Every golfer has a story of the putt they holed, the chance they missed, and of the drive that was long and straight. Not every golfer, however, has a backstory that grabs one’s attention, that shows the human spirit and can fuel the can-do attitude that is inside every one of us.
The Golfers First Profiles came from a deep belief that everyone has a story, that is not only worth telling, but also worth sharing. Perhaps you or someone that you know is in need of a boost of inspiration or a signpost to what can be achieved.
05 – Monique Kalkman
“Monique’s greatest win”
EDGA golfer Monique Kalkman talks with Tony Bennett about how cancer as a teenager left her in a wheelchair facing huge life challenges. Rather than ending her sporting career, with the support of her family she battled and then thrived to become World No: 1 in tennis for six years, winning Paralympic gold medals. In the last decade she has become a highly rated golfer and is now helping to open doors for others with a disability to enjoy competitive golf. A remarkable story, and a remarkable person.
Listen to EDGA’s Tony Bennett chatting with Monique Kalkman
As an athlete, Monique Kalkman has won some major battles. Perhaps the first was an intensely satisfying battle against herself, to hone early tennis skills by pounding a tennis ball against the bricks of the garden wall.
Then in 1979, aged 14, when hopes and dreams were blossoming, she had to endure a traumatic fight against devastating illness that left her in a wheelchair. That she came through this with the help of her always positive, warm-hearted family was remarkable in itself. Then there was the setting out on a journey, a leap of faith, which led to her winning Paralympic gold medals in first table tennis aged just 19 and later, gold medals in tennis at successive Paralympics; earning the crown of World No:1 for six years. The best in the world!
Perhaps the most crucial victory of all however was a mental battle rather than a physical one. It was back then as that 14 year-old, overcoming the fear and pressure in rehabilitation to remain resolutely in charge of her own destiny; refusing to be defined by her disability, or to be seen as another person to process by well-meaning ‘white coats’ in a gloomy rehabilitation centre. Instead, Monique and her family concentrated on the ability rather than the disability and won through.
Fast forward nearly 40 years and last year she received a tremendous reward for what one writer has called a career made up of “grace and grit”. One of the sport’s absolute legends, Stan Smith (former US Open and Wimbledon Champion), picked up the telephone to inform Monique that she was being considered for that club of the greats, the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
And as a world champion athlete, after retiring from tennis in 1997, it would take another leap of faith 10 years later to put her neck on the block, to take seriously a new sport in golf; to trust a ‘paragolfer’ machine, learn to swing a golf club one-handed at a small ball, and find a way to convert that famous hand-eye skill from the racquet to produce exciting results on the fairway.
This isn’t exclusively a tennis story, or a golf story, it’s in some ways a story about how just as Monique has paved the way in tennis for those with a disability, she is in the vanguard of passionate people aiming to do the same in golf. And she is taking a lot of other people with her on this golfing journey. The manner in which she plays her golf, her work with EDGA, including presentations to The R&A, her ‘Going for Golf’ Foundation which helps many people in rehabilitation through golf – are all helping to break down barriers, to make competitive golf for those with disabilities a more attractive and likely proposition despite numerous challenges. And it’s all done with a smile, a sense of humour, crystal clear English when needed (which is most of the time), and also using a couple of her other secret weapons…
While sports bodies talk up ‘resilience’, ‘determination’, ‘focus’, ‘respect’, ‘sportsmanship’ (Monique possesses as many of these major qualities as golf clubs in her golf bag) what comes across plainly in the audio interview for ‘EDGA Profiles supported by PING’ on this page is her genuine love of learning coupled with a strong emotional intelligence that allows Monique to look straight ahead at the world while drinking from a glass that is distinctly half-full.
Tennis was always going to be a big deal after five year-old Monique van den Bosch discovered her Mum’s wooden tennis racquet in the attic.
“I found my Mum’s racquet and she put me in front of a wall [to practise]. I never went away from that wall and was happy in my own company. You can play as long as you want, determine your own intensity and just dream away doing something you like.”
So, like many girls in the 1970s, she dreamed, while soaking up the technique and verve of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova on television. As she practised and practised on the court, she thought: “Could I be the next Chris Evert?”
At age 14, Monique noticed that her weight started to drop and she began to find another beloved sport, hockey, much harder physically. Her coach offered a veiled criticism of her work-rate in an end of season letter which stunned and upset her. Monique started to visit the local doctor but symptoms of exhaustion were diagnosed as the flu. But she wasn’t getting better and was sent to the hospital for tests. Fluid between the lungs and muscle was taken away but one of the doctors remained concerned and asked her to return in 10 days.
“Then after four days I was walking the dog and my back really started to hurt and my legs started to reflex and then collapse a little so I lay down on the bed as the pain was getting more severe. Then in the time-frame of 10 minutes the sensation just disappeared in my legs…”
The ambulance came. The tumour against her spine had grown, it was removed but soon after there was further bad news.
“On the night after the operation my father was with me. My mum was with the other kids at home and the doctor said I would probably never walk again and the first thing I thought was: there goes my dream. There goes my sporting dream. It didn’t cross my mind, what will life be, how will it work at home, how will it work with boyfriends, how will it work in the rest of my life, there was one thing I thought about – there goes my tennis dream.”
The question of how on earth the 14 year-old coped with this diagnosis leaps out but Monique reminds us that kids can be more flexible than adults. “And you don’t go through this on your own. On the second day I had already started to be a bit more positive.”
Monique would be in hospital for six months.
“The glass is half-full” was a slogan of Monique’s parents Jan and Riet; the couple were champion brewers by trade in the Netherlands so it was entirely appropriate. With four sisters and two brothers there was not only a lot of love in that hospital room (and you can add in all the members of her hockey team who would visit to cheer her up), there was also determination and shrewd decision making. Her parents were shocked by the soul-destroying “vibe” of the rehabilitation facilities and decided to take Monique away from dour rooms surrounded by white-coated medical staff and set her up at home in a supportive atmosphere where they could “try to see the ability rather than the disability”.
“These types of decisions were really instrumental in my rehabilitation and for me as a person overall,” says Monique.
“My parents and my brothers and sisters, I think of them as a collective, who always see the glass as half-full, not half-empty. My parents were really good for me as positive thinkers; they kept the tough news from me when they could. They were really taking the right direction at the right time.”
Only a year later Monique was watching the Paralympics in Arnhem on TV and thinking about what sport she could possibly play. Tennis wasn’t an option at first but table tennis was. She found her way into the sport, and soon found a way to start winning in style, blowing away the competition. Paralympics, 1984, gold in her category for table tennis at the age of 19.
What did that first win feel like?
“My thought was, ‘I did it’. A sense of overall winning, not only winning that gold medal in sport but also overcoming a tough phase in my life. It’s not only for me but also for my family, that’s always an emotional one.”
When Monique learned about wheelchair tennis there were many adjustments to be made in terms of fitness, conditioning, technique and strategy from her previous experience of the sport but she soon felt at home again. For this fast-learner, her skill-level rocketed as she learned to shorten backswings, use more top-spin and create wider angles to attack the mobility limitation of the athlete in the wheelchair on the other side of the net.
Monique remains modest about her achievements, but here are a few:
Paralympics 1988, Seoul: silver (singles, demonstration);
Paralympics 1992, Barcelona: two golds (singles and doubles);
Paralympics 1996, Atlanta: silver (singles) and gold (doubles);
IWTF World Champion 1992, 1993, 1994 and 1995.
Monique has won the following tournaments: four US Opens, six British Opens, five French Opens, two Australians and also wins in Switzerland, Holland, Japan, Belgium, Austria and the US. The list should also include eight team appearances in eight World Cups for the Netherlands.
Many of her wins were enjoyed court-side by her biggest fan, the family dog, a Boxer by the name of Murphy.
Winning gold in Barcelona in 1992 with the help of her inspirational coach Marc Kalkman (who would later become her husband), came in a spell when Monique reigned for six years as the undisputed number one in the world. The very best there was. But after a decade of achievement, Monique was finding the intense level of competition and practice all quite demanding – the international travel, the living out of a suitcase. It was time to retire and also start a family.
Always well supported by her sponsor Sunrise Medical, this relationship had been great for both parties and in 1997 Monique became European Product Manager for the company. While for the next decade she worked very hard, in 2000 her son Justin also came along for the joy of all. However, something about Monique’s drive and commitment led to her perhaps putting in too many hours at the work desk and in 2004 she suffered some health problems including heart issues. She didn’t “listen to the signals”. “I wasn’t really taking care of my body, I wasn’t getting the balance right.”
After an operation and issues with neck dystonia, Monique decided she needed to find a new sport to help her, and the golf started simply as good therapy.
Ten years earlier she had taken a buggy ride on a golf course while at a tennis camp and was “amazed by the beauty of the nature” on a golf course, enjoying “the serenity and elegance of the sport”. But at that time she didn’t know of the paragolfer chairs that can help paraplegic players. On a trip to the driving range and then enjoying golf courses on holiday in Ireland with husband Marc, she started to see that this could be a sport for her.
Monique found that using a paragolfer was ideal for her fitness and for her neck injury, as she could play from a standing position. Her patience in gradually developing her golf game with her coach seems remarkable: “It’s like building a house,” she’ll say. At first she tried to swing instinctively with two arms against the coaching advice but soon found that a paragolfer suits a one-handed swing for mobility and rhythm, and today she belts a golf ball with her right arm with the same conviction as she used to belt that tennis ball against the wall.
Watching the likes of two other wheelchair golfers Anthony Netto and Sebas Lorente and the way they approached the swing also helped, and her willingness to put in the hard yards, spending hours on the range, made Monique little by little the accomplished player she is today. Now, after pushing a little hard two years ago and injuring herself, Monique is working on a balance for her golfing ambitions.
She says: “I’m not 23 any more! I’m not the number turned round, 32, any more either so I have to be realistic. But I certainly want to get the maximum out of the sport.”
In fact, one ‘pipe dream’ in terms of golfing success has recently been replaced by a more pragmatic one for Monique.
“Around five years ago I thought it would be nice if golf could become a Paralympian sport and I could go for that one more time, but that’s not going to happen for me and that’s absolutely fine. But I would love to help the next generation to get there [to the Paralymics]. That would be as least as rewarding.”
Her own Foundation ‘Going for Golf’ has been supporting people to experience a quicker and better rehabilitation by enjoying golf. This Foundation is soon to be submerged into ‘fonds Golf’ of the Dutch Disabled Sports Foundation, which supports those with disability in all sports to reach their potential. Monique is pleased with this development because of the organisation’s reach, its power to attract sponsors and its strong national standing (she also remains close to tennis and is an ambassador for the International Tennis Federation, and also an ambassador for the Global Challenge sports initiative).
Through her experience and contacts Monique knows that nothing is straightforward when growing the sport of golf. She believes that though golf offers all new players some early successes in terms of putting, chipping and enjoying a few holes, competitive golf on tougher 18-hole courses, in sometimes bad weather, can be a huge challenge for players with a disability and those with paragolfers, as can be the travel involved. Monique is also concerned that not enough women with disability are coming into the game and she wants to see this rectified, though there aren’t magic solutions.
Monique added: “We need to start somewhere and we need people with a vision and I see that coming into place now. If I can be part of this, that’s fantastic.”
She said it would be “amazing” if some of the young kids today who have a disability and are finding golf could one day be in the Hall of Fame for golf themselves. “And we might think this isn’t going to happen but that’s what we thought in tennis 30 years ago. So it can happen.”
When Monique was a young girl she belted that tennis ball against the wall. She would later be dispatching opponents watched by Murphy the Boxer dog. All those memories of childhood, her illness and rehabilitation and all the work to rise up to be number one in the world, would come back to her when she was invited to attend the Australian Open in 2017 as an inductee to the International Tennis Hall of Fame. In Melbourne, she found herself on the same court with the likes of McEnroe, Becker, Laver, Navratilova, Hingis.
The last part of receiving this honour involves being presented with a commemorative ring by one of the true legends of the game. Monique has the perfect scenario in her mind. When she played wheelchair tennis back in the nineties, organisers worried about the effects of wheelchairs on the perfect grass courts of Wimbledon (not so today, where they are embraced) and so she didn’t get the chance to grace Centre Court. She now hopes that if fortunate she might be presented with her ring there, and who should present it? “Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert were my heroes. I met Chris at the induction… she was really, really friendly and warm to me. For me the circle would be complete if I could go the grand slam which I dreamt of as a child and have the ring presented by Chris.”
It is a measure of Monique Kalkman that if called upon, Chris Evert would no doubt find it a privilege to honour a fellow world-beater in this way.
Monique taps in the winning put at the 2017 Portugal Masters
Watch the EDGA demonstration team of six players teamed up with European Tour golfers to play the EDGA Greensomes Challenge in front of the crowds and television cameras at the 2017 Portugal Masters. The EDGA team comprising of Mike Gays, Juan Postigo Arce, Monique Kalkman, Pedro Sottomayor, Aurélien Lacour and Rasmus Lot all played exeptionally well with Monique tapping in the winning put.
“I don’t know if I would be the same person that I am today without golf.”
EDGA golfer Mike Rolls talks with Tony Bennett about his life dealing with the challenges brought on by a double amputation caused by meningococcal disease during his late teens.
Listen to EDGA’s Tony Bennett chatting with Mike Rolls
It had been a carefree week of playing Australian Rules Football and drinking beer for 18 year-old Mike Rolls back in 2001. The kid from Sandringham, Melbourne-way, was celebrating a great season with his team-mates on a tour of Tasmania. The locals saw a cheerful but tired squad of players ready to leave Hobart after they had enjoyed a couple of late nights out on the town where – in local slang – “the lid really came off”. Mike looked more hungover than most; feeling exhausted.
Mike Rolls recently turned 35 and is a heck of a good golfer. He talked to EDGA not long after winning the 2018 Victorian Amputee Open in a three-way play-off. He currently lies 14th in the Ranking for Golfers with Disability (R4GD).
He shoots these scores as a double lower leg amputee and missing a couple of fingers on his right hand. As the current president of Amputee Golf Victoria, he will tell you that he simply wouldn’t be the same person if it wasn’t for golf. It has has helped him “immensely”, a constant companion through rehab, later college, and then building up and selling a fitness business. Golf remains a key element of his story – illustrative of his progress back to health – as he now works as a motivational speaker with colleges, schools and businesses, as an author of a soon-to-be-published book and why he volunteers for the charity ‘Limbs for Life Australia’.
On these occasions Mike presents himself, simply, as he is: a confident, fit and healthy guy… with two prosthetic lower legs. Audiences are continually drawn to his personal experience of a “one-in-a-million” illness sabotaging his youth, nearly finishing him at 18, and then the long, slow comeback, creating, building resilience to force a better life for himself. For young people of the same age Mike’s story serves as both an inspiration and a huge wake-up call.
Back in Tasmania in 2001
Back in Tasmania in 2001, it wasn’t in fact a hangover that left Mike prostrate when he should have been ready to up and go. Mike was starting to succumb to a rare and often deadly disease called meningococcal septicaemia. Following its onset this can kill you or leave you severely damaged in just a matter of hours. “It’s a super-rare disease and you face a race against time,” explains Mike. Many people lose limbs, suffer kidney and liver failure and bleeds to the brain. Mike would have three such bleeds to his brain. He would wake up from a coma five and a half weeks later as very much a different person. His right leg was amputated at the knee, half his left foot had to be guillotined, two fingers were lost and his nose was damaged. He faced an incredibly long road to recovery.
Mike says now referring to his Mum and Dad at that time: “I’ll never understand what they were thinking. They sent me off as a happy, healthy and fit 18 year-old kid and then they received a phone call saying that Mike had been rushed to hospital and they had to get down to Hobart because I might have just an hour to live.”
At one point, Mike was given a five per cent chance of surviving but his family would be there every step of the way through the trauma.
“The battle began when I really woke up and started to get my head around the magnitude of what had happened to me. That is when I had to take the reins and fight not just for my sake but theirs as well. It wasn’t just me who faced this horrific illness it was all of us as one unit.
“They were such an incredible support, my parents and brother and sister, something I’ll never forget and something I’ll always be incredibly grateful for.”
Mike’s first steps from “rock bottom” included finding a way to sit up for 10 minutes without vomiting. He learned to take things day by day, week by week; another early goal just being to put some weight on the bones. “There were times when I thought I was going to die,” he adds. A shared good sense of humour with his siblings and parents was also probably key to saving Mike’s life.
To see Mike now, he looks ‘fit as a flea’. Regular gym work and plenty of golf while the resilience and mental strength he built up from his hospital bed appears to have become a powerful resource; something he is now keen to share with others through his public speaking, particularly with young people and anyone who has a disability, while his mental approach and thoughts on this process of building resilience is gaining interest among professionals in the business field.
Half a year after being struck down with septicaemia, now at the rehabilitation centre at Caulfield Hospital, it was a connection with other people who had been through similar trauma that would be most beneficial. He talks of the “amazing friendships” with other amputees. He encountered ‘Limbs for Life Australia’, and has since become good friends with Melissa Noonan, the CEO of this progressive charity, and he is one of the peer support programme’s founding volunteers. When he came out of his coma, “all those question marks and unknowns would have been dispelled in an instant if someone had walked in as a double amputee and chatted with me. That would have been very motivational,” said Mike, who is now happy to be ‘that someone’ for others at the start of their own long journey back to health.
Time for a major decision
A major decision Mike took, nine years after the illness, was to have his left leg amputated. He had endured the troubles of his remaining leg for all that time, needing to dress it every second day; it exhausted him and regularly left him bed-bound.
Mike says: “We all have areas of our lives that no longer serve us. A bad habit, a poor diet, perhaps it’s a friendship that is having a negative impact on us. In 2009, I took the drastic step of amputating my troublesome left leg in order to improve my life. It was both the toughest and the best decision I’ve ever made. I was fed up with this draining situation and the circumstance I found myself in so I took drastic action.”
This action would become a theme of Mike’s presentations and blogs to help other people. His upcoming book ‘Ditch the Dead Weight’ expands on this metaphor. Golf is also a key part of Mike’s make-up as a person, providing invaluable therapy. After enjoying the game as a boy, he had to teach himself how to play golf again twice, after losing each leg – nine years apart.
Ask him how much golf has helped him and he’ll reply: “Oh, immensely… I have to be honest; I don’t know if I would be the same person that I am today without golf. It’s the most incredible thing to have something that when you are going to sleep at night and you know you are playing the next day – that you have that excitement in your bones and you can’t sleep.
“It still to this day excites me to get out there, switch my phone off and be out in nature doing something that I love, with people I enjoy spending time with for five hours. It’s an incredible thing and I definitely credit that with being a big part of my recovery and rehabilitation through the years.”
Had he benefited from having a good coach?
“Yes certainly. I have a very close friend called Christian Hamilton who is the national inclusion manager for Golf Australia. He is one of the best blokes you would be lucky enough to meet in your life, a fantastic fellow who has taught me a great deal about golf and about life. He get things done for golf in Australia; not just for ‘amps’ [amputees] but for any disability category.”
Though a good golfer, Mike is very much still a typical golfer and like all before him subject to the vagaries of the sport. Speaking not long after following a stylish first round of 76 with a less attractive 88 in the OttoBock Australian Amputee Open, Mike said: “Golf has the ability to humble us and put you back in your place. That’s what I like about it, that never ending challenge to get better.
“When I was younger I was a bit of a hot-head but I have certainly mellowed. I have a more calm demeanour on the course but I do plenty of internal bashing!”
His recipe for making the sport more enjoyable? “Fill in all the bunkers and we’ll all be alright!” Good to see that the sense of humour which helped save his life 17 years ago is still there –whenever he sees that little golf ball nestled in the sand.
EDGA golfer Mathieu Cauneau talks with Tony Bennett about his life dealing with the challenges brought on by a missing left hand. If you would like to read or download the transcription as a PDF then please click this link.
Listen to EDGA’s Tony Bennett chatting with Mathieu Cauneau
Imagine that you played your first ever golf shot on the 1st fairway of the Old Course at St Andrews! For Mathieu Cauneau that was the reality of how he started his journey in golf. A journey that has seen him transfer his sporting affections from tennis to golf, and has earned him national team colours for France.
Mathieu has had individual success, becoming the leading player in Europe in 2014 after a string of victories, and collective success as part of the European Championship winning French team on two separate occasions. But his journey has not been just about competition, today he has a career that revolves around the golf industry in his capacity as purchasing manager for Bluegreen, the operator of 50 golf courses in France.
Born without a left hand, Mathieu is used to finding his own way of doing things, be that in music, sport or other parts of his life. With parents that encouraged Mathieu to try many things, playing the trumpet, guitar and several sports, it is not surprising that he is self-reliant, is self-taught and looks for help only when he feels it necessary. It seems like he finds the competition with himself to be a source of motivation, be that the learning of a new skill or reaching new heights with those he has already developed.
In Mathieu’s own words, it’s like he’s a different person on the course than the one he is when off the course. Indeed, in his candid interview, he articulates his story, where he comes from, and how he became the prolific golfer that he is today.
Tell me about this shot that you hit at the Old Course.
In 1998, on a trip to Scotland with my parents, my father and I visited St. Andrews. We saw a course and did not realise that it was the famous Old Course. The starter was very kind and explained that we should not hit a ball towards one another. We did not realise that it was not allowed on the course, that is until a gentleman wearing a suit pulled up in a golf cart and recommended that we continue to play down on the beach. [Laughs]
Were you immediately taken by golf?
I really liked it. I had a 4.1 tennis rating, which was good, but when it came to competition, things were a little tougher. What I liked about golf was that the competitive factor came from the fact that I had to play against myself. I could easily play with others on the golf course because I was ultimately playing against just the course and myself.
How did your skills evolve as a player?
I started to play as much as I could. Every golf course is beautiful. So, I loved being in a beautiful place, and a golf swing was quite similar to my forehand in tennis. Within a year, I had a handicap of 14 or 15.
Wow – and that’s from playing on the weekends?
I was playing as much as possible. I played about six months straight on a short course, which had me doing a lot of chipping and putting early on. That was important, because those are some of my strengths today.
Were you self-taught, or did you have coaches along the way?
I’m mostly self-taught. That’s partially because I was improving a lot on my own to begin with, and I had the drive to keep going. Also, I think some of the pro coaches were a little timid to work with me due to my disability, which I understand. Eventually, I asked for help, and some of the national coaches were able to help me on specific shots.
Are there any shots that you find more trying than others?
Sure, shots from the thick rough. Since my one arm swing generates less speed, thick rough is not forgiving whatsoever. But, because of my swing, and how much I practised, I can easily hit a seven wood from 150 to 160 metres to the green. That’s where I excel. A high draw is one of the hardest kinds of shots, but I manage it. A low fade is more common for me. I love hitting a wedge. When you get to short game shots like that, you end up incorporating more artistry into your shot. I have found that a lot of players struggle with those shots, and so, this is my edge.
When did things start to really improve in the tournaments? You have quite a résumé there.
Thanks. I played with my home club on the regular team for seven to eight years. That was a great community, and a great group of people to play with. Over time, pros talked to pros, and eventually, I was approached about playing in a disabled golf competition. To be honest, I didn’t want to do it at first. I was already playing abled-bodied golf.
What changed? What made you want to play in the competitions and tournaments?
I was invited to play in a disabled event. I gave it a try, and it was like entering a big family. That made me think and led to me playing in the 2007 French Championship.
You’ve been on the European Team Championship winning team twice.
That’s a lot of fun, too. In that environment, golf becomes a collective sport – like a group of family and friends. Our win in 2017 was a tight race with the Spanish team, but the French Federation were very accommodating. They made it possible to play the course six months before the event and so we got familiar with it. That shows how much the community is evolving.
And you’ve been keeping it up, even as your career has evolved. In 2014, you were the leading player on the Order of Merit.
Yeah. I do have less time to practice these days, but 2014 was a very intense year. That year, I gave everything, I worked every day to be a better player. I played every weekend on a course, and after work every day.
What’s different now?
Golf is my main passion in life. The difference is, working in the industry, after a long day talking about and hearing about golf, going out to play or playing on the weekend is harder than it used to be. My peers in the industry say the same thing.
Let’s talk about that. Where are you working now?
Bluegreen, which is close to Paris. It’s a golf management company, I’m the Purchasing Manager so I handle relationships with all of our suppliers for the 50 golf courses we manage. That includes buying mowers, managing green constructions – things like that.
That’s fantastic that you can work in the industry.
Definitely. After school, I tried many different things, but nothing clicked. I didn’t find the same kind of inspiration as I did when I had a golf club in my hands. It was my passion for golf that made a job come to fruition for me – and what’s really great is that I now know the people who can help grow the game for disabled people.
You do a lot to make the game more mainstream. What kinds of things are you working on now? What is your experience?
With the French Federation, and the Disabled French Commission, people managing golf clubs are keen on welcoming and organising competitions. We’ve been able to put together a French Disabled Golf Competition, which is a big step forward.
What kinds of logistics go into a competition like that?
One of the major differences between an event for the disabled and one for the able-bodied is that you need a higher budget. You need more golf carts, a course that has close proximity to an airport, good transportation and of course accommodation, all of which add to logistical expenses. That means you need more sponsors, which can take a lot of work.
That’s right. You’re involved with the game on both sides. How are they different?
Well, I’ve learned that I am a different guy on the course than I am in regular life. When I’m on the course, I can push myself and do well, I find that I have higher self-esteem and confidence. When I’m not on the course, I can get impatient. That’s hard, because in life, you can find yourself wanting things to come immediately – but you can’t always force business. In work, I have learned to be patient. Golf has made me a better person. I’ve built character. I’m more calm and focused – and my girlfriend can second all this [Laughs]. One sentiment I have learned to follow is that “It’s never lost, even up to the last putt.”
How do you want to see the game of golf, and what are your personal goals to help evolve the game of golf?
I love the fact that we have a EGA European Championship. Someday I would like for there to be a World Championship. I would also love to play on the Paralympic Team one day, hopefully in Paris!
What can the golf community do to make the game friendlier to people with disabilities?
More buildings and clubhouses to accommodate all disabilities is the main thing. Overall, we just need to build a larger golf culture in France. A lot of that is about being able to play faster. It would be great if a lot of clubs allowed you to pay to play by the number of holes you play, like we do at Bluegreen. Eighteen holes is a huge commitment. If you only have half hour of free time, you can’t play.
How do you see the golf community of disabled golfers growing in the future?
I’m excited to see it grow. I think that will happen naturally if we are able to accomplish a lot of the other things [mentioned]. The thing is, for people with disabilities, a lot of people from all walks of life see it as a social thing, or a lesson about courage but I want to see people think of us as golfers. I’m all about the community, and it is inspiring, but the truth is, when we get together, we don’t talk about our disabilities, we talk about the sport. The more we make the dialogue about playing golf, the more it will be normalised, and the more welcoming it will be. Leveraging the level of play that the players demonstrate is the most important thing.
What does golf mean to you?
So many things. Golf has given me a passion, and golf gave me a job. It’s a core part of my life.
What advice would you give a young person with your disability?
Golf is a great education, and it’s great for kids. You have to learn to behave. You learn about hard work and endurance. For someone who has my disability, I would simply tell them to dive into what they love headfirst, and to make their life about creating and trying as many things to find whatever that is. I have found that people in my position are like me. If it’s not going to work, it’s not worth the time. Sometimes I see people like me who aren’t that into golf, and that’s okay! I know an individual with one hand who is absolutely brilliant at piano, and that’s what works for him.
Who are your heroes?
Lots of tennis players. Pete Sampras; Pat Rafter. They were my type of tennis players. It’s like what you see in a golfer like Tiger. When you see someone like that, you can channel that determination. You can feel it when you see it.
Who would round out your dream team on the course—from anyone in the world, living or dead?
I’d want to play with someone really good… Rory McIlroy. I’d love to play with Jimi Hendrix… And then Roger Federer.
You mentioned being creative in life. That really stood out to me. What other wisdom would you tell someone?
Yeah – Enjoy creating. You have to remember that there’s no failure – just experimentation and trying.
Thank you, Mathieu. How can people reach out and get involved with the work you’re doing to grow the game of golf?
EDGA golfer Aleš Süsser talks with Tony Bennett about his life dealing with the challenges of cerebral palsy.
Listen to EDGA’s Tony Bennett chatting with Aleš Süsser
You can’t choose your family, so Aleš Süsser was very lucky to have parents Frantisek and Jana, and older brother Michal to help him through the most difficult of starts in life. When he was born in 1973 in a part of then Czechoslovakia that had been scarred by world events, the sport of golf hardly figured. Here, the South Bohemians who had endured much military and political upheaval, found relief on the chessboard rather than the fairway.
For Aleš Süsser however, golf would actually help to define his philosophy of life, but this would come much later – first he had to survive his birth.
As a newborn, the medics thought baby Aleš had died and he was put in a waste basket. As an infant with cerebral palsy he faced a dismal prognosis and needed six hours of rehabilitation every day for five years, exercises prescribed by physician Vaclav Vojta, a renowned Czech doctor forced to leave Czechoslovakia by the Soviets in 1968. Süsser’s own grandfather had been in a Nazi prison for years in World War II. Not surprisingly, one of three family mottos is: “Never give up”.
This motto has worked for the family, and continues to work now for Aleš. Long before he played golf (he has been playing six years now), it was the love and support of his parents and brother that created an iron will in Aleš to think of himself not as disabled, merely “limited”; limitations that he could take on and conquer. He could be the best, and why not?
“From the very beginning I was brought up as non-disabled child, spending a lot of time with older children – my brother’s friends – in a very safe environment. No bullying, no unfairness but also no relief from obligations. I learned you do not have to be the strongest one when you are emphatic and smart enough. It was the greatest experience in my life.”
Back in 1973, baby Aleš very nearly didn’t make it out of the birthing room at the hospital in Ceske Budejovice. It seems Aleš Süsser was presumed dead and his mother’s own life was in danger. Ales tells us: “I was born nine years after my brother as a much wanted second child. Due to a very complicated birth I started – or better say almost ended – my life in a waste basket while doctors were saving my mother’s life. They did not pay attention to me until I cried out. The doctor’s diagnosis was paediatric cerebral palsy and other impairments, hardly any movement, with the final prognosis: “Lying person forever – wheelchair needed”.
So… “Never give up”.
Aleš said: “My parents believed in God, even in the times of communism. It was the starting point of their long fight for my better life. I spent six hours of rehabilitation every day solely in my mother’s and father’s hands during the first five years of my life – hard work for them with step by step results – from moving, sitting, standing, to walking and later playing sports.”
Aleš can remember exercises to strengthen his stomach muscles and when he lifted himself up he was rewarded with a “sweet kiss” from his mum. His father Frantisek had the faith of Aleš’s grandfather of the same name who had endured a Nazi prison and survived the 900km ‘death walk transfer’ from Poland to Germany at the end of World War II.
The other two family sayings? “When you are not able, try more, try harder” is one, and the other, more subtle, relates to his grandfather’s time but speaks volumes about the world, then and now: “If you are hungry, you are not hungry”.
Aleš says now: “In my head I’m not disabled, maybe limited in some way and I think limits are good for everyone, even people who are disabled, because I can overcome them. My limits are a motivation for me.”
His condition may have heightened his capacity to use his intelligence – he was beating adults at chess aged nine and studied at university while holding down a full time job in computer software – all great for his career but not so great as he missed out on friendships with like-minded people. Fortunately, growing up he had the best friend possible in his older brother.
The great news is that years later, through his golf, that camaraderie he loved as a boy is back and Aleš is one of the most popular players on the European Disabled Golf Association (EDGA) circuit. An EDGA source told us: “When others see the name ‘Aleš Süsser’ on the tournament draw sheet they know it will be a fun day!” The Czech golfer is not the most serious player, that is certain. “From my point of view golf is a non-competitive activity. Competing in golf is like competing in meditation, relaxation, friendship, fun. Not for me.”
Instead, his golfing philosophy is simple: “I would say, number one, do not take anything for granted. Right now I have something, and a few seconds later I may not have it. So you have to enjoy it. This leads to number two: enjoy every minute of your life. Three, never give up.”
He first tried and rejected golf 20 years ago. It wasn’t for him with his non-conforming left hand. “Six years ago I was at another golf academy at my colleague’s 50th birthday party. I saw a man hardly standing on his legs [after a car accident] on the driving range. He was very supportive and convinced me to try golf. I was full of doubts about my ‘grip’. It was not a problem for the local professional coach. He told me: ‘Nothing is easier, grip it as you can and swing. Golf is a game, golf is fun, enjoy it!’ He encouraged me enough with his 150% positive approach…These few minutes changed my life a lot.”
Aleš made a good decision to work with a mental coach as well as a swing coach. He explains: “My mental coach has changed my life more than my golf game. Because now I enjoy every minute of my life. The simple advice (on the golf course and in life) was that you must expect nothing, good or bad, which has made me more optimistic. Without expectations I am not disappointed.
“I am not a much better golfer in terms of number of strokes, but I suppose I am a better person now – keeping calm, enjoying every day, working for other golfers with disability and kids as an instructor and golf events organiser. So, enjoy every minute of your life.”
And Aleš is able to do that today. Happily married to Zuzana with two sons Matej and Jakub, he is managing to work a little less in the world of software and instead enjoying the ski slopes with his snowboard and the golfing fairways. Ales is also enjoying giving back to the sport. He is now vice president of the Czech Disabled Golf Association and helps spread awareness at home and abroad, while helping PGA coaches to deliver golf training sessions to golfers with a disability of all ages. He represents the CDGA at the key international meetings of EDGA while enjoying playing with his EDGA friends and in his fourballs with mates in the Czech Republic. His family are now all golfers too.
His advice to other EDGA players is: “You are not disabled, you are in some way limited. Try to overcome your limits and enjoy your journey.”
Ask him about his golfing heroes and, apart from his coaching hero the legendary Ben Hogan, Aleš will say: “Everyone is a hero. I think that everybody is a unique hero in some area every time he or she overcomes whatever limitation.”
Aleš concluded: “My big thanks go to my parents, wife, both sons and the rest of my extended family for their never-ending support, motivation and love.
“Importantly, I am very grateful, due to golf and EDGA, that I finally have friends. Not only in my home country but in Europe and around the world. Friends, friends, I have friends!”