I am a disabled golfer.
Usually I loathe writing about myself, but here it’s necessary to introduce this column, the first in a series we call “The Challenged Tour.” It will chronicle the world of disabled golfers and will contain a minimum of “me.”
“Disabled golfer” is a label I’m neither used to nor comfortable with. I’ve had my condition – more on that later – for a relatively short time, and my limitations are trifling when compared with far more daunting physical and mental challenges, including blindness, deafness, amputations, etc.
Facts, however, are facts. Not all disabilities are created equal, but my relationship with golf has been profoundly changed. It will never change back.
As a golfer, I always believed I could improve. More lessons, more practice, and I would finally break 80 and lower my handicap to single digits. Getting older wouldn’t matter; I’d just move up one tee box and one club.
My body had other ideas. I’ve had to come to grips with the fact that I’m not going to get better, figuratively or literally.
Doesn't mean I'm going to quit playing, though. Not by a long shot.
At least my downhill slide started from a lofty perch – the first tee at Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles, where Jack Nicklaus first met a 15-year-old Tiger Woods. Upon arriving, we were told we were going to walk and have a caddie (a luxury I had experienced only a few times before), and Eddie Merrins, Bel-Air’s legendary pro emeritus, a hall-of-fame teacher and the longtime coach at UCLA, was going to walk along with us. It sounded like a dream round.
Dream quickly turned to nightmare. Walking the rugged canyon terrain became increasingly difficult, but I told myself that if Merrins, then in his mid-70s, could do it, I could too.
I did – barely. Little did I know it would be the last time I ever walked a golf course.
Afterward, I set out to discover what was wrong with me. I had thought I was simply out of shape, but this was clearly more than that.
A few months later I was hospitalized with a severe case of the flu. I seized the opportunity to ask doctors to look into my weakness. An MRI of my head and neck revealed a lesion, or scar, on my cervical spine.
The neurologist explained my situation this way:
I have demyelination. Think of myelin as the plastic coating on an electrical cord. If it wears away, the wire is exposed. In the body, exposed “wire” is bad.
With demyelination, I was told, the signals that traverse neuropathways from the brain to the muscles are interrupted. With me, it affects mostly my right leg, primarily the muscles that lift it when I walk. So the leg tends to drag, and I trip a lot. If I’m not careful, sidewalks can become minefields.
The neurologist told me that if other scars develop, it means I have multiple sclerosis. Further damage could be prevented, but what has already been done cannot be fixed.
Still, except for having to use a cart, and limping when I walk to tees and greens (I often joke that by the back nine I feel like the head-bandaged fife player in the famous Revolutionary War-inspired painting, 'The Spirit of '76'), and having lost so much distance that I struggle to reach fairways even from the white tees, I can pass for a “normal” golfer.
About that loss of distance: I cringed when Stacy Lewis said she could hit her 3-wood only 160 yards into the brutal wind that plagued the Women’s British Open. That’s my driver distance, I thought. Downwind. Downhill. With roll.
What hasn’t deteriorated, however, is the rush I get from the game. I still share that with all golfers, regardless of ability or disability. Some of us find our joy on the scorecard, breaking some arbitrary number. (Silly, isn’t it, to be pleased with an 89, yet irked by a 90?) Others get a thrill from making solid contact, the sublime feel of clubhead compressing ball that always makes me say, “I can’t hit it any better than that.”
For others, joy comes in much simpler form. I’ve seen disabled golfers who could only swing a club toward a ball, missing it more often than hitting it, yet their smiles made them look like they were Jack Nicklaus and had just won the 1986 Masters.
It’s that kind of story we will tell in this space, celebrating disabled golfers’ perseverance and courage, illuminating the barriers they encounter and perhaps even helping get a few torn down.
Now that would be a real rush.