112 – Oliver Hirst-Greenham

“Golf is a fantastic sport for so many people with a disability; you are playing the game against yourself, in that all golfers are free to explore their own, personal potential, whether trying to get the very best scores in intense competition, or simply playing at your own pace, chipping and putting, enjoying the nature around you.

Oliver Hirst-Greenham – tough love and second chances

Normally a relaxed, chatty character, Oliver Hirst-Greenham appeared distinctly nervous as he entered the clubhouse at Thonock Park Golf Club, Lincolnshire, for his first EDGA tournament back in June.

The PING Open for Golfers with a Disability was certainly all new territory for him. Oliver’s disability isn’t that noticeable, and he had been worrying about this: would he look like he was an intruder? Was there anyone else like him in the tournament? Would he fit in with the other players? This was the first day at a whole new school.

Later in the day after his practice round, Oliver looked a completely different person, like all his questions had been answered. His smile was beaming and there was a sparkle in his eyes; he’d been made to feel welcome during the practice round by his two playing partners, the first a leg amputee, the other a one-armed player, and he was busy buying them a well-deserved post-round beer amid plenty of chatter.

When Oliver launches a big drive down the fairway (and he hits it miles) fellow golfing partners may be unaware of the pain he is having to cope with as he plays, and the awkwardness of the hip, leg and back motion involved throughout his swing. They will also not be aware of the countless sessions of hip and leg manipulation under general anaesthetic, all to give him a few weeks of greater mobility and less daily pain.

But Oliver puts up with all of this to enjoy the wonderful world of golf. The game suits two distinct sides to his personality very well; he loves playing golf with other people, as he has a lively sense of humour and loves conversation; this is his extrovert side. Golf creates a happy place for him and his friends at Morecambe Golf Club in Lancashire, where he has always been coached by trusted PGA Club Professional Simon Fletcher. On the flip side of the sociability, he also loves golf for the peace and quiet. He has a stressful job being a round-the-clock carer for a gentleman with learning difficulties, and loves nothing better than nine holes on his own in the evening or hitting 100 shots on the driving range, enjoying the rhythm of striking golf balls against a largely silent backdrop.

And now that Oliver has discovered EDGA, his rare health condition is making him focus on new opportunities as a player in 2022, keeping him excited about the future.

Oliver said: “I’ve got congenital hip dysplasia. I was born with very shallow hip sockets. Whereas you’d consider a normal person were to have a really deep socket for the bone to sit in, and it’s supported well, because mine’s very shallow, all the muscles and the tendons and everything are all very underdeveloped. And the bone moves around in the socket.”

Managing his mobility issues over time, aged 37, Oliver had settled for playing club competitions at Morecambe Golf Club off his low single-figure handicap. With nothing else on the horizon, he has in the past worried about his condition and its impact on his life in general, including on the game he enjoys so much.

“Then just recently, I heard about the EDGA Tour. One of my friends was also talking about the G4D Tour: people with disabilities playing at a high level. He said, ‘Have you ever had a look at this?’ I had a look at the requirements, and I thought I’d just apply. It doesn’t hurt to apply, does it?

“I was really nervous about coming, to be honest. The thing with me is my hips, and nobody can see inside my body; they can’t see my hip joints, whereas somebody else… I played with a chap the other day, he had two prosthetic legs.

“So you can see it there. People with one arm and things like that, they’ve got an obvious disability. I was like, you can’t see mine. I was a bit nervous about coming because, obviously, I don’t want to… with people that are struggling, it was almost like I was worried about, will they class me as being disabled?”

Oliver added: “It was a bit nerve-racking. But then I came up on my first day, and everybody was great. And I played with Cedric [Lescut], and Darren [Grey] on my practice round. I’ll tell you what, they just put my mind at ease. They were fantastic.”

Oliver had been assessed by the EDGA Medical Examiner, who understood the condition and issued the appropriate player pass.

He said: “I was accepted, which was fantastic. They gave me an Access Pass and that was brilliant. I just thought it’s a really good way of playing golf courses, making some new friends. I’m really, really chuffed.

“I came up and I had my assessment with the physio, and he told me that my hips were weak enough to get the WR4GD pass. That completely opened up a whole different thing because I was coming just to be part of the environment, and then all of a sudden, this World Ranking system is involved. I didn’t even know how it’s scored. But I know that if you do really well, you have a chance to play on the G4D Tour.”

Oliver has now played three EDGA tournaments and he says he has loved every minute of the experience. After his third event, the EDGA Rockliffe Open in July, he said he would like to dedicate his time to going as far as he could with EDGA. He has certainly made an impressive start. At the time of writing he had risen to 16th in the World Ranking after a trio of top-5 performances, and his dream now is to reach the G4D Tour.

Golf, Oliver argues, is a “fantastic sport for so many people with a disability”; he cites all the physical and mental health benefits, including the social confidence it brings to its players. He also reasons that you are “playing the game against yourself”, in that all golfers are free to explore their own, personal potential, whether trying to get the very best scores in intense competition, or simply playing at your own pace, chipping and putting, enjoying the nature around you. Oliver values both sides of the game. It certainly offers a valuable release in pressure from a job he loves but which can also be stressful. 

Oliver spent years working with children and young people with challenging behaviours, but he found his hip condition, as it worsened, made it very difficult to work physically on the same level as the kids, so he moved on to working with adults with learning disabilities.

“I’m a care manager. I’m manager of a private social care house. I look after a man with learning disabilities. And I absolutely love it. I just love looking after people. I just love people. That’s why I talk people’s heads off,” laughs Oliver.

A focus of 100 per cent is needed, especially in public situations.

“If they are [his clients] walking around in town for example, and there’s a random noise, one that you and I would just hear normally and just pass off as being a random noise, this can spark a really big episode. But then the thing is, it’s not just managing the person you’re looking after, it’s also the people around you because they don’t understand this person… It can be quite difficult and challenging at times.”

The job demands calmness in order to succeed, an attribute that Oliver carries with him onto the golf course.

“Absolutely. I’m pretty calm anyway, to be honest. I just go with the flow. I was enjoying talking to people today when I played golf. The first couple of holes, I double bogeyed the first with the driver… lost my ball. No problem. Moved on to the second, lost my ball off the tee again, ‘doubled’ the second. I was just like, ‘This is golf, this is what happens’.”

Oliver describes himself as very passionate about the things in his orbit, family, friends and golf, but he has learned over the years, partly due to his career, that he must look at each situation on its own merit and deal with it accordingly. 

He laughs: “When I was younger, my putter used to go further than my ball sometimes. But no, there are so many more problems in the world. I love playing well. I’d rather play well than play badly, obviously. But there’s more things happening in my life to worry about than hitting bad golf shots.”

So much so in fact that Oliver clearly enjoys golf as therapy on many occasions.

“I love it. Yes, absolutely love it. Because it’s quiet. Anybody I play with will tell you I never stop talking, because I just love chatting to people. But when I’m on my own, it’s really good. You can just go at your own pace. I usually play in the evenings when the course is really quiet, so I can just go around on my own, at my own pace. I just love it. It just gives you a bit of freedom.”

Oliver Hirst-Greenham lives in Morecambe in the north west of England. When he was very young, he lived briefly in the Art Deco Midland Hotel there, where he remembers an episode of ‘Poirot’ being filmed. His extrovert and somewhat wild personality as a boy led to him being enrolled at Morecambe Golf Club as a way of teaching him that you can be calm and still have fun. It was a valuable golf and life lesson.

The extrovert boy still resides in the adult’s body and mind. Oliver is well-matched by his wife Wendy, a music DJ well-known in the area, and their children, son Matthew, 14, and daughter Olivia, 12. Dad’s infectious sense of fun sees him partial to the occasional foray into Karaoke bars; in family stories it was Wendy’s grandparents who suggested that Oliver apply to the TV talent show ‘Stars in their Eyes’; so he recorded a CD, sent it off and was selected ahead of thousands where he performed his version of the song ‘Amazed’ by Lonestar on the show. Today, Oliver says he has much enjoyed the whole social side of EDGA events, so he won’t rule out taking to the stage at some point in the future and (hopefully!) entertaining his fellow players.  

As for the serious side of competition, to keep his golf to a high standard he acknowledges that he will have to manage his condition well; there is the ever-looming danger of dislocation of his hip joints over time. He must therefore crack the conundrum by managing mobility and pain in the best way. For years he had taken pain relief through prescribed drugs but over time these had caused intense stomach discomfort, which led to him having to take another type of medication for his stomach also. One drug to cancel out the issues of the other. Since joining the EDGA community he has been introduced to single rider golf buggies, and found that his old way of thinking was completely wrong, when he would carry his clubs and be really struggling rather than look like he was asking for favours. However, fellow EDGA players have given him the confidence to push these feelings aside and do what’s best for him, rather than follow social conformities. He has recently purchased a Bugg-Ease golf cart, which he uses at every opportunity, even at home on the local course, to alleviate some of the pressure on his body.

Oliver’s hip condition had developed over time during his younger years and was probably at its worst around aged 20.

“I always had pain in my knees and my hips. When I was younger, I had Osgood-Schlatter disease in my left knee. It’s like the bone’s slightly forward on the lower leg. And as I grew older, that developed into patellar tendinitis.

“I used to do a lot of sports, and I just found when I was playing football, when I was running around, I used to get really uncomfortable hips, but we didn’t know anything about it at that time. I’d be in goals and I’d be kicking balls and I’d get just little pains in my hips. Everyone said it was growing pains, that kind of thing. We never really looked into it.”

Oliver now puts great trust in his hip specialist Dr Clayson, who works at Wrightington Hospital in Lancashire, a specialist centre for hip treatment. He has had plenty of ‘manipulation under general anesthetic’ (MUA) and cortisone injections which offer exceptional relief from pain and aid mobility, but as this benefit fades over the course of a couple of weeks the medics are cautious about repeating general anesthetics too often. For Oliver, to feel more mobile and confident for two weeks is “fantastic” as he finally sleeps well, a luxury many other people take for granted.   

So for Oliver, it comes back to the management of his body. This uncertainty for the future, plus opening his eyes to his potential in EDGA events, means he will push his golf as far as he can go. He dreams of sharing a practice ground with Rory and Tiger and hitting just one drive 350 yards down the range and then putting the club back in the bag (he jokes that a straight one would only be followed by three bad ones).

Oliver has always been a very long hitter off the tee, so much so that 15 years back he was competing in Europe’s longest drive competition, reaching a final in Holland. But the Oliver of today only has designs on controlling the ball better and hitting it straighter.

At his first EDGA tournament at Thonock Park, Oliver, like a few other players, took advantage of the offer of a custom fitting session with PING technicians, as PING’s national fitting centre is on the site at Thonock Park. Oliver labelled this experience as “brilliant” with the staff really helping him to understand what he needs from here to get a better result out of his driver technology.

The thoughtful side of Oliver is also much present when he talks about learning from other golfers. He clearly has a shrewd mind and studies the Tour golfers as he looks for any small swing improvement, for example studying the technique of Lee Westwood as he rates his swing so highly.

At the EDGA Rockliffe Open in July, RSM and EDGA ambassador and Ladies European Tour player Alice Hewson gave her time to present a special clinic on putting. Alice’s attention to detail and the focus she brings to the short game impressed Oliver hugely and he has now taken on her drills and ideas to work much harder, and smarter, on that part of his own game.

From this approach, Oliver leaves this writer with a final thought: “Perhaps the best thing of all about golf is that we are always able to learn something new about ourselves.”

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