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.
26 – Stewart Harris
In December 2017 I met Stewart Harris for the first time. I had heard about the work that he was doing and I listened intently to him making a presentation at the R&A symposium on golf for the disabled that would move even the coldest heart. I searched him out at the coffee break and found him approachable, friendly, and humble. We chatted for a while and I left saying to myself, “I want to help share Stewart’s story.”
EDGA’s Tony Bennett introduces his interview with Stewart Harris, a man who has packed a lifetime of experiences in a mere 35 years.
“One day I woke up and thought I can’t live like this anymore… I just went to my local beach, and I walked into the water and thought, I’m just going to walk out there until I don’t have the strength to come back. I started swimming, and as I was out there I just had a vision of my daughters being bullied at school for what I was about to do, and I couldn’t go through with it. I did really want to finish it, but I thought I just can’t do that to my girls. So I came back walked into the kitchen absolutely soaking wet and…”
These are the words of former Welsh Guard Stewart Harris, who has experienced more in his 35 years of life than most will in the so-called three score years and ten. Married to Rhian with two daughters, Cerys and Megan. Stewart has lived a life of contribution, first as a soldier in the British Military, more recently as an ambassador for Wales Golf and generally as a spokesperson raising awareness of mental health issues.
Stewart’s story is filled with traumatic events, from which he has emerged with a life that has undoubtedly changed, but in some ways is better, he says. Although golf is now a significant part of his life, it was not always the case even though he grew up with the nine holes links of Rhyl just around the corner. His Father Kieth and Brother Peter, both played golf and Stewart can remember as a youngster going to the club for presentation evenings and enjoying the atmosphere. But rugby was more his sport, not that he didn’t like golf, he just never got to play, and thought that perhaps he wouldn’t be good at it.
Stewart tried hard at school, was good at sport and never skipped classes, but he found that nothing used to sink in, but it was here in Rhyll that his life took the first of many twists and turns. “I didn’t do fantastically well at school, and somebody from the military came [to speak with the pupils] and told us that we would travel and that was something I really fancied,” says Stewart, who was told when he took the entrance test that he was too short to be in the army. Even so, Stewart went to Leconfield when he was on the cusp of being seventeen and took part in a two days selection process from which he emerged as the top student and so was no longer too short. “I picked the Welsh Guards because I loved London and the thought of living there was exciting, except we ended-up in Aldershot and didn’t go to London for a year,” says Stewart. Within a few months and still as a seventeen-year-old he was shipped out to Bosnia in Number Two Company for his first tour of duty. “I had to grow up pretty quick,” but the men with whom he served kept an eye out for the young soldier. “That was my first medal, and I had my eighteenth birthday there.”
Northern Ireland and Londonderry was the next tour which was due to last for two years as part of the peacekeeping force, but it was cut short when his company were informed that the British Army together with the Americans were going to invade Iraq. “I wasn’t sure how I was going to tell my Mum,” says Stewart, but after a few months of training, he was off to Iraq in 2005. When he was told that he was going to Iraq, there was some worry, but he felt that as he hadn’t done any real soldiering now was the time. Stewart was reflective before saying, “I was a very young man and so was hungry for some sort of combat…its almost like a footballer training and not playing, or a golfer training but with no competition. I had years and years of training and hadn’t had an actual firefight yet, and so when Iraq happened I thought…I am actually going to do something real now. I was hungry for it…and I see that same hunger now when I speak with young soldiers, but if I were to tell them now, I would say be careful and be careful what you wish for. I came back unscathed and remember coming home from that tour and thinking, nothing is going to be as bad as that.” The snatch Landrover in front of his had been hit by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED), and it was then that he first had to administer morpheme to an injured colleague. He hoped it would be available for him should he need it.
After that tour, Stewart started to put down some roots for his family. He became a recruiter for the Welsh Guards for a couple of years during which time he bought a house, had a second child and got married, and with most nights at home, it was a good time for his family. Stewart’s next mission saw him swap weapons for cameras as part of a reconnaissance group in Kosovo, where human trafficking, drug trafficking and money laundering were rife, his job was to observe and feedback to special forces. Then came Afghanistan in 2012.
“I thought it couldn’t get worse than it was in Iraq, but I couldn’t have been more wrong,” says Stewart. Daily contact was the norm. It was during this tour that they lost their commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Thornloe. Stewart recalls his commander, “He was a terrific leader, who led from the front. He died because he was letting a guardsman have a rest, had he been inside the vehicle then he would have survived the IED which took his life.” Stewart was in the bearing party consisting of eight members of the Welsh Guards who then shouldered the coffin of Thornloe and carried it into the chapel.On that tour, he lost five more of his colleagues.
Later Stewart was deployed as part of a ‘Police Mentor Advisory Group’, where their job was to teach and help local police look after themselves. Four months into the tour and things were going quite well. Sangin in North Helmand Province is known as ‘bandit country’. He decided not to tell Rhian exactly where he was going, as it was an infamous region. On the 1st of July 2012 Stewart would find out just how dangerous it really was.
The eight-man team that walked into a Taliban ambush was unaware of life-changing experience that was about to unfold for the five survivors. On that day, three of his colleagues would be shot dead and his commander was shot in the leg, there was no air support due to the rounds that were being put down by the Taliban. “It was a hot zone. A killing area. I remember thinking that this was it. As they were coming closer, I remember being engaged from the front, I remember being engaged from the right, from the left and the back, they were just coming from everywhere, and the rounds were pinging off the vehicles… I thought this is where we were going to die,” recalls Stewart “In those moments, everything that you have learned over the years, the training, just seems to kick in and we were able to deal with the situation,” Finally air support was able to get into the area, pick-up the wounded commander and put fire into the compound. The immediate danger was over, and the team got back to base.
There is little or no time to grieve in war. In a couple of days the soldiers are back doing their job, with a different team but instantly they have to get back into the old routine of work and life. “You never forget but it is back to normal, and perhaps, as there is no time to grieve, that is why so many young men come back home and have difficulties. You get visited by all these generals and they, say well done, good job, you did fantastic, there is nothing else you could have done, and to a point they are right, the only thing that you could do to stop it is not to be there.”
It is when active military personnel get back home and have some time when they feel it most, Stewart explains, “I will never be loved as much as I was by members of that team… there is some sort of bond that is forged in combat, to die for someone else, to give your life for another… you become a band of brothers…and you will never find that anywhere else…as soon as I got home I just wanted to get back out to Afghanistan, I felt guilty knowing what they were going through, I felt guilty for being at home, for sleeping in my bed, I felt guilty for being with my wife”.
Stewart had his two weeks of rest and recovery at home but was anxious to get back and see the guys. “I was back to work, and we were out on patrol on Route 611 when we got hit by a massive explosion under the vehicle.” The IED had thrown the vehicle through the air, “Everything went dark, it was a blur after that…I remember thinking that I was in hell, I thought that the devil must have been Scottish, but in fact, that lovely voice was from a very dear friend of today, Dr Kirkwood who works at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. He explained that I was back in England and that Rhian was in the room, but all I could think was, why is my wife in Afghanistan?”After the blast, Stewart had been airlifted back to Camp Bastion, was sedated and flown back to the UK. It had been just four days since the accident, but most of it Stewart can only piece together through what others have told him. The IED had damaged three of the lobes in Stewart’s brain causing blindness in the right eye and partial blindness in the left, due to the blast he was deaf in the right ear and partially deaf in the left,and physically the explosion had crushed his right testicle while the other was now located in his stomach.
The ‘Defense Military Rehabilitation Centre’ at Headley Court was full of people who were injured in Sangin. The facilities at Headley court are second to none which helps to keep morale up. “I had all my limbs, but I would walk around there were guys with just a body and arm and a head. There were double and triple amputees, and so I think that it was a case [of thinking] there that there is always someone worse off than you.”With the magic of modern medicine, Stewart has regained much of the vision in his left eye, hearing aids have helped him to regain some hearing, and so the physical side of his recovery was quite quick, but he was struggling with day to day tasks and feeling down…“I became not a nice person to be around…I became snappy with my wife and children…I didn’t think I was good enough for them anymore, I asked my wife to leave me and take the children,” says Stewart, who was diagnosed with ‘combat post-traumatic stress disorder’. The recurring nightmares, flashbacks, and random thoughts that are associated with PTSD are as Stewart explains in part due to miss filing in the brain, “Everything in your life is filed away in your brain…in the right place for when your brain needs to access it, and so what happens is when you see [or experience] something traumatic… the files get put in the wrong place or not even filed at all. So when you are having a cup of tea, this file will come from nowhere you will start to feel…and start crying your eyes out…I remember tying my shoelace, and out of nowhere I just burst out crying to the point where I couldn’t breathe.”
Stewart had changed and was having difficulty coming to terms with his new behaviour, “I did try and get some help…but the [military] and the soldiers have a job to do, so when you are not in that role you have a back step and [mental health] was sort of taboo, it was a case of man-up and sort yourself out…so I would keep it to myself.” When Stewart walked into the kitchen of his home, soaking wet after his dance with death, Rhian at first did not realise what had just happened, “My wife was, like where the hell have you been, and I just told her what I was about to do, which was really difficult…I had to tell my wife that I was about to leave her without even saying goodbye… She was fantastic throughout everything, she called 999, and I was placed in a mental health unit.”
Flippantly Stewart says that “a mental health unit is like the worst all Inclusive [hotel], once you are in you can’t get out,” but it was just what he needed at the time andin his words, “Take it one day at a time, baby steps and things will get better.” Martin, a veteran came into the unit one day and said “does anyone want to come golfing?”, Stewart’s response was simply “Does it get me out ofhere?”
It was at this stage that golf came tearing into Stewart’s life. At the driving range that day, he spread forty-nine of the fifty balls in his basket all over the field, but any golfer will tell you that it just needs one shot. One shot that comes right out of the middle of the club, one feeling in the swing that is as smooth as silk and it was that one shot that grabbed him by the shirt and pulled him into the game. “Golf is my medication, it is what I go to when I am not feeling good, it has opened so many doors for me…I am a healthier person for it, not just physically…but it is also social.” Stewart recognises that when he plays with three new people, by the end of the round, they are already friends and that golf can be played by people of all abilities and with all disabilities. Stewart rememberss, “When I was still in Headley Court, one of the lads came in buzzing talking about playing golf, and I was thinking how can you play golf, you haven’t got any legs.”
Stewart offers his advice to others who are facing physical or mental health challenges, “Please don’t panic…it will be OK, things will get better. It’s going to be alright. Take it one day at a time, your life will change, but who knows it could be for the better. You can still go on to helpothers do amazing things.”Some of those changes have helped Stewart become a role model for others.He has played golf in national championships as a golfer, not as a disabled golfer, has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and the Three Peaks, and has been instrumental in introducing a new scheme within his community: bringing in free swimming sessions for veterans at the local pools in Denbighshire.
Overall life is good for Stewart who takes one day at a time and helps other to realise that change for the better can happen and that new memories can be created. One such day was in 2017 when together with his Dad they played golf at the Open venue Royal Lytham and St Annes, and in doing so created a memory that will never leave either of them.
I caught up with two times European Individual Champion Juan Postigo Arce by Skype between practice sessions at his home in Spain. Juan has developed his game in a region where the aura of Severiano Ballesteros hangs thick in the gentle breeze that sweeps across the Miera river
EDGA’s Tony Bennett introduces his interview with two times European Individual Champion Juan Postigo Arce
In the northern part of Spain, west of Bilbao sits the elegant city of Santander. With its magnificent Cathedral, Magdalena peninsula, and busy port, this gateway through which thousands make their landfall in Spain is rich in history. But it is just across the Miera River where a magical spirit is in the air says Juan Postigo Arce.
Born into a family steeped in sport, Juan’s father from who he took his first name, was a good skier and his uncle Nacho a top class sailor, it was natural for Juan to experiment with a range of different activities. His family thought it essential that Juan, just as his brothers and sisters, should find a sport in which he could immerse himself. Juan tried tennis, skiing, sailing, but it was football that he found most appealing and where he could express himself. That was only until Juan found golf when aged twelve. From the very first moment, Juan thought that he would play the game well, “In golf, we can play against and with everyone, it is one of only a few games where our disability doesn’t count. We play the same courses with the same conditions,” says Juan.
Juan started to play golf at Abra del Pas under the watchful eye of his grandfather Santos and with a prosthetic. Born without much of his right leg and no knee, Juan initially used the prosthetic but found it difficult. After ditching the prosthetic and re-inventing his swing with the help of the clubs head coach Santiago Carriles, Juan’s progress was spectacular, at 14 years of age, he was playing to 30 handicap and by 17 years of age he was off four handicap. Juan immersed himself in the game and became in his words “A golf freak.” Juan read everything he could about the game, watched DVDs of the great tournaments, learned about the leading players and gained an appreciation of the culture that surrounds the game.
Juan already knew the name of Severiano Ballesteros, it was impossible not to, living in that part of Spain, but now he had the words of great writers and pictures of the champion to fill his mind. Seve, as all the world knew him, had an aura that permeated every part of the region, it was impossible not to know of the man and his achievements. Seve became a golfing hero to Juan, and in 2009 he had the opportunity to cross the Miera river to a village called Pedreña and to play Seve’s home course for the first time and to further enhance his golfing education.
Being a student of the game has helped Juan to realise just how good he has to become if he wants to compete at the highest level and achieve his goals. The simplicity of Santiago’s coaching is a good fit for Juan, “He feels golf, knows the game and as we say in Spain has golf in his hands,” says Juan who also recognises the contribution of his nutritionist Pedro Morales, and physios Mariana and Luis, stating that “without my team, none of this would be possible.”
Juan is happy to own many of the Spanish stereotypes, he is passionate, sometimes a bit impulsive, which he is working on, playful in his sense of humour and likes to sleep a little later than most of his competitors from northern Europe. “It’s in my Spanish blood,” he says, “golf is the centre of my life…I love golf, it’s my hobby. I would like to grow this game for all of us, and I think that the way is to go into it professionally.” Already Juan is making a difference and frequently spends time in the Spanish speaking countries of Chile and Columbia playing in events to help raise the awareness of golf for the disabled.
His record of victories is growing year on year, and in 2018 he has already put a few more trophies in the cabinet. A seven-shot triumph in a scratch event at Pedreña was very satisfying, winning the Spanish Disabled Championship was another highlight, but it was his victory around the Portuguese links of Troia in the biennial European Golf Association’s (EGA) Championship for Golfers with Disability that was perhaps the most rewarding. In 2016 Juan had won the last EDGA European Championship before the EGA took responsibility for the event, “to defend the championship was a great experience and to have everyone look at me as I tried to win again was hard, especially with all the good players competing… [but] to win the first EGA European Championship is part of history. The week we spent in Troia was special and to get the gold medal meant a lot.”
Juan likes to keep learning, and although his reading is now a little different from the books he had when first getting started in golf, he is still expanding his knowledge. Today the books tend to be about how he can get the best out of his game. He is trying hard to develop more patience and is making great strides with the help of the people around him and the seminal book Vision 54 by Pia Nillson and Lyne Marriott.
Juan realises that in golf, just like in life, no two days are the same, “golf and life are quite similar. Accept yourself as you are, if you have only got one leg, you will only ever have one leg, so be happy with it… I have never had any issue with feeling or being different.”
Speaking at the 2015 European Team Championship held in his home country of Spain, Juan explains how since he started to play without the use of a prosthetic right leg his game has improved. Juan reveals that he wants to compete on the highest stage and all this before he won the first of his European Championships in 2016.
5:27pm on September the 25th in 2008 was without question a defining moment for Rich O’Brien. It is a date that has been carved in deep letters on his mind, but crucially Rich has turned a negative event into a positive future
Rich O’Brien says, “Overcoming injuries takes a lot of determination, you just have to be focussed, you have to have a game plan”
EDGA’s Tony Bennett introduces his interview with Rich O’Brien from Syracuse, New York, USA
To understand why someone would spend thousands of hours, writing hundreds of articles, we first have to get a sense of what it is that has got under their skin and why sharing their thoughts and observations is important.
Perhaps it is too simple to suggest that Rich O’Brien likes to help people, maybe committing his thoughts to paper is, in a way, therapeutic? In any case, Rich has produced a body of work related to overcoming injury, illness and challenges. He says that he was always good with words, but on the 25th of September 2008 at 5.27pm all that changed, and his vocabulary reduced dramatically to zero words.
Learning to speak again was just one of many challenges that Rich had to face after he fell from a buggy. Rich remembers that “It was a member-guest event at Kiawah Island…it had been raining and we had played 27 holes after a shotgun start.” The driver who was following the path had turned the cart hard left, but Rich went hard right and fell out of the buggy. His body crashed into the concrete cart path, tearing up his shoulder which would have been bad enough, but when his neck hit a seemingly insignificant two-inch high curbing stone, that the real damage was done. Two breaks in his back and two in his neck, fractures in four places on his skull, damage to his brain and an epidural haematoma causing seizures, was the result of his fall.
Thankfully an Emergency Medical Technician, EMT for short was quickly on hand to get Rich breathing again and to put him in an induced coma. Paul Tumminia, the EMT, literally saved the life of Rich, and unwittingly set in motion a chain of actions that saw his patient come back to life, regain his health, and hone his passion for helping others.
One short year later, on the 25th of September 2009 and every year since, Rich celebrates twelve long hard months of physical and mental rehabilitation, 365 days of pushing himself just a little bit past his pain threshold, and development of his vocabulary, one word at a time. Typically Rich would wake up at five o’clock in the morning in searing pain, and to reduce the chronic inflammation, he would take the prescribed pain meds, go to a hot tub, take hot and cold showers, dress and then walk for an hour. At first, it was sixty yards, but with each step, Rich gained more strength. He found that strenuous exercise produces endorphins which become a natural form of pain relief, giving him at least some hours away from the heavy medication. “The pain medication basically shut me down,” says Rich “It blocked my memories, I had to write everything down otherwise it would be gone in just a few minutes.”
Memory was at the forefront of his mind, but these recollections were not of the positive kind. “Four or five times per day I was getting flashbacks and recurring nightmares.” Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is more commonly associated with military personnel or first responders, such as the emergency services, and yet anyone who is exposed to a dramatic event is susceptible.
“Indecisiveness, depression, anxiety and escapism are all common behaviour traits for those with PTSD,” explains Rich who also says “I will always have PTSD, you can mitigate or minimise the effects of it…but it can be triggered by a smell, sound, or a place. Anxiety then becomes fear. Rich describes the anxiety he experiences from time to time as being, “Mine was waking up paralysed, not able to move from the neck down, not being able to speak…because that was how I was when I woke up from the coma on September 29th. In PTSD the way the brain is organised is changed, and these changes are indelibly printed on my brain.”
“Overcoming injuries takes a lot of determination, you just have to be focussed, you have to have a game plan”. Rich did have a plan, to walk a thousand miles and to play golf. “Inherently I think I knew that golf was a good form of therapy,” he says. As he approached his thousand miles, Rich could start to imagine what those last few steps might look like. A man of faith, Rich called up pastor Brian and invited him to play some holes at the local golf course, Summerville Country Club. At 5.27PM on September the 25th 2009, Rich completed his thousand miles on the 9th green and together with Brian shared a prayer of thanksgiving.
To understand where Rich O’Brien got the strength of mind to deal with his challenge, we have to backtrack all the way to 1965. Born in Syracuse New York, Rich had been introduced to golf by his Uncle Howie while visiting Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Howie Alexander was an avid golfer who instilled a passion for the game in his nephew when just twelve years of age. Desire without opportunity often leads to frustration, but for Rich, there was no such problem, as the backyard of his family home was an acre and half with another three acres attached. It was here that Richnot only stayed out of trouble but honed their skills to hit a golf ball. Mostly self-taught, Rich became a good player reaching a handicap of two. What he lacked in coaching during those years was just about to change.
With a passion that knew no bounds, Rich continued to develop his game alone, reaching a plus handicap for the first time and not surprisingly golf was a central theme in his life. Seven coaches in seven years as Rich went through high school offered him the opportunity to witness different coaching styles and philosophies up close. “With so many coaches it was frustrating, but as a senior there were three players that could coach and makeall the decisions. The principle of the school, became our mentor as he let us organise what we needed to get done. So basically I got my feet wet coaching as a high schoolsenior.”
The next step along the well-worn path for most aspiring golf professionals stateside is to enter the well-established college golf system, and Rich took a confident step into the University of Miami in 1984. It is well known that there is always a ‘bigger dog’, and in college golf, this exposed swiftly and at times dramatically. Although Rich played on the team he never really made it as a player, but it was his study of sports psychology and exercise sciences, which he thought would give him a slight edge against his opponents, that was the game changer.
Hall of fame College Coach Norm Parsonswas his coach at the University of Miami, and it was he who lit the coaching fire in Rich. If Normstarted the fire, then it was another Hall of Fame College Coach, Chuck Winship, who poured fuel on it, by appointing Rich as his Assistant Coach. The mentoring he received helped Rich to learn the key points of college coaching so that he was prepared for his first foray into a head coaching job at Barry University.
Dr Dick Coop and Dr Bob Rotella were leading the trend of applied sports psychology in golf, and it was the audiobooks of Bob that would have a lasting effect on Rich and his college team. “Some of Bob’s materials are like getting mentoring or life coaching for people who would not normally go to counselling, but because it was in a golf setting is was more acceptable. One of Bob’s real gifts is the way he gets people to apply the knowledge on the golf course,” says the committed disciple that Rich was fast becoming. He could see how sports psychology was not only helping people on the golf course but also in their lives but at this stage in his life, there was no outlet. This was still to come and would be evident after the events 25th of September 2008.
“Golf can help rebuild life skills for all individuals,” says the man who should know from personal experience. Rich recognises the lack of understanding that surrounds mental illness, “The stigma is real…PTSD is an unseen injury.” Nevertheless, it is real and it is estimated that up to 70% of all disabilities are unseen. Rich has learned that he is mentally tough, and does not have the word ‘quit’ in his new vocabulary, which he uses to great effect in his writing. The Golf Therapy forum which he set up is designed to help individuals with injuries, illness or challenges. “We can be a magnet of positivity or negativity” pronounces Rich, who explains that it has become his compelling habit to tell other people’s stories of overcoming challenges.
His proclamation that “We can use recreation and other activities such as golf, to re-integrate people in to society,” are not mere words, but rather a belief formed by years of helping people such as Traumatic Brain Injury survivor Fred Gutierrez, who Rich has written about extensively in his book ‘Half Paralysed – Twice Strong’ and through his never-ending search to answer those questions he himself has had to answer.
5.27PM on September the 25th in 2008 was without question a defining moment for Rich O’Brien. It is a date that has been carved in deep letters on his mind, but crucially Rich has turned a negative event into a positive future which he spends spreading the word. The final characters of this story have to belong to the man of words, “ It can be the greatest PR campaign for golf if we truly embrace all golfers,” – Rich O’Brien.
It was one weekend in Ireland when he and three mates put on their helmets and went for a ride when life changed for Gareth.
Gareth McNeilly says, “With the throttle jammed open [on his motorbike], I knew I was in trouble, and so had no choice but to Abandon ship.”
EDGA’s Tony Bennett introduces his interview with Gareth McNeilly from Northern Ireland
“That’s the thing about a motorbike,” says Gareth McNeilly, “You just put the helmet on and see where the bike takes you.” It seems that Gareth accepts life as it comes, he describes himself as being a ‘happy go lucky youngster’ but with high standards and expectations. It is just as well that Gareth can go with the flow and keep things in perspective as one day when only twenty-eight years of age his life took an unexpected turn that would put many people into a spin.
In a golf-loving nation where the percentage of golfers in the population is one of the highest in the world, surprisingly none of Gareth’s family played. It was his Mothers cousin, who Gareth affectionately calls Aunt Sheila, who first introduced him to the game when she gifted him a nine iron and a putter when he was only seven years of age. As most lads do, they use their imagination, and the field at the back of his house 20 minutes North of Belfast became his golf course. He and his friends would dig a hole in the ground, put a stick in it and play from one side of the field to the other. They imagined their own course and would play there for hours.
The local club Massereene was where he first got a taste of real golf, and it was not long before he had got the enthusiasm to play more. By 15 years of age, he had joined the club, where a thriving junior section was gathering every day in the holidays and playing together. “There was a real buzz about the place,” says Gareth and with fifty or more lads and lasses enjoying golf, it was an inspiring place to be.
Lads grow into men, and the next part of Gareth’s journey was when he left Northern Ireland to go to Scotland and the University of Stirling to study marketing. Gareth had moved from one golf-mad country to another, and much to his delight he found that the University had its own par three golf course in the grounds, where he could play almost every evening after lectures.After graduating Gareth elected to start his career in Scotland, before eventually returning to Ireland to take on a role with a car hire company.
It was one weekend back in Ireland when he and three mates had put on their helmets and gone for a ride when life changed for Gareth. Ask any motorcyclist about the machine that they sit on and they will tell you that they respect the power it is capable of. Gareth was perched on top of a Suzuki GSXR 600 sports bike capable of 0-100 miles per hour in just five seconds, and fully understood the raw acceleration that his machine was capable of. A few seconds later with the throttle jammed open, and as his front wheel lifted, he knew he was in trouble, and so had no choice but to “Abandon ship,” as he puts it. That decision could well have saved his life but cost him a leg. A metal railing stopped Gareth’s body smashing into a wall, which he says was, “My first blessing,” but soon he realised that the bottom of his leg was still in the boot which was no longer connected to the rest of his body. The second and third blessings came quickly as one of his mates Mark Gaul used a belt to create a tourniquet which slowed the bleeding until a first aider was able to stabilise the situation.
On reaching the hospital the surgeon, Mr Ian Brown assessed the situation and realising that Gareth had also shattered his knee, and broken bones in his thigh, he advised that an above-knee amputation was necessary, stating that it would be the only operation he would need if all went well. Sure enough, the surgeon was right in his assessment, and so the process of recovery started. A month in hospital and ten weeks of rehabilitation and he was walking again. Gareth makes it sound simple, a matter of fact almost, but surely there must have been more to it? Gareth says “I was lucky, and I know it. The day after my accident two bothers from the local town had an accident and were killed, it brought it home to me that I could have been dead or a lot worse off than I was.”
His optimistic perspective has enabled Gareth to look expectantly towards the future. “I was surrounded by good friends and family, and there were nights in the hospital when it was like a party as the nurses turned a blind eye to the two visitors only rule…there was always something to look forward to and I am so glad to be here.”
In the aftermath of the accident and his rehabilitation, golf went to the back of his mind. “I have never had a bad day, the NHS [national health service] provided me with a great leg, and life is good,” he says. The first prosthetic leg was functional but unfit for the demands of swinging a golf club and going around the golf course, whereas the next prosthesis, well that was really a step up. With sensors in the foot and the knee, it was according to Gareth “Just like getting my leg back.” He played a few rounds of nine holes, and then progressed to 18 holes as his confidence grew. He had been playing for a couple of years when he saw a tweet about some of the work EDGA had been doing and so wanted to know more.Although golf is relaxation for Gareth, he still has a competitive spirit and loves to mix it with other players.
His first EDGA event in Scotland was a real eye-opener for Gareth, “These events can get very competitive, and the standard is high,” he says, but what he really found inspiring was that the people who he met are just regular guys, “It’s just four lads, not an amputee, a one arm guy and a guy with no fingers, it’s just four golfers who want to do their best.”
Former Irish International golfer Johnny Foster and now a respected coach, who has been a friend of Gareth for more than twenty years has been helping him with his game recently.“I’ve known Gareth since we were in our twenties. So I’ve known him both sides of his accident and he has kept his positivity and humour throughout. I’m not surprised he has excelled at competitive golf because he has a real passion for the sport and always a desire to improve himself. Myself and Chris Gallaher who coaches with me at my academy have given him a hand with his golf as he’s an easy man to coach – very keen and good fun. I’m delighted he’s found somewhere to compete and express his personality and love of sport,” says Johnny.
“I’m glad Johnny still has time for his one-legged mate,” quips Gareth, who is keen to get more individuals with disability into the sport. Together with another Irish player, Brendan Lawlor, who regularly competes in EDGA events and appears in EDGA profiles, they have met with the Confederation of Irish Golf to help them better understand the opportunity for Ireland, “We would like to see coaching and development days to get young people with disability into the sport, create an Irish Open and Irish team to compete in European championships.
As a medalist at the 2010 Amputee games in swimming, Gareth understands the power of sport and the opportunity it brings to people with disability, “There is a life after an accident, there is life after an amputation, and so go for it. There are sporting opportunities in a number of sports, and if you get into a sport, then you can travel the world.” Gareth offers one final piece of advice for anyone who has experienced a life-changing accident, “Take every day as it comes, listen to the physio’s and the people who are there to get you back on your feet, and know there are opportunities for you out there in life.”
Great advice from a man who seems to view life as a series of waves, with its ups and downs, opportunities to be considered or grasped. Happy go lucky perhaps, high on life unquestionably.