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Obsession drove Aussie Batibasaga to mental institution

By Ian Ransom

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - The desire to improve can drive professional athletes to distraction, but for Australian golfer Rika Batibasaga it became a dangerous obsession that saw him handcuffed and thrown into a Florida mental institution.

In 2008, Batibasaga, whose father played international rugby for Fiji, was a 21-year-old living in Florida and grafting on the Nationwide Tour when his world spectacularly imploded.

"I was living away from home for the first time and it all got too much for me," Batibasaga told Reuters at the Australian Masters in Melbourne on Sunday.

"I had a psychotic episode - it's called psychosis. I lost the plot because of a lack of sleep - just due to stress.

"And I couldn't control it and basically just flipped it out."

Like hundreds of other young talents drawn to the United States to chase their dreams, Batibasaga felt hard work would prove the difference after he carried countryman and former house-mate Jason Day's bag at a local tournament.

Feeling his game was not far off the professionals in that tournament, Batibasaga threw himself into a punishing training regime of 10-hour days hitting hundreds of balls, followed by running and gym sessions.

"It was stupid. It became an obsession. I felt I needed to push it a lot harder because I was almost there," he recalled.

"But my brain just wouldn't turn off and I would just get so frustrated and angry.

"When I went two or three days without sleep, I panicked and that it made it even worse. It just sort of snowballed."

Into his sixth consecutive day without sleep, Batibasaga snapped.

Wearing just a pair of underwear, he jumped into a car belonging to the owner of the Orlando house he was living in and crashed it in the garage.

He jumped into another car, this one his house mate's, and was arrested by police in front of Universal Studios.

"They both had their guns out. I guess it's just America and they love pulling a gun on someone," Batibasaga, an affable 25-year-old with a wispy beard, laughed.

"I was just driving around, I had no idea where I was going. I was in no state to drive.

"They put me in an ambulance, they obviously thought I was on drugs. They knocked me out at the hospital and I woke up feeling fine."

With no phone or identification cards, Batibasaga was taken to a mental hospital where he spent "probably the scariest two days" of his life before being checked out.

The same problems came back to haunt him later, though, and he returned home for further treatment and a course of prescription drugs at a Brisbane hospital where he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Batibasaga, who made the cut in his debut Australian Masters, has not suffered any further mental illness, and has learnt to take a more measured approach to success and failure.

He continues to grind on the minor tours but has shown signs of his promise, winning A$18,459 ($19,000) at the European Tour co-sanctioned Perth International last month for finishing joint 25th.

Batibasaga still has the green uniform from the Lakeside mental institution in Florida as a souvenir and wore it out to a New Year's Eve party.

He says dozens of young golfers struggling to make the step up to the A-grade suffer from anxiety and depression that borders and often crosses over into mental illness.

"It's rife. Because you're always by yourself and if you're not playing well, you go back to your hotel alone," he said.

"When things aren't going well, that's when it's tough."

($1 = 0.9702 Australian dollars)

(Editing by Nick Mulvenney)

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