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.
09 – Marcella Neggers
“but there is always a way to play golf!”
EDGA golfer Marcella Neggers talks with Tony Bennett about her life after being diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis
Listen to EDGA’s Tony Bennett chatting with Marcella Neggers
“Take the stairway, two flights up and go through the first door on the right,” said the poker-faced man in the white coat. These are the words that led to a diagnosis of Rheumatoid Arthritis for Marcella Neggers.
Who knows what was going through the mind of this eleven year girl as she confidently took one step at a time on the stairway? Eventually, she reached the top, turned the corner and entered a room where finally the pain in her right wrist would be correctly identified.
Marcella had been a good Field Hockey player as a kid, after all Hockey is something of a national sport in her homeland of The Netherlands. Marcella’s painful wrist had started to interfere with her performance, and like most youngsters, she thought that it would be fine in the morning. But it wasn’t fine, in fact if anything the wrist was getting worse. “Perhaps a break or a sprain,” said the Doctor. After a few weeks in plaster Marcella excitedly went to the hospital to have the cast removed only to find that her wrist was no better. Days turned into weeks as the anticipated improvement didn’t happen. It was during a visit to the Amsterdam Hospital that a specialist team decided perhaps this was not a bone related problem, but rather a rheumatoid issue. It was only then that Marcella took the stairs, stepped into a room and finally got some answers.
Her father Timo and mother Harriet introduced Marcella to golf. They both played golf and thought that the similarities of hitting a ball with a stick could be interesting for their daughter. Hockey was still running through her veins, and Marcella would take every opportunity to use the golf club like a Hockey stick when her parents and coach were not watching. Eventually, she found a golf buddy Sander, and with him, she could learn and enjoy playing golf. They started their golfing odyssey together, and for Marcella, her quest to be the best player in Holland began.
RA affects people differently, and for Marcella the pain of the right wrist was severe, but it was the mental anguish of living with a disease that eventually would progress to both elbows and her shoulders that was the most significant factor. Schooling was affected as she had to take days off, she had doctors’ appointments, multiple surgeries and pain to deal with. Meanwhile, Marcella’s dream of attending a sports college was effectively dashed as she realised that no longer could she take part in all the required sports. Her head was spinning, and it took time to come to terms with living a new life.
Golf filled her heart and soul however, it became a driver as she grew up. She soon became fully committed to becoming the best player that she could be. It was a simple, important ambition for a girl who had suffered as her original sporting plan had been scrapped. As things turned out, her drive and self-belief would be well founded as she would improve quickly to a very high standard, somehow juggling practice with the medical imperatives of consultation, surgery and rehab.
From 15 years of age, Marcella was part was of the national selection and she started winning and she never really stopped. First, it was the Dutch National Championship at girls level when she was just 17, and the titles just kept coming. Marcella had been motivated by her coach to reach the heights of amateur golf, achieving a handicap of +2, while the promise of a necklace for success had also been an early motivation. Marcella still wears the necklace today.
But it was the thought of being the number one player in Holland that kept her going through numerous surgeries. Two steps forward and one step back had become something of a normal progression for Marcella. Each new surgery meant she would have to find a new way to play, a new way to deliver the club to the ball, with power, accuracy, and consistency. From time to time the surgeon would say that she should not play, “but there is always a way to play golf!” says Marcella.
With a locker full of national honours, including Dutch golfer of the year in 1995 and 1996, it was time to try her luck at the professional game. She gained a conditional card at the qualifying school, which in those days was held in Portugal, and so it was off to try her hand on the Ladies European Tour. “I didn’t really like the life of the touring professional,” says Marcella. “Being without my friends and away from home didn’t feel good. I enjoyed the golf, and the travel was fine, but the loneliness was not so nice.”
The PGA of Holland training school beckoned, and it was there her new dream was first born to become a National Coach for The Netherlands. Marcella worked diligently and was appointed to precisely that role for the golfers with disability team in 2017.
Marcella now supports the players and their coaches in regular training and helps them to become the best that they can. “Training is always competitive,” says the newly appointed national coach, who gets together with the team regularly and accompanies them in many tournaments around Europe. A competitor through and through, Marcella thrives on pressure, loves the feeling of nerves and adrenaline that courses through her body when in competition. Who knows what she will do if she loses that competitive edge, but for now she is content with her life and enjoys pursuing the dream of going to the Paralympics either as a player or as a coach.
Marcella realises there are many opportunities ahead; there is lots to learn. So, like the 11 year-old Marcella on that stairway, she is still finding her way up the steps but confidently following her dreams. Whether she turns to the left or the right, she’ll get there, and many young and improving golfers in her care are sure to benefit.
EDGA golfer Shlomo Ivgi talks with Tony Bennett about his life after he fought to find a way to live from a wheelchair having been paralysed by a shooting accident.
Listen to EDGA’s Tony Bennett chatting with Shlomo Ivgi
If everyone started the day by looking in the mirror, smiling, and saying “from this moment onwards every person that I meet, I will smile to them,” do you think the world might be a better place? Well for Shlomo Ivgi that is part of his early morning routine, and he certainly thinks so.
Sport has icons which only use one name and are instantly recognisable: Pele, Maradona, Ali, Tiger, Senna and so on. Their fame is universal and transcends sport. In golf for the disabled, if you say the name Shlomo, everyone immediately thinks of a strong man who has a big heart and firm convictions.
Shlomo was injured when just 18 years of age while preparing in Sinai for his role on the battlefield. It is compulsory to undertake national service in Israel for both men and women. On one exercise to simulate the removal of an injured colleague, Shlomo was positioned at the front end of a stretcher. Behind him was a fellow soldier who still had a bullet in the chamber of his unlocked gun. Just one stumble and a few moments later having been accidentally shot in the back, Shlomo became a real-life casualty, who at first fought for his life, and then fought to find a way to live from a wheelchair having been paralysed by the accident.
He was taken to hospital in Beersheba, before spending almost two years in rehabilitation. During that first year, he didn’t want to do anything, he didn’t want to eat, didn’t want to speak to anyone, including his family, and not surprisingly he suffered from depression. Today, with the benefit of experience, Shlomo says it is OK to get depressed, it is just part of the process. Something had to happen to bring Shlomo back into the real world, and it came in the shape of a rookie physiotherapist called Tammy. She came to see Shlomo and immediately recognised this man had a big heart. Tammy said to him, “Please help me Shlomo, this is my first job and they will fire me if you don’t co-operate.” That was the moment when Shlomo took his eyes off himself and co-operate he did. This was just the beginning, but this rookie physio came day after day and would take his legs out of bed, sit him in a wheelchair and take him to rehab. She retired recently with a wonderful career of helping young men and women to live their new lives.
A lot of support was available in Israel for the wounded troops. The rehabilitation centre had plenty of volunteers coming to visit and support. Shlomo has not forgotten and today carries out fundraising activities to ensure that such support is available to others in the future. It was meeting another wounded soldier who was also in a wheelchair that helped him realise that life was not over. Finally, he made the breakthrough when he said to the mirror, “OK Shlomo start to live – this is your life.”
With his “second life” just getting started, Shlomo had lots to learn, but learn he did. “Others also have to learn how to deal with people with disability,” he says, as he tells the story of taking his young daughters Revital, Liat and Kochav, down to the beach. “People were crying as they saw me dragging myself by the hands to the sea….but it was then that I felt the power that I could live my life,” says Shlomo, “I have a wonderful life.”
Part of the rehabilitation was sport, many sports in fact. Shlomo took part in swimming, skiing, sailing and basketball. For 35 years he played and competed in everything but golf. Finally, and only after an injury to his arm, did he start to look at the game which is now an essential part of his life. Golf certainly grabbed his attention. “Sport changes people,” he explains and advocates the value of sport to people with disability. The Ceasarea Golf Club, under the leadership of Lior Preety and Michael Karasanty, is where you can often find Shlomo; it is as he says his “second home…they are more than a golf club for us veterans, they support us and warmly embrace us.”
In Shlomo’s opinion golf above all other sports, allows him the opportunity to meet new people on a level playing field, to meet strangers, to play together, to talk and understand each other. The conversation is open. “Golf is an amazing sport,” says Shlomo “we play together, disabled and abled…we share four or so hours on the course and another hour or so afterwards with a few beers,” and everyone goes on their way just a little bit different than a few hours before.
“When you swim or compete in other disabled sports you are part of the disabled family,” says Shlomo, who believes in the value of sport for everyone. The golf handicap system offers the opportunity for everyone to play together, and Shlomo is quick to add that, “If one day in the future someone says that everyone can play together in the Olympics, then I would be the first one there, I don’t need a category for that.”
Shlomo is keenly aware that golf, needs to be more available to youngsters and believes the game he so loves can help people understand each other better and help people to come together like no other sport, and so he is embarking on a project with other veterans to take golf into the schools, to get more kids into the game. He says that “disability is not a sickness”, and that in life most problems are small. He recognises that his life is better for the game that he now enjoys so much and he and fellow players with disability can help others to find and try golf.
Tomorrow can be different from today, Shlomo Ivgi is changing the perception of disabled people one by one. Tomorrow he will wake, look in the mirror, smile, and say, “OK Shlomo live your life – from this moment onwards every person that I meet, I will smile to them”. Good advice.
Listen to EDGA’s Tony Bennett chatting with Paul Ellison
For most golfers, the air of St Andrews is different. The wind off the west sands carries with it the souls of some of the greatest players and club-makers ever to grace the game, Allan Robertson, Jamie Anderson, Robert Forgan, and of course, the legendary duo old Tom and young Tom Morris. All are intrinsically linked to the “Auld Grey Toon”, which boasts the St Andrews Links, The R&A, and Scotlands first University, which is also the third oldest in the English speaking world. Today St Andrews has a thriving cultural and social scene, in part due to the diversity of people who visit this south-east corner of Scotland.
To visit the home of golf is special, to set foot on one of the famous links for many is a career highlight, but to walk the hallowed turf of the Old Course as a player and caddie more than five thousand times – well that is the stuff of dreams. Paul Ellison is an accomplished golfer, but for the last thirty years, his life’s work has been helping players to enjoy their experience of the links. First as a caddie with players such as actor Samual L Jackson benefiting from his good advice, and more recently as his disability of Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia Condition has progressed, as one of the men who make sure that players and caddies are all where they are supposed to be at golf’s most iconic venue. Paul knows the links well. In fact, he knows it very well. For twenty of those thirty years, Paul caddied, and dependent on the quality of the player whose bag he shouldered, walked at least the 10,000 or so steps needed to complete the course. Imagine taking over fifty million steps, when every footstep hurts.
Paul explains that pain is the most debilitating part of his condition, and getting the medication right is a constant battle, “every step is painful,” says Paul “but some days are better than others.” As the name suggests, HSP is passed on as a gene abnormality which causes the long nerves of the spine to deteriorate, the condition is progressive, and in its mildest form renders those it affects with stiffness and spasticity of the legs. Paul was relieved to accept the diagnosis of HSP, after decades of not really knowing what he was suffering from and does what he can to limit the effects of the condition. By practicing Pilates to lengthen the muscles and tendons, and keeping active, he hopes to slow any progression which would further reduce his mobility to make walking without assistance very difficult, if not impossible.
Without exception every good caddie is a keen observer of people. Being able to quickly understand the person with who they are about to form a partnership for the next four or so hours is essential. It is a skill, one of many for those who caddie to develop. Not only does Paul understand the course, he also understands the game and has a keen interest in people. When asked about what changes he might make to golf to make it more disability friendly, he offered an approach that would “leave the game alone,” although he would make the facilities and course more accessible. Paul believes that golf is missing an enormous opportunity as it is an ideal sport for players of all abilities. Even having the chance to just hit a few balls at the local range can be therapeutic and a way into golf for many.
Paul was introduced to the game by his grandfather with whom he shared hours upon hours of experimenting and practicing. Today Paul enjoys practicing as much as he does playing and loves to go and hit a few when the opportunity presents itself. When asked about who his ideal playing partners would be, he had no hesitation in answering Robert Trent Jones, Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods, with the caveat that they would all use the same equipment. What he would learn by observing three of the greats up close and personal is anyone’s guess, but if my conversation with Paul is anything to go by then I am convinced that they would all have a great time hearing tales from the links.
EDGA golfer Aimi Bullock talks with Tony Bennett about her life dealing with the challenges brought on by Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
Listen to EDGA’s Tony Bennett chatting with Aimi Bullock
Many ‘twenty-somethings” have busy lives. There was work; my quest was training in an accountancy firm and studying two or three hours per night to pass her examinations. There was leisure or recreation, she had taken her lifelong passion for hockey, which had started as a ten-year-old, and by a commitment to regular physical and skill training, had developed her game to the point which made her an essential part of Sunbury Hockey Club, a South of England Division 1 team. Then there was a social life, which often had to fit into whatever time was left over.
Sport was essential to Aimi Bullock. Although Aimi was a good student at school, she wanted to move her body and had aspirations to do something special in sport. A typical school day would end by rushing home to cram in her homework before running out of the house to do something sporty. Her family – which were not really that sporty at all, did not stand in her way, and she had a brother and two family cousins who would happily kick or throw a ball around. This passion for sport has never deserted Aimi. Hockey to a high standard, a growing interest in cycling which resulted in races from London to Brighton throughout the night and taking part in the 100-mile long cycle challenge along the 2012 Olympic race route.
Then there was golf. Aimi initially had taken a few lessons at school as a teenager, after all, it was a sport, so why not give it a go? She quickly found that she hated it. Perhaps it was because Aimi was playing from the wrong side of the ball and found the game challenging. Eventually, she stumbled on a set of left-handed golf clubs before being asked by a hockey teammate if she fancied a game of golf. Once again she thought, “well after all it is a sport, so why not give it a go.” It transpired that Aimi was much better at golf when playing left-handed, which is quite ironic when considering that all hockey sticks are right- handed. But even though she enjoyed the game, she never really took golf seriously, and it was just a bit of fun. Aimi’s interest in golf was growing, and she booked some lessons at the local pay as you play course.
Rather like stones settling into a stream so altering the path of the water, life tends to throw the occasional rock to adjust one’s life course. One Easter Aimi got the first sign that something was not quite right. Waking up feeling terribly hung-over is the price that we all pay for a few drinks too many, but what if you hadn’t had a drink the night before and had important clients to see for her now burgeoning new accountancy practice, Aimi did what most people in a similar position would do, she got ready for work, got into the best mental state and got behind the wheel of her car as she had done hundreds of times before. Only this time it was different, she almost crashed because she felt so poorly. Could it be a migraine she thought as she experienced headaches and severe pain behind her left eye? She had never had a migraine but thought a visit to the doctor once the Easter holiday was over would be a good idea. The doctor asked Aimi to take a look at the eye chart, and worryingly all she could see was the top letter. Several tests later the diagnosis of ‘Optic Neuritis‘ was confirmed, with the comment that it should be considered a clinically isolated syndrome, which would have continual monitoring.
Characteristically Aimi continued to cram every moment of her life, working 50-60 hour weeks, training for hockey and cycling and living a ‘normal life’. In retrospect this was a “massive mistake” she says, but understandably she just wanted to get on with life. Now and then Aimi would have a small warning sign that perhaps things were not quite right. She had noticed that from time to time she would feel quite anti-social and stressed about life in general. She had already realised her days competing in high-level hockey tournaments were numbered when her brother had thrown her a ball which she misjudged allowing it to sail over her head, and finally, when she found herself continually tugging at the sock on her right foot, it was time to investigate further. More tests followed and just a few months before her 40th birthday, Aimi received the news that her diagnosis was Multiple Sclerosis.
Multiple Sclerosis, MS for short is a condition that affects the brain and spinal cord. It seems that every case of MS is unique. Aimi says, “I was very naive thinking that MS was just about issues with walking etc., it is far more complex. Tiredness is probably hardest to deal with.” Tiredness can strike at any time, and often at the worst possible moment. In Aimi’s case, she has to control her body temperature as when it rises too much it can reduce her vision significantly. She, therefore, manages her fluid and food intake, in a similar way to when she was following more athletic pursuits, to ensure good sight and to keep tiredness and lethargy at bay.
Aimi’s neurologist, Dr Richard Nicholas has been super supportive of Aimi’s golfing aspirations. He says that having to get herself to the course, preparing to play, communicating with others, selecting a club and shot, controlling her movements to swing the club and hit the ball are all perfect tasks for her. Golf has been life-changing for Aimi, and it came along at the right time to fill the gap that hockey and cycling left. She can be competitive and has met some amazing people in the EDGA tournaments that she plays when not playing at her local clubs Sunningdale Heath and Woking Golf Club, where she is a member of both.
With a re-found golf game, Aimi can once again consider high-level sport. She knows that the competition is fierce and that the young pups are coming. Her golf swing which is gradually getting longer than the traditional ‘hockey’ type swing associated with many former players, together with her determination to carry out her mother’s instructions “you are just going to have to get on with it”. Get on with it she is and for Aimi there is much to do to help more people give golf a try.