Thursday, June 16, 2011

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The Irish Times

June 7, 2011 Tuesday

SPORT; Golf; Pg. 23

1156 words
GOLF: MALACHY CLERKINmeets one-armed golfers for whom handicap is strictly a matter of shots against parBRENDAN SWAN pulls a six iron from his bag and lines up his approach to the 14th green at Co Meath Golf Club a few miles outside Trim. His ball is a few inches below his feet so the 14-handicapper bends his knees a little as he places the clubhead behind the ball with his right hand. From behind, he would look no different to any golfer faced with the same shot but come around and watch him head-on and the picture changes. He s holding the club in his right hand because he doesn t have a left one.The stump hanging from his left shoulder barely pokes out of the arm in his T-shirt, the result of an industrial accident at a conveyor belt in 1985 that took away his arm above the elbow.He settles over the ball and draws the club back slowly and deliberately, winding it up well beyond horizontal at the top of his swing. He brings it back down smoothly, letting the club to the work without a huge amount of obvious force and hitting perfectly through the ball. It pitches at the front of a slightly elevated green and trundles on to a stop six feet from the hole. Great shot, I say. Thanks, he smiles. Hey, Brendan, calls playing partner Michael O Grady, himself a one-armed golfer as a result of losing his hand below the elbow after being knocked down by a drunk driver. Do you hear me clapping? Welcome to the world of one-armed golf, which differs from the two-armed world only in respect of the jokes being filthier and the sense of what s important being far more grown-up. What did Osama Bin Laden say to his wives as the Americans landed at his compound? cracks O Grady at one point.Dunno, what? Which of you filled in the f**king census form? Both Swan and O Grady will play in next week s World Open One-Armed Championships at Co Meath, the 74th championships since the foundation of the Society of the One-Armed Golfers (SOAG) back in 1932.Swan won the tournament in 2001, just 12 years after taking up the game as a 24-handicapper and it s mainly because of his efforts the tournament will be held at his home club next week.For the 75th tournament next year, the championships will be hosted by St Andrews.Set up in Glasgow in 1932 to accommodate World War One amputees, the SOAG has grown to over 1,000 members, drawn mainly from here and Britain.Societies have been set up in the US and every two years a Ryder Cup-style tournament called the Fightmaster Cup is played between the two continents.Both Swan and O Grady have represented Europe in the past two, gaining revenge in Wales last year for the hammering Europe took in Kentucky in 2008.The membership has changed with the world down the decades from amputees after the two world wars to polio and thalidomide victims in the middle of the 20th century to survivors of machinery and motor accidents in later years. We re very lucky, says O Grady. Aren t we blessed to be doing this instead of lying in a bed having sloppy food fed to us through a tube? Swan was 20 when he lost his left arm. It was very quick, very sudden, he says. I knew my fate really from that moment on. Right from the instant it happened, the healing process started straight away. I had to come to terms with realising how serious it was and what the consequences were going to be. I remember very clearly waking up in the intensive care unit and feeling an itch in my elbow. I went to scratch it without thinking and when I put my hand there, there was no arm. That was how I realised it was gone. The month I spent in the rehabilitation centre in DĂșn Laoghaire opened my eyes to how lucky I was. This was about three weeks after I would have had the accident. I was there with guys who literally cannot do a thing for themselves. There I was with two legs, two eyes, two ears, a fully-functioning brain and one good arm. I think God gave us two of each so that if it came to pass that we had to lose one, we could still function and get by. You have no choice then. I just took it on the chin and got on with it. I knew I was going to have to work that little bit harder to do the things I was used to doing every day. Swan had been a hurler and a footballer beforehand but when he tried to go back playing a bit of ball, he found that other players were wary about tackling him. It didn t bother me at all but I could see selectors on the sideline cringing whenever lads would put the hand in on me. I think from an insurance point of view as well, the club were a bit iffy about me playing. But a life without sport would be no life at all. So he asked a friend who would later become a brother-in-law could he tag along to their Sunday morning golf game just to see what it was like. After six holes, he was all-in. He rang the GUI for advice and they sent him to his nearest pro, who was in Tara GC at the time.The pro tried him out with right-handed and left-handed clubs to see which would suit him better; he plumped for right-handed and away he went.Watching Swan and O Grady play, the right-handed/left-handed conundrum becomes very noticeable. It s actually more of a forehand/backhand deal.They both play with right-handed clubs but O Grady holds it in his left hand and so has to swing across his body, giving his swing a jerky action as he generates power with his hips and legs. Swan s swing is smoother-looking but must place huge pressure on his body because he takes the clubhead so far beyond horizontal. Oh, you name it, I ve sprained it, he says. Neck, shoulders, back, everything. He tried driving with left-handed club for a while and found nearly 30 extra yards off the tee. But it threw his shoulder completely out of kilter and eventually he had to go back.Neither of them tries to leather the maker s name off the ball and they re both enviably straight. Have to be, smiles Swan. If I go into the rough, I can t blast it out like a two-handed player can. Neither of them played before they lost their limb, taking up afterwards as both a goal to aim at and a social outlet. Swan got his handicap down to 10.5 when he became world champion, O Grady got as low as seven and is still in single figures. That they came to the game after their world changed is a small mercy but one they both see the fortune in. I ve spoken to people who played it before they had their accident, says O Grady. They tried to learn it all over again afterwards and I think they have great difficulties making comparisons with how they used to play. You can see them think, Jesus, if only I had two hands here, I could be so much better. I only have to live with what I can do, the same as Brendan. I m not fighting against the memory of what I used to be able to do. No, like the rest of us, their fights are with the frustrations of a ball and a club, a big old field and 18 small holes. Those never change no matter how many hands you can call upon.

June 6, 2011