symptoms."
For McDonough, those symptoms include decreased hearing, especially in his left ear -- he now has increased volume for that ear in his TV headset -- as well as wildly increased hearing at other times.
"I went for a jog this week and every step was bang, bang, bang in my ear. ... Where most people hear noise coming from outside your body, as I understand it, this is like noise going through your own skeletal system -- almost through my brain -- and then back through your ear."
That made it awful for McDonough to sit courtside at Madison Square Garden, with its famously loud P.A. system, for the Big East college basketball tournament. "We even asked them to turn it down. I was miserable for those five days," he said.
McDonough says he has been told he could skip surgery, although that might lead to his symptoms getting worse, and even vertigo, loss of balance and increased dizziness. "I want surgery because this is impacting how I feel on-air. I love what I do, I'm blessed to be able to do it for a living and want to do it the right way."
And so far, he suggests, is hasn't affected his work too much: "The nicest thing is when people hear about this and say they had no idea what I was going through."
After a few days in the hospital after surgery and weeks of home-bound recovery, McDonough hopes to return on-air early in the college football season. He also hopes to raise public awareness: "I'd never heard of SCDS. But if people have these symptoms, they should go to an ear, nose and throat specialist -- it can be fixed."
Still, the follically-challenged McDonough has a nagging concern about the procedure. "There'll be a pretty big scar wrapping around my left ear and no hair to hide it. I told Dr. Lee that I'm not cosmetically perfect for TV anyway, so can we be gentle about all this."