My first experience with seeing a disabled golfer was memorable. I was around 16 years old when my father and uncle took me out to play at Shawnee Hills golf course in Bedford Ohio. While we were warming up at the tee, an elderly gentlemen approached with his pull-cart. “Mind if I play with you guys”, he said. As he got closer, I realized that he only had one arm. I remember thinking to myself, “how’s he going to do this”? My apprehension about his playing ability soon faded. His drives were down the middle, nearly 200 yards or more every time. I don’t remember the score, but let’s just say he beat all three of us.
It wasn’t until I was in my late 40’s that I would play another round of golf with someone who was physically challenged. I was working at MobilityWorks for only a few months when I was asked if I wanted to participate in a fund-raising golf event for Hattie Larlham, a local non-profit organization that provides care to children and adults with severe developmental disabilities. My playing partner was to be Don Johnston, a mobility consultant working for MobilityWorks at the time, who is in a wheelchair. I thought to myself, “how is this going to work”? Don was truly inspiring as he would hit the ball from his chair while using a self-modified driver. While not extremely long off the tee, he could hit a ball more than 150 yards on a consistent basis and almost always straight. After each hit, I would drive the golf cart up next to Don and he would transfer over into the seat. He would then pick up his wheelchair and hold it up on the side of the cart until we reached our balls down the fairway. He would roll up onto the green and make his putt, getting in and out of the cart several times for each hole (for all 18 holes). Cleveland Indians legend Lenny Barker was on the tee at the par 3, 10th hole when Don made it on the green with his drive. It was an experience I’ll never forget. Not because he was able to play the game pretty well, but because of his attitude and determination. And to challenge his own abilities. We played again not long after at Edwin Shaw Rehabilitation Institute Challenge Golf course in Akron Ohio. This was his “home course” and he was determined to show me up. Needless to say, I lost the 9-hole round. The guy in the wheelchair beat the AB (able-bodied person). It was very humbling.
I recalled these experiences with playing golf because they were so inspirational. I don’t remember the name of the elderly man with one arm, but I wish I did. Don eventually followed his passion and finished his teaching degree (another inspiring story for another day). He recently taught as a substitute teacher at my daughter’s high school and is hoping for a full-time position.
What brought about these fond memories, however, was a recent You Tube video sent to me by MobilityWorks President/CEO Bill Koeblitz. Bill wrote in his e-mail “this is really amazing”. And it is. The video is about a one-legged golfer named Manuel De los Santos. At the age of 18, Manuel was on top of the world. He was a talented young baseball player from the Dominican Republic and close to signing with the Toronto Blue Jays. Becoming a professional baseball player was all he could think about. It was every Dominican teenager’s dream. That was before a motorcycle accident that took most of his left leg. In an instant, his life changed.
What makes his story different isn’t that he continued to play sports with a prosthetic, as many of our amputee customers do. What makes De los Santos so unusual is his ability to swing a golf club without any prosthetic – balancing on one leg – and playing almost as good as a professional. After years of determined practice and thousands of swings, he now shoots in the 70s on some of the most challenging golf courses in the world. For those who follow professional golf, playing to a 3 handicap means that you are very, very good (with or without two legs).
According to Manuel, he decided to take up golf after watching the The Legend of Bagger Vance, a Robert Redford directed film starring Will Smith, Matt Damon and Charlize Theron. The movie was more about the philosophical journey between two men (the pro golfer and his caddy) than the actual game of golf. When Manuel realized that he could balance and swing on one leg in his first attempt at a driving range, golf soon became his passion. Why he doesn’t play with the use of a prosthetic isn’t clear. Everyone deals with their own physical disability in his or her own way. Much like Bagger Vance, Manuel uses golf as a spiritual journey.
This You Tube video of him playing is amazing. His determination to get better is relentless. Now 26 years old, don’t be surprised if you see Manuel De Los Santos on television someday, playing alongside his golf idol Tiger Woods. This New Year’s Day, I’m going to make a resolution to challenge myself, like these three men have done. To do something special that I didn’t think I could do. I just don’t know what that is, just yet.