Physically Challenged Golfer: Overcoming Adversity to Play the Game

by Dan M | Posted on Friday, March 23rd, 2012

by Tom Ward


“A diamond can’t be perfected without friction, and people cannot be perfected without trials.” Anonymous

Next time you’re out on the course and start complaining about not playing well let me tell you a story about a friend of mine named Gary Smith. Before you open up your rolodex of excuses about the condition of your golf game and all the reasons you aren’t playing better I want you to remember Gary’s saga. It’s been 14 years ago this month that Gary made a tough decision to have his right arm amputated below his elbow. The reason for this drastic surgery was because he had an inoperable cancerous tumor in his right forearm. It could have spread and cost him his life so he opted to just remove the right arm so he could go on with his life. Prior to discovering the devastating news that he had cancer Gary was an avid golfer. He took up the game in 1973 and got his handicap as low as an eight. Gary told me that seven months after losing his right arm he began the process of taking up the game of golf again. Gary’s journey back was a slow one as he had to relearn simple things that we take for granted like learning to drive a car, buttoning shirts, putting a sandwich in a bag, etc.. Golf was something that brought him joy and immense pleasure and he wasn’t about to give it up.
We first met about 5 years ago through a mutual friend of ours. My buddy that I was teaching at the time knew Gary when he worked as a sales rep for Coors beer. Gary and I hooked up and I gave him some lessons. Gary knew that I had taught numerous golfers with physical disabilities so it gave me an inside track to helping him deal with playing golf with only one arm. Ironically, just before we first got together I was coming off a long term shoulder injury. I had something called adhesive capsulitis commonly known as a ‘frozen shoulder.’ I couldn’t hold my right arm any higher than about waist level high or I would feel a horrible shooting pain through my arm and shoulder blade. It was like someone took a knife and jabbed me with it. Needless to say I wasn’t able to play any golf during that period. I went through intense physical therapy twice a week for over a year. I could still teach golf, but I couldn’t play. I started to hit balls with my left arm only which was fine. Many years earlier I taught myself to swing with just one arm(left or right) when I started working with golfers who had lost their arms due to health problems and war veterans who helped serve our country. I thought if I could put myself in their shoes( so to speak) I could have a clearer understanding on what they were dealing with and how approach teaching them. I knew I could help Gary on his return to playing golf again with renewed vigor. I told him like I tell all my students whether they’re physically challenged or not. The golf ball doesn’t care who’s swinging the club whether you have one arm or one leg. The beauty of the game is that it doesn’t discriminate. That’s why I believe golf is one of the best sports- it’s a great equalizer.
When Gary and I got together I asked him to hit some balls for me with different clubs so I could observe him in action. As I told him after watching him hit shots, having been right handed and now being forced to use only his left arm was certainly going to be a challenge. However, it was one that he would overcome and ultimately enjoy greater results than he could ever have imagined. “ Failure is not an option” is the mantra I use in all my clinics worldwide. That’s because you should never give up, especially if you have a goal you want to reach. Golfer’s get frustrated when things don’t go their way. I tell them just remember regardless of how your shot ends up you either have results or reasons you don’t have results, but there are no excuses. You can learn from your mistakes or you can continue down the destructive path of making the same errors time and time again( like a broken record) if you don’t change your behavior. All golfers need to allow their club to swing back on a natural inside path as they take the club head away. Gary, like a lot of golfers was taking his club a little too far outside on his takeaway and lifting the club upwards too steeply as he reached the top of his backswing. This move was causing him some real problems because he was losing control of his club. A club being swung at the inappropriate angle is hard to control, no matter how strong you may be. A person with two hands can periodically get away with this action because they have some leverage with their right arm. Unfortunately, Gary doesn’t have that luxury.
Next, I demonstrated to him what I wanted him to do by hitting some shots with my 7 iron only with my left arm. I can hit one armed 7 irons about 165-175 yards on average. Once Gary could see that what I was talking about was possible we were able to move forward in the lesson plan. I was able to back up exactly what I was talking about to him which really made a big impact he later told me. Then I slowly walked him through his takeaway in slow motion all the way to the completion of his backswing. By systematically helping him feel and see what the correct swing path was relative to his physical build and left arm length everything started to come together for him. It’s almost like you could see a light click on in his brain. Everything I was trying to convey to him finally made sense, he told me. I won’t bore you with the details, but Gary is well onto his way to shooting in the 70’s again. Finally, I can’t tell you how many times I run into people who greet me with such tired and worn out expressions like ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.’ Listen, you give me a person with one arm and a great spirit like Gary’s and I’ll take them all day long over a healthy person with two good arms and a bad attitude.
Tom Ward can be reached at