Retired vet's goal: First amputee to win on PGA Tour
- By Al Tays
- Dec 23, 2012 8:00 AM ET
Golf? That wasn’t Chad Pfeifer’s speed. Way too tame a game for a three-sport high school athlete who was good enough in baseball to play collegiately. To him, golf was a sport for “old, retired people,” or for high school kids who couldn’t play football or baseball. He tried it – he played in a fund-raising outing his college baseball team held – but he and his teammates “would just get out there and try to hit that ball as far as we could with that driver.”
Pfeifer, now 31, laughs at those memories. They seem so far away. Golf is his life now. It’s how he supports wife Summer and their first child, 7-month-old Grady. When he isn’t working in a golf shop, he’s working on his game, striving to achieve his goal of becoming the first amputee to win on the Web.com or PGA tours.
He laughs at that thought, too, realizing how farfetched it must appear. But he’s serious. “I gotta have goals, right?” he says.
A CONFLUENCE of two random circumstances put Army Spc. Chad Pfeifer in the wrong place at the wrong time in the first hours of April 12, 2007. The platoon’s regular driver was back Stateside on R&R, and his replacement’s night-vision goggles weren’t working properly. So Pfeifer volunteered to come down from his usual berth manning the .50-caliber machine gun and drive back to base. They were about 45 miles southwest of Baghdad, but less than half a dozen from home.
Pfeifer's platoon was part of D Company of the 3rd Battalion (Airborne) of the 509th Infantry Regiment. They had been on patrol since late morning, engaged in a firefight and pursuit of the enemy for much of the day. Now it was after midnight and all they wanted to do was get home safely.
That’s when the bomb went off.
Buried just under the sand, it was a pressure-plate device, a low-tech but effective weapon of the Iraqi insurgents. The explosive was triggered when pressure forced a hidden plate down and connected a wire with the charge.
Pressure, as in someone stepping on it. Or a vehicle’s wheel rolling over it.
“Fortunately, I was the only one who got hurt,” Pfeifer said. “The blast wasn’t big enough to completely obliterate the truck.”
Pfeifer briefly blacked out. When he came to he heard his buddies asking if everyone was OK. “They got to me and I told them I couldn’t feel my legs.”
When they pulled him out of the truck, they saw that the lower portion of his left leg was missing.
AFTER A HOSPITAL STAY in Germany, Pfeifer was sent to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. There, waiting to receive a prosthetic, he had a visitor in his hospital room. Staff Sgt. Christian Bagge, whose wife had gone to college with Pfeifer, suggested that once Pfeifer got back on his feet, they should play some golf together.
Pfeifer didn't want to hear it.
“I was hurting pretty bad at the time,” he said, “so I was like ‘Yeah, OK, whatever.’”
Pfeifer wasn’t hurting just physically. His combat experience had left him – as it does so many in the military – with deep mental and emotional scars, too.
He was suffering from depression, which was so extreme that it led to thoughts of suicide, something that isn’t uncommon among people who suffer traumatic injuries.
“There were definitely plenty of days where I really felt depressed and angry,” he said. “I was fortunate to have a loving family who were there to support me and that made a huge difference in my mental rehabilitation. There were days when I had no idea what I was going to do and how I could live the life I wanted to without my leg.”
Part of that life he wanted to live involved sports. He was – had been – a successful athlete, a competitor. But now he couldn’t see how that need could be nourished.
And then he hit some range balls.
BAGGE HADN'T GIVEN UP on the idea, and eventually Pfeifer agreed. Their first session was aborted when Pfeifer’s prosthetic broke as the two men were walking from the clubhouse to the range, but after Pfeifer received a replacement, they tried again.
Something clicked in Pfeifer when he pured a shot – feeling the solid strike of clubhead against ball. It wasn’t unlike the feel of baseball against bat. This was fun, especially since he seemed to be good at it. He might have lost a leg, but he still had his baseball-honed hand-eye coordination.
“Once I picked up golf,” he said, “it gave me an escape from that depression, got me out of my hospital room, and let me take out some aggression on the golf ball rather than people close to me.”
The staff at the fort’s two golf courses got to know Pfeifer and Bagge, allowing them to hit free range balls or go out on one of the courses if it wasn’t busy.
Pfeifer settled into a routine: physical therapy in the morning, golf in the afternoon. “I didn’t want to just sit around and play video games,” he said.
“I would first go out and just chip and putt, but then when I started hitting full shots, I got the bug and fell in love with it.”
NOW HE WANTED to compete. Despite battling a fade caused by his tendency to fall back on his right leg, Pfeifer found he could hit the ball long and accurately. He played enough rounds to establish a handicap, starting out as a 15. Playing from the back tees, he broke 80, then 70. He entered the National Amputee Championship, finishing in the top five in 2009 and 2010, then winning it in 2011 aided by a career-low 65. He won the Warrior Open, a tournament for wounded veterans founded by the George W. Bush Presidential Center, in 2011 and 2012, making his second hole-in-one in the second event.
After holing an 8-iron on the 147-yard fourth hole, exchanging high-fives and hugs with the rest of his group and hopping into his cart and heading for the green, Pfeifer noticed a familiar figure.
“I looked and saw President George W. Bush start walking onto the green and he had his hands raised.
“I didn’t realize he was up there ... it was incredible to know that he was one of my official witnesses to the shot. That was definitely pretty cool.”
"It's the closest I've been to a hole-in-one ever," Bush said.
PFEIFER SAYS he joined the Army to pay some college bills and student loans. But if he hadn’t been wounded, he probably would have made it a career.
“You form great friends in the Army,” he said, “such bonds with those guys, that I had decided that I was going to be a career military guy. … you can’t imagine what else you’d be doing.”
Now he can't imagine doing anything outside of golf.
After medically retiring from the Army as a corporal in August 2008, Pfeifer initially moved back to Boise, Idaho, but decided to relocate to Arizona to pursue a career in golf. He and Summer moved to Chandler, Ariz., where he enrolled in the Golf Academy of America. He got a job working at Tatum Ranch GC in Cave Creek, but after a move left him with a long commute, he shifted to the Golf Club of Estrella, where he helps out in the pro shop.
His real goal is to become a touring pro. If he makes it to the Web.com Tour or PGA Tour, he would be only the second amputee to compete on one of the three major U.S. tours. Ken Green was the first, competing in eight Champions Tour events after losing part of his right leg in a 2009 RV crash. Green was a former PGA Tour player before his accident; Pfeifer would be the first amputee with no previous tour experience.
Green is rooting for him. While noting that golf is “brutally hard even without these setbacks,” Green said “there is no reason he can’t be successful. It gives him a purpose and a goal, and you’ve got to have a purpose and a goal to accomplish anything.”
Pfeifer’s game hasn’t risen to the level he wants in competition, but he’s been trying to play while also working full time and trying to raise sponsorship money so he can afford to enter more tournaments. Plus, 2012 has been an eventful year. While Summer was pregnant with Grady, Pfeifer played in some Gateway Tour events but “didn’t play my best.” He played in the Monday qualifier for the Web.com Tour’s Albertsons Boise Open, but missed the number to qualify by three shots. Next year he hopes to get into that tournament – which is significant to him because he grew up in Caldwell, Idaho, just outside Boise – on a sponsor's exemption.
If he can’t make it as a touring pro, “I really want to be a motivational guy – not necessarily a speaker, but go around and be a role model for wounded soldiers and be an inspiration to them.
“I want to be the guy who helps other wounded soldiers do whatever they want to do after they get hurt and come back from war.”
He already has a head start on that kind of work. He’s involved in several military organizations, including the Wounded Warrior Project, Warriors for Freedom, Salute Military Golf Association and Folds of Honor.
All in all, he has no complaints. “It’s turned out great,” he said.
Tays, Assistant Managing Editor of GolfChannel.com, has more than 40 years experience in journalism.
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