Playing Through


“You’re goin’ for a ride, baby,” drawls Chris Doody, waggling a 5-wood at an obstinate little spheroid. The tall, 41-year-old North Carolinian takes a healthy cut, but his good leg slips out a bit on the follow through. The sliced shot leaves him a long approach over drink to a distant par-5 green. “Just not hittin’ the way I want to. That’s all right, I can still bogie and maybe par.” His frown disappears as he waves his arms at welcome relief—”Hey, beer girl!” The server calls out that she’ll be over in a minute, but Doody’s already in motion—high-tech, Star Wars-like prosthesis hanging loose over the side of an electric cart now on a cross-fairway charge. “I’ll come to you. I’m thirsty.”

It’s sticky hot in Manorville for the final 18 of the Eastern Amputee Golf Association’s (EAGA) Long Island Classic. At least it’s not raining. And what’s a little weather, anyway? Doody’s motored all the way up I-95 from Wilmington with the hopes of winning this thing (“I’m the best golfer here,” he claims), and now, too many strokes back, he’s determined to enjoy himself. “I got whacked pretty good,” he says of the car accident (and drunk driver) that cost him his leg in 1983, “but this here is fun. I wish I hadn’t choked so much. These guys inspire me.”

As they do each other. Between unsatisfactory pokes and moments of self-reproach (“you no-touch dawwwgg,” “you stupid shit”), the voluble Doody pumps up his playing partners with encouragement (“smooth one out there, buddy,”) mixed with lighthearted trash talk (“you rockin’ sockin’ robot”). “Comin’ after you, big man,” he’d barked earlier at above-the-knee amputee Paul Sheehan (Vietnam), during the veteran’s lights-out opening round of 78. But there’d be no catching Sheehan, a linebacker-sized, genial gent with a creaking artificial leg and the green-side touch of a surgeon. “He [Doody] was on a mission to beat us Yanks,” laughs the winner afterward, his accent straight from the Hopkington, Massachusetts, fishery where he works. “But I played good. It’s relaxing playing with your amputee brothers. Everybody’s in the same boat; everybody walks like you. Right now my stump feels fine.”

There was no shortage of amazing stories—golf or otherwise—on hand at the Pine Hills golf course last week. Yes, zillions of able-bodied hackers know for a fact that the game is tough enough. Yes, most piss and moan their way through the sunniest of outings. I am not Tiger Woods, the refrain goes (nor even disabled Casey Martin, who’s still battling the mean-spirited PGA for the right to use a cart). But if you don’t think that’s all relative, consider EAGA women’s winner Kellie Valentine, a 29-year-old Pennsylvania graduate student who, with one arm (car accident), plays to a 16 handicap and flat-out creams her tee shots.

“If he wants to stop in the middle of the fairway, I’ll hit him,” she shrugs before crushing a one-armed drive not far from an oblivious, stationary mower, some 220 yards out. “You know what they say: ‘Oh, they’ll never reach us.’ ”

After problems with a downhill lie, Valentine squirts a tricky pitch to 15, 20 feet. Seeing this, a course ranger gushes, “Nice shot!” Valentine knows better, but thanks him anyway, before two-putting for a bogie. On the very next hole, a 125-yard par-3, she flies a mid-iron pin high, then nails her sidehill eight-footer for birdie. She and cart-mate Kim Mecca, an arm-amputee (industrial accident) mother of four, high-five each other with smiles wider than the sand traps they’ve just cleared.

By smacking the ball backhanded (left-armed), Valentine and Mecca, who often play together competitively, appear to defy traditional swing dynamics. “You have to use more of your body,” explains Valentine. “The power we generate is not from the arm but from the hip turn. If you look at Tiger’s huge turn, that’s how you generate clubhead speed. Once you get your timing down, it’s not that hard.”

Timing and balance are crucial for amputee golfers, many of whom marvel at each other’s techniques. Keith Johansen, the event’s 50-year-old defending champion, plays one-armed (birth) with a more traditional righty, forehanded approach and shakes his head at the ladies’ deliveries. “I don’t know how they do it,” he says. “I’d burn my shoulder out if I tried that.” Of his own swing, Johansen says that he has to constantly remind himself to control the right elbow and “keep the left side moving through as if you had an arm there.”

While Sheehan calls one-armed golfers “awesome from 80 yards in,” he says that his particular problem—and that of many fellow high-leg amputees—stems from not being able to shift weight. “I’m an arm swinger, but if my drive stays in the fairway, I can score.” Sheehan just about bows before his pal Jim Wegrzyn, a 36-year-old double-leg amputee with only his thumbs and a couple of odd fingers left on either hand: “It’s amazing. There’s nothing under him, but Jimmy can kill the ball.” Wegrzyn, who lost his extremities due to a misdiagnosed blood infection, admits that he tends to “slide a lot. I can’t follow through, but I’m OK when I plant my feet.” Both feet are, of course, artificial and attached to the end of prosthetic legs.

For most golfing above-the-knee amputees, you’re only as good as your artificial limb. “I’ve had patients who could walk on a stick,” says Dan Bastian, a certified prosthetist, sometime golfer, and cancer amputee, whose clinic sponsors the LI tournament. “But it all comes back to socket design. That’s where the art comes in.” Back in the clubhouse bar, Doody agrees. “Look at this baby,” he chortles, waving a Heineken for emphasis. “All graphite, shock absorber, rotator—weighs six and a half pounds. I had it specially made for golf. I can almost run in it. But it’s the fit that counts. If you can play 27 holes and not break down, you got a leg.”

As stated on its Web site, the EAGA’s objectives are to assist its 743 members in rehab and provide for general amputee welfare, “physical and psychological,” through golf. Competitive for some, social for all, the three-day Long Island event is but one in a string of amputee golf tournaments held in the Northeast throughout the summer. And even for the most competitive here in Manorville—Doody and Valentine—camaraderie rules. “It’s kind of hard to explain,” says Valentine. “It’s like nobody has anything to hide. It’s real therapeutic, I guess. You learn a lot and have a good time.”

Pine Hills head pro Jimmi Conway says that the everyday golfers he teaches could all learn a great deal from this group, both technically and spiritually. “There’s a lot of natural swing there,” he says, “and hitting the ball is almost secondary. When you have less to think of, the ball goes from A to B with less effort. But more than that, golf becomes trivial here. It’s not life and death; it’s social energy. Their competition is themselves.”

Though not always. Sometimes, in the struggle for acceptance, competition lies across the fence. Doody, who plays for money back home, says his favorite thing is “to beat able-bodied guys. They hate it.” Mecca hosts her own annual outing in Pennsylvania to “make people more aware about amputees.” She also plays in regular tournaments, on occasion winning longest drive contests. “It fries some of the ladies,” she says, “but it gives me an opportunity to prove myself.” And when they tell her they can’t believe that she hits it that far, she tells them, “You should see some of my friends play.”