It was a bright summer day when he got to this particular par-3 hole last week. Number 7 is a medium-range shot, 155 yards long. He was participating in a nine-hole tournament when it happened. It was Aug. 21 ' a day now burned into his memory for the rest of his life.
He wasnt expecting anything unusual at the time. But, oh, how that was all about to change!
He selected a 3-wood from his bag. He put the ball up on a tee, stood back for a moment to survey the shot, then got into his stance. He swung and watched the golf ball make a gentle arch to the green.
The golfer was 25-year-old Tom Belka. The place was Blaine, Minn., at the National Youth Golf Centers Victory Links Course. And the tournament was the Minnesota state golf event of the Special Olympics. You see, Tom is a Special Olympic athlete.
A Special Olympic athlete is a person who attempts to succeed at his particular sport, though he must first overcome the disability of being intellectually challenged. Tom, though he must always battle this obstacle, has been playing golf since he was 8 years old. He has a fulltime job working in a mail room, but he considers himself an athlete first and foremost. His participation in softball and bowling attest to that, but he considers golf his No. 1 sport. He spends hour after hour working on his swing at his hometown of Maple Grove.
Toms coach, Mike McStott, was ecstatic about Toms special shot, noting the long hours of practice that Tom puts in. And Toms father, Jim Belka, was equally overwhelmed by his sons hole-in-one. 'I've been trying to do it for 52 years and I haven't come close,' Jim said.
The 2-year-old Victory Links course is part of the National Sport Center, which hosts - among other events - the USA Cup soccer tournament. Toms ace was one of only three holes-in-one in the history of the course.
The Special Olympics Golf National Invitational Tournament (NIT) will be held Sept. 16-19 at Ames, Iowa. More than 200 golfers, from 29 U.S. programs, will compete at the five levels of play.
I personally attended the Special Olympics Golf National Invitational Tournament three years ago. It was eye-opening to see the youths so spirited, if ever friendly. When Im having a bad day on the golf course, I just think of these young athletes and what they must go through when they leave the course. Nothing seems quite so bad afterwards.
The PGA of America and United States Golf Association return for the sixth consecutive year as presenting sponsors and are joined by the PGA Tour in this sponsorship designation. The LPGA and the Golf Course Superintendents Assn. of America are supporting sponsors.
The PGA first introduced golf to the Special Olympics in 1988, and now some 10,000 athletes compete in the sport in 17 countries. In 1991, Special Olympics golf went international with nearly 4,000 Special Olympics athletes participating in daily PGA golf clinics at their Summer World Games in Minneapolis.
Special Olympics first exhibition golf tournament came at the 1995 Special Olympics Summer World Games. The Summer World Games hosted the first official Special Olympics World Golf Tournament in 1999 and the annual Special Olympics Golf National Invitational Tournament began in 2000.
The stated goal of Special Olympics is to changes lives by promoting understanding, acceptance and inclusion between people with and without intellectual disabilities. And golf organizations have jumped in wholeheartedly to lend their support ' the PGA, the USGA, the PGA Tour and the LPGA.
Someone, somewhere is bound to be thankful. Golf may have some warts here and there, but it has been a giant when it comes to these specially challenged people.
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