One-armed players an inspirational group

By Al TaysSeptember 28, 2013, 6:28 pm

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.'

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Molinari retirement plan: coffee, books and Twitter

By Will GrayJuly 22, 2018, 9:35 pm

After breaking through for his first career major, Francesco Molinari now has a five-year exemption on the PGA Tour, a 10-year exemption in Europe and has solidified his standing as one of the best players in the world.

But not too long ago, the 35-year-old Italian was apparently thinking about life after golf.

Shortly after Molinari rolled in a final birdie putt to close out a two-shot victory at The Open, fellow Tour player Wesley Bryan tweeted a picture of a note that he wrote after the two played together during the third round of the WGC-HSBC Champions in China in October. In it, Bryan shared Molinari's plans to retire as early as 2020 to hang out at cafes and "become a Twitter troll":

Molinari is active on the social media platform, with more than 5,600 tweets sent out to nearly 150,000 followers since joining in 2010. But after lifting the claret jug at Carnoustie, it appears one of the few downsides of Molinari's victory is that the golf world won't get to see the veteran turn into a caffeinated, well-read troll anytime soon.

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Molinari had previously avoided Carnoustie on purpose

By Rex HoggardJuly 22, 2018, 9:17 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Sometimes a course just fits a player’s eye. They can’t really describe why, but more often than not it leads to solid finishes.

Francesco Molinari’s relationship with Carnoustie isn’t like that.

The Italian played his first major at Carnoustie, widely considered the toughest of all The Open venues, in 2007, and his first impression hasn’t really changed.

“There was nothing comforting about it,” he said on Sunday following a final-round 69 that lifted him to a two-stroke victory.


Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship


In fact, following that first exposure to the Angus coast brute, Molinari has tried to avoid Carnoustie, largely skipping the Dunhill Links Championship, one of the European Tour’s marquee events, throughout his career.

“To be completely honest, it's one of the reasons why I didn't play the Dunhill Links in the last few years, because I got beaten up around here a few times in the past,” he said. “I didn't particularly enjoy that feeling. It's a really tough course. You can try and play smart golf, but some shots, you just have to hit it straight. There's no way around it. You can't really hide.”

Molinari’s relative dislike for the layout makes his performance this week even more impressive considering he played his last 37 holes bogey-free.

“To play the weekend bogey-free, it's unthinkable, to be honest. So very proud of today,” he said.

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Rose: T-2 finish renewed my love of The Open

By Jay CoffinJuly 22, 2018, 9:00 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Justin Rose made the cut on the number at The Open and was out for an early Saturday morning stroll at Carnoustie when, all of a sudden, he started putting together one great shot after another.

There was no pressure. No one had expected anything from someone so far off the lead. Yet Rose shot 30 on the final nine holes to turn in 7-under 64, the lowest round of the championship. By day’s end he was five shots behind a trio of leaders that included Jordan Spieth.

Rose followed the 64 with a Sunday 69 to tie for second place, two shots behind winner Francesco Molinari. His 133 total over the weekend was the lowest by a shot, and for a moment he thought he had a chance to hoist the claret jug, until Molinari put on a ball-striking clinic down the stretch with birdies on 14 and 18.


Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship


“I just think having made the cut number, it’s a great effort to be relevant on the leaderboard on Sunday,” said Rose, who collected his third-career runner-up in a major. He’s also finished 12th or better in all three majors this year.

In the final round, Rose was well off the pace until his second shot on the par-5 14th hole hit the pin. He had a tap-in eagle to move to 5 under. Birdie at the last moved him to 6 under and made him the clubhouse leader for a few moments.

“It just proves to me that I can play well in this tournament, that I can win The Open,” Rose said. “When I’m in the hunt, I enjoy it. I play my best golf. I don’t back away.

“That was a real positive for me, and it renewed the love of The Open for me.”

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Woods does everything but win at The Open

By Ryan LavnerJuly 22, 2018, 8:57 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – For a proud man who spent the majority of his prime scoffing at silver linings and small victories, Tiger Woods needed little cajoling to look at the bright side Sunday at Carnoustie.

Sure, after a round in which he took the solo lead at The Open with nine holes to go, the first words out of Woods’ mouth were that he was “a little ticked off at myself” for squandering an opportunity to capture his 15th major title, and his first in more than a decade. And that immediate reaction was justified: In the stiffest winds of the week, he played his last eight holes in 2 over, missed low on a 6-footer on the final green and wound up in a tie for sixth, three shots behind his playing partner, Francesco Molinari.

“Today was a day,” Woods said, “that I had a great opportunity.”

But here’s where we take a deep breath.

Tiger Woods led the freakin’ Open Championship with nine holes to play.

Imagine typing those words three months ago. Six months ago. Nine months ago. Twelve months ago.

The scenario was improbable.

Inconceivable.

Impossible.

At this time last year, Woods was only a few months removed from a Hail Mary fusion surgery; from a humiliating DUI arrest in which he was found slumped behind the wheel of his car, with five drugs in his system; from a month-long stay in a rehab clinic to manage his sleep medications.

Just last fall, he’d admitted that he didn’t know what the future held. Playing a major, let alone contending in one, seemed like a reasonable goal.

This year he’s showed signs of softening, of being kinder and gentler. He appeared more eager to engage with his peers. More appreciative of battling the game’s young stars inside the ropes. More likely to express his vulnerabilities. Now 42, he finally seemed at peace with accepting his role as an elder statesman.

One major, any major, would be the most meaningful title of his career, and he suggested this week that his best chance would come in an Open, where oldies-but-goodies Tom Watson (age 59) and Greg Norman (53) have nearly stolen the claret jug over the past decade.


Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship


But success at this Open, on the toughest links in the rota?

“Just need to play some cleaner golf, and who knows?” he shrugged.

Many analysts howled at Woods’ ultra-conservative strategy across the early rounds here at big, brawny and brutish Carnoustie. He led the field in driving accuracy but routinely left himself 200-plus yards for his approach shots, relying heavily on some vintage iron play. Even par through 36 holes, he stepped on the gas Saturday, during the most benign day for scoring, carding a 66 to get within striking distance of the leaders.

Donning his traditional blood-red shirt Sunday, Woods needed only six holes to erase his five-shot deficit. Hearing the roars, watching WOODS rise on the yellow leaderboards, it was as though we’d been transported to the mid-2000s, to a time when he’d play solidly, not spectacularly, and watch as his lesser opponents crumbled. On the same ancient links that Ben Hogan took his lone Open title, in 1953, four years after having his legs crushed in a head-on crash with a Greyhound bus, Woods seemed on the verge of scripting his own incredible comeback.

Because Jordan Spieth was tumbling down the board, the beginning of a birdie-less 76.

Rory McIlroy was bogeying two of his first five holes.

Xander Schauffele was hacking his way through fescue.

Once Woods hit one of the shots of the championship on 10 – hoisting a 151-yard pitching wedge out of a fairway bunker, over a steep lip, over a burn, to 20 feet – the outcome seemed preordained.

“For a while,” McIlroy conceded, “I thought Tiger was going to win.”

So did Woods. “It didn’t feel any different to be next to the lead and knowing what I needed to do,” he said. “I’ve done it so many different ways. It didn’t feel any different.”

But perhaps it’s no coincidence that once Woods took the lead for the first time, he frittered it away almost immediately. That’s what happened Saturday, when he shared the lead on the back nine and promptly made bogey. On Sunday, he drove into thick fescue on 11, then rocketed his second shot into the crowd, the ball ricocheting off a fan’s shoulder, and then another’s iPhone, and settling in more hay. He was too cute with his flop shot, leaving it short of the green, and then missed an 8-footer for bogey. He followed it up on 12 with another misadventure in the rough, leading to a momentum-killing bogey. He’d never again pull closer than two shots.

“It will be interesting to see going forward, because this was his first taste of major championship drama for quite a while,” McIlroy said. “Even though he’s won 14, you have to learn how to get back.”

Over the daunting closing stretch, Woods watched helplessly as Molinari, as reliable as the tide coming in off the North Sea, plodded his way to victory. With Woods’ hopes for a playoff already slim, Molinari feathered a wedge to 5 feet on the closing hole. Woods marched grim-faced to the bridge, never turning around to acknowledge his playing partner’s finishing blow. He waved his black cap and raised his mallet-style putter to a roaring crowd – knowledgeable fans who were appreciative not just of Woods making his first Open start since 2015, but actually coming close to winning the damn thing.

“Oh, it was a blast,” Woods would say afterward. “I need to try to keep it in perspective, because at the beginning of the year, if they’d have said you’re playing the Open Championship, I would have said I’d be very lucky to do that.”

Last weekend, Woods sat in a box at Wimbledon to watch Serena Williams contend for a 24th major title. Williams is one of the few athletes on the planet with whom Woods can relate – an aging, larger-than-life superstar who is fiercely competitive and adept at overcoming adversity. Woods is 15 months removed from a fourth back surgery on an already brittle body; Williams nearly secured the most prestigious championship in tennis less than a year after suffering serious complications during childbirth.

“She’ll probably call me and talk to me about it because you’ve got to put things in perspective,” Woods said. “I know that it’s going to sting for a little bit here, but given where I was to where I’m at now, I’m blessed.”

But Woods didn’t need to wait for that phone call to find some solace. Waiting for him afterward were his two kids, Sam, 11, and Charlie, 9, both of whom were either too young or not yet born when Tiger last won a major in 2008, when he was at the peak of his powers.

Choking up, Woods said, “I told them I tried, and I said, 'Hopefully you’re proud of your Pops for trying as hard as I did.' It’s pretty emotional, because they gave me some pretty significant hugs there and squeezed. I know that they know how much this championship means to me, and how much it feels good to be back playing again.

“To me, it’s just so special to have them aware, because I’ve won a lot of golf tournaments in my career, but they don’t remember any of them. The only thing they’ve seen is my struggles and the pain I was going through. Now they just want to go play soccer with me. It’s such a great feeling.”

His media obligations done, Woods climbed up the elevated walkway, on his way to the back entrance of the Carnoustie Golf Hotel & Spa. He was surrounded by his usual entourage, but also two new, younger additions to his clan.

Sam adhered to the strict Sunday dress code, wearing a black tank top and red shorts. But Charlie’s attire may have been even more appropriate. On the day his dad nearly authored the greatest sports story ever, he chose a red Nike T-shirt with a bold message emblazoned on the front, in big, block letters:

LOVE THE HATERS.

After this unbelievable performance, after Tiger Woods nearly won The Open, are there really any left?