Special Olympians Gather for Golf Tourney


Bob OConnor could hardly find the words to say as he stared down at the ground momentarily. His 14-year-old son, Casey, was nearby and together they had just won an award at the Special Olympics Golf National Invitational Tournament. Wife Nell, who had caddied, looked on from the background.
Its wonderful, it really is, said the Conway, S.C., participant. I dont know what to say, except to just express my appreciation to everyone. Casey had a great time. This has been such a wonderful experience.
OConnor and young Special Olympian Casey OConner were in one of five divisions which made up the tournament held at the PGA of Americas golf courses at Port St. Lucie, Fl. Special Olympians are teamed with non-Special Olympians ' usually a father or close family friend ' and play alternate shot competition, individual competition or participate in an individual skills competition. Play was on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, with the finals held Tuesday.
The PGA and the United States Golf Association team up to present the competition, along with volunteers who give of their time and effort. The Golf Channel, Cingular Wireless and the Phillips 66 Corporation have added their support as corporate sponsors. Jim Awtrey, the Chief Executive Officer of the PGA of America, was on hand to greet the 156 Special Olympic golfers who came from 13 states.
Dorothy Mastromonaco represented the USGA as a starter. The USGA has contributed over $1 million to Special Olympics since 1992.
The USGA Foundation Sports Program is aimed at funding programs that introduces the game to those who would not normally have the opportunity to learn the game and reap the rewards, said Mastromonaco.
That is the official reason for her presence. Unofficially, Mastromonaco let it be known that she wouldnt have been anywhere else on this hot September day in Florida.
To me personally, she said, this is like nothing that I do.
One of the other volunteers said, This is like going to church. And I had to agree. It makes you feel so good to be doing something so altruistic, because you know that it is so genuinely appreciated by not only the athletes, but by the families of the athletes. It means so much.
Longtime LPGA veteran Donna White serves as golf manager of Special Olympics. That, too, is merely a title for what has become the experience of a lifetime.
As a tour player, she said, Special Olympics was always my favorite charity. The best advice I ever got in my professional career was from a coach who always said, Donna, stay connected to your community. You never know whats going to happen. And I did that. I am so thrilled that I got involved with Special Olympics.
White explained the purpose of the program, the goal of which is to promote the game of golf, lies in three key words ' opportunity, success and lastly but most importantly, respect.
Not only do they earn self-respect, but respect in the community and the typical life skills of just learning the game, she said.
One by one, in groups of five, they came to the podium to accept awards. Brian Mills, 21, of North Borough, Mass., was there, along with partner James Ayres. James praised the golf game of his partner Mills.
'The development of Brian's game has really been unbelievable,' Ayres said. 'He just started playing last year, and he's come a long, long way. It's just an extremely rewarding experience to be his partner.'
Fourteen-year-old Michael Ciociolo of Boyston, Mass., got his award in Level 2. Seventeen-year-old brother James beamed with pride, knowing the hours and hours of work it took for Mike to reach his goal.
This means so much, you know, said James Ciociolo. When Mike was born, we didnt think he would even be able to touch a club. And now this. Coming out here introduced me to a whole new world. Ive met a lot of new people and everybody is so nice. The PGA and the USGA do a tournament like this, and they do a great job.
White has played the pro tour, seen the world, done it all in golf and yet she is overwhelmed with emotion every time she works an event. Dont ever volunteer, she warns. It will be the greatest thing you can do.
Once you work one of these, youre hooked, said White. You get more out of it than they do. Theres so much personal reward.
I coached tour players, I coached beginners, Ive coached everyone from novice to professional. And I think the reward ' and the excitement ' that a Special Olympics athlete projects is like nothing else in this world.
And the appreciation that you get back, regardless of how they perform, the appreciation and the effort they project ' those are the two key words for me. It just doesnt get any more special than Special Olympics.
Visit the Website for the Special Olympics