One-armed players an inspirational group


The first hole at PGA National's Champion Course in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., is pretty benign, as golf holes go: par 4, slight dogleg right, 339 yards from the white tees.

Yup, benign. Unless you have to play it one-handed.

That was the challenge for all the groups in the scramble that preceded the recent North American One-Armed Golfer Association's 13th annual championship. The foursomes consisted of one one-armed player and three players able to use both arms. On this hole, everybody was required to play one-handed.

Joe Hartley at the 2013 NAOAGA championship at PGA National

Before we go further, a quick note about the NAOAGA. The assumption is that its members are all amputees, but that's not true. There simply must be an upper-extremity disability or a lower-extremity disability that necessitates playing one-handed. One member, for instance, has paralysis below the waist but no upper-extremity disability. He swings one-handed while using his other hand to hold himself up with a crutch.

There are two NAOAGA divisions – unassisted and assisted. Unassisted players use one arm only, with no assistance from a prosthetic device or a residual limb on the other arm. Assisted-division players use some level of assistance from the other arm or a prosthetic.  

Back to PGA National. The scramble was a shotgun, and we had started on No. 3, so this was our next-to-last hole. We were in red figures, determined to stay that way. We wanted nothing worse than a par, and we wanted it bad.

We also wanted to see if we could give our one-armed player, Joe Hartley (pictured above at PGA National's famous 'Bear Trap' statue), a little help, as he had been doing all day for us. Hartley is an Army veteran who lost his left arm as a result of a Scud missile attack in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm. A golfer before the injury, Hartley re-trained himself to play one-handed, developing a rhythmic swing with beautiful tempo. Joe and I were riding together, and for most of the day we played 'cart golf,' our drives often ending up just a few yards from each other. 

We all opted to copy Joe and swing 'forehand' with our right arms. The other two players in our group, brothers Tracy and Rob Teter, both from Jupiter, Fla., went first. Tracy, who had been our long hitter all day, hit a pop-up that traveled about the same distance as some of his two-handed divots. Rob fared no better. Neither did I, slicing a weak, low line drive into the right rough. Each of us had the same joking self-appraisal: 'Jeez, I can do that two-handed.' Joe came to our rescue with a soft draw down the left side of the fairway.

The second shots were a little better, but not much. Three failures and Joe's shot. His landed in a front bunker that was under construction, so we were allowed to drop in front of it. Now all we had was a 20-yard pitch over the sand. Yeah, 'all.'

When my turn came, I stuck my wedge into the ground 6 inches behind the ball. Second try, same thing. Third, too. Only by deliberately trying to top the ball was I able to actually hit it properly. Of course, after three whiffs, it didn't count. So we were left, again, to rely on Joe. And again, he came through, knocking his pitch to 6 feet. We couldn't make the putt, but by then it really didn't matter. Lesson learned. This one-armed golf looks difficult enough. In reality, it's way more difficult than that.

'WHAT YOU SEE here is a tribute to the human spirit.'

That's what Anthony Razzano had said as I chatted with him, his wife, Katie, and 11-year-old daughter, Julia, over breakfast before the scramble. When Razzano was 12, he was severely burned in a garage fire. His left hand had to be amputated. He was just beginning to really enjoy playing golf, having made his first bogey the summer before, but now it appeared he would have to give up the game.

Golf refused to give up on him, though, and at age 20, he picked up a club with his right hand and began swinging it. That was 17 years ago. During that time, he got his handicap index down to 11.1. Tribute to the human spirit indeed!

'I was a kid who wanted to compete,' he explained. 'I didn't see the limitations.

'No matter who you are, we all have some limitation.'

THE NAOAGA was formed in 1999 by, as Alan Gentry of Louisville, Ky., one of its founders, describes it, 'a couple of guys sitting around having a beer during happy hour.'

A small group of one-armed players were competing in a National Amputee Golf Association tournament in Birmingham, Ala., and decided they were at a disadvantage against the more than 100 players who had had legs amputated. They decided to form their own organization.

They knew about a Scotland-based group, the Society of One-Armed Golfers, which had grown out of a 1931 tournament for players who had been disabled in World War I.

'It seemed like a good niche for guys who were not (necessarily) amputees but were forced to play one-handed,' Gentry said. 'It was somewhere for them to go play, and I thought we needed to do something like that in the States.'

'But we all had careers, we all had families,' said Gentry, a former geologist who lost his right arm in a drilling-rig accident, 'so we've had to grow this very slowly. We've done a litle bit each year.'

Since 2008 the two organizations have competed against each other in the Fightmaster Cup, a Ryder Cup-style event that is held every two years, the week before the Ryder Cup, usually in the Ryder Cup's host city. It is named after Don Fightmaster of Louisville, 'the Arnold Palmer of amputee golf.'

Gentry, who first met Fightmaster when he was recuperating from his drilling-rig accident, is especially proud that 'there's not a single individual who's ever taken one cent of benefits or payment to make (the NAOAGA) work.'

I WASN'T able to stick around for the championship proper, which was played over the rest of that week, but I checked back in with Gentry, Razzano and Hartley. Gentry gave me the winners: In the unassisted division, Vince Biser of Baltimore won for an unprecedented fifth consecutive time, but was extended to 19 holes by Steve Shipuleski of Palm Beach Gardens. In the assisted division, John Trenchik of Toledo, Ohio, won for a third straight time, defeating Bob MacDermott of Alberta, Canada, also in 19 holes. MacDermott held the assisted title before Trenchik began his run.

Video: Vince Biser's 2012 NAOAGA championship match vs. Alan Gentry

'We've never had a championship match go extra holes before,' Gentry said, 'but this year, both did. It was awesome.'

Biser, 25, was born with cerebral palsy. He has almost no use of the right side of his upper body. He swings 'forehand' with his left arm. As a child, he battled frequent seizures. At age 16 he underwent an operation that removed part of his brain. It stopped the seizures. He played on his high school golf team. He has a 6 handicap, with a best score of 73. He can hit the ball more than 250 yards.

Because of the effect of the cerebral palsy, Biser has always played one-handed. That doesn't mean it came easy, though. 'In the beginning,' he said, 'it was hard and frustrating.' It took a few years of hitting balls, chipping and putting to get where he is. He tries to play most every day, usually at his home course, Country Club of Maryland. His regular Sunday game is with scratch or single-digit, two-handed players, and he more than holds his own. 'The first time I played with them,' he said, 'I won a hundred bucks.' 

Trenchik, 55, lost his left arm – he's a natural left-hander – at age 9 after he fell out of a tree and broke it for the fifth time. He taught himself to do everything right-handed, and played baseball, football and golf while growing up. He also carries a single-digit handicap.

I already knew that Razzano had won a closest-to-the-pin competition during the scramble (beating not only his fellow one-armed golfers but those of us with two arms as well). When Gentry had called him up to the podium to claim his prize, Razzano was carrying his 20-month-old son, Anthony Jr., who was fast asleep on Dad's shoulder. 'Can you carry it all?' Gentry asked as he handed Razzano his prize. 'You learn to adapt,' Razzano said.

By email, Razzano told me that he had earned the No. 4 seed in assisted-division competition after two days of stroke play, but had lost on the 18th hole of his quarterfinals match.

'It was a tough loss,' he said, 'but this was my first event of this type and was a tremendous experience.'

Like Razzano, Hartley was playing in his first NAOAGA event. 'For me it was more than just golf, it was a chance to meet people that are going through the same things I have or am going through in my golf and life,' he emailed. 'It was interesting to hear some of the stories of how the other amputees became amputees and how they have done after their handicap. So for me this tournament was really more than I expected, it opened me up to other things as well.' Hartley's only mild disappointment: He would have liked to see other amputee military veterans at the event. 'There were a couple other veterans there but were not amputees from military service.'

Hartley didn't qualify for match play, but he did play in what was called the NQ Cup (non-qualifiers, or 'never quit'). And he won.

AFTERWARD, I couldn't stop thinking about those three one-handed whiffs. I knew it would be disrespectful to one-armed golfers everywhere to think that I could duplicate their efforts right off the bat. But I wanted to prove to myself that, with a little practice, I could hit a respectable shot. Actually, it had to be more than one. One, like the pitch I had hit on my fourth try at PGA National, could be written off as a fluke.

So I went to the range.

It took most of a large bucket, but I finally managed to hit a few balls on something that resembled a proper trajectory and direction. The distance wasn't what I normally get with two hands, but I didn't care. I got more satisfaction out of those few one-handed shots than anything I've ever hit two-handed.

'That's awesome,' Gentry emailed me back when I told him about my experience. 'Now imagine what the feeling might be like if you were stricken with a terrible disease, or traumatic accident, that turned your life, as you know it, upside down. And as a middle-aged man, you slip into a 'mental' coma of sorts, or deep depression, frightened as to what your life has become and will be. As you tirelessly struggle with the most mundane, taken-for-granted simple tasks, you somehow conjure up the courage to step on a practice tee and swing at a ball.

'After several curious attempts, you connect ... perhaps even blind luck .... doesn't matter. You just did something you seriously doubted you could do. Tremendous internal elation engulfs you. Because now you know. Now you know you CAN do it. And it really has nothing to do with golf. Your life is NOT over, but your New one just began. You now have a purpose in life. You now have a reason to enthusiastically get up out of bed in the morning. You can't put a price on that.'  

'That, in a nutshell, is what we are all about. And I'm extremely privileged to not only have experienced that moment myself, but been able to help produce that moment for many others. But we have just chipped a tip off that iceberg. We must continue our quest to increase awareness of our existence, so that many, many others can experience that same feeling.'