“Golf is all my life because all my life is around golf. My holidays, my work, my wife has started to play golf, all my family is playing golf with me, and it’s like I am in a wider family of golf.“
Listen to the story Tommaso Perrino who was talking with EDGA’s Tony Bennett.
For Tommaso Perrino, golf is like the soil under your fingernails. His passion and vivid imagination for the game has turned life in his golf community into, what he calls, a “spectacular garden”: a place where he can be happy.
As a lad, he could really play and feared no-one. Second in the Italian Juvenile Championship at 14 years of age, just two years after starting the game, and champion of the Boys’ event at 16. Then, he earned the respect of future Open Champion Francesco Molinari, when he took him to the 18th hole in an epic encounter in a match in the year 2000.
But instead of becoming a top Tour player, Tommaso has become a leading coach, something a great many golfers all over Italy – his loyal customers – remain intensely grateful for to this day.
It had been a glittering start, but by the time this young man from Livorno in Tuscany was 18, he had more to deal with than simply first tee nerves, short putts or missed cuts. A severe leg injury in a motorbike smash, a near fatal viral infection in that leg, followed by deeply frustrating bureaucratic barriers, all combined to put an end to any daydream of lifting the Claret Jug (a dream he shared with Molinari, and we know how it played out for Francesco).
Even as a teenager Tommaso had been attracted to coaching, for he loved playing and talking about the game so much, and his own family had become immersed in golf and life at his golf club. His family and friends clearly mean the world to him. This close-knit circle, and the considerable work ethic he first showed when practising as a boy, allied to a clear joy for life and ready laugh, have combined to make a great recipe to create a coach that truly stands out: Tommaso is, like the best Chianti wine in his region, ‘Classico’.
Today, when Tommaso wanders through the Cosmopolitan Golf and Beach Resort near Pisa in Tuscany, on his way to the practice range or academy office, the members clearly love to speak with him. For them he is every inch the Head Professional. As with a three-starred Michelin chef in the spotless kitchen ready for service, or the renowned surgeon scrubbing up for theatre, the respect doesn’t just happen overnight. It takes years to get there.
A measure of the admiration in which he is held came after Tommaso received an invitation to play in the Italian Open, last October (at Chervo Golf Club, Lake Garda), his first European Tour event at the age of 39. The hundreds of messages of good luck he received from club members and friends underlined what his own golf community – his “spectacular garden” – thinks of this warm-hearted man.
Tommaso said: “I started to play golf at this club when I was 12 and I have remained here all my life. All the people have been good to me, the love and support they now offer me as a coach in lessons is great. It felt like all the club wanted to come to the Italian Open to support me but they could not of course. My wife Giulia said a thousand people have written to wish you well!
“It’s because if a person comes to me for a lesson I work hard for them: I put every ball by hand on the floor for every one of my students. I watch the video I make that same night and the day after I say, ‘Yesterday evening I watched you – the right leg is moving a lot and we have to work on that!’ ”
Tommaso fell in love with golf when encouraged by his father, Luca, and his uncle. “My father and his brother were the first to play, with Andrea my cousin starting to play when he was eight years old. I liked it immediately and for the next two years I practised more I think than any other guy in the world.”
It was a supportive family. His Grandfather, Giuseppe, came from a humble background but was a man ‘rich in life’ who worked hard and enjoyed cycling as his sport. Cousin Andrea would go on to qualify to play on the European Tour itself and he has enjoyed an exciting career as both player and coach; he is Tommaso’s own coach today.
Tommaso played in the Italian Juvenile Championship at 14 and came second, to Andrea himself. Two years later he won the title. He was noticed by national selectors and was competing successfully alongside now European Tour players Matteo Manassero, Francesco Laporta, and Francesco and Edoardo Molinari. He was that good, and was taken by the Italian Golf Federation to Scotland as guests of The R&A for further training and an introduction to the challenges of links golf.
His competitive steel was highlighted in the Italian Championship Match Play when after he just qualified in the medal rounds – including a 79 (Francesco Molinari scored a 64 in one of these rounds) – Tommaso then took the future Open Champion to the 18th green in the match play stage. He remains friends with the Molanari brothers and describes Francesco as the ‘golden boy’.
“Eduardo was great but he is a great worker. For Francesco, everything was easy for him,” recalls Tomasso. “I remember in our match that he scored three birdies on the 13th, 14th and 15th and I managed only one, and he won on the 18th. For me there had been pressure because he had played the other rounds in 64 and 75. When he won, he said Tommaso was the only one who took him to the 18th. And for me that was great.”
Then, just at his peak as a teenager, Tommaso faced a dark ‘Intervallo’ (intermission) in his life.
At the age of 17 in 2001, Tommaso was riding on his scooter at 45kph in a built-up area of town when he was hit by a speeding car believed to be going at 70kph; the driver sped away from the scene. Tommaso lay on the road for around 20 minutes before an ambulance could reach him. He lost so much blood that he nearly died in the road.
However, at hospital, they got the bleeding under control and the medics were assessing a broken leg. He was going to be alright but some shattered bone had to be removed and his leg was weakened and would be just a little shorter. They discharged him saying that he should return for a second operation in a while which would improve things further.
In the time out of hospital, Tommaso worked incredibly hard with a physiotherapist, exercising every day. He played in a key tournament using a crutch to get around the course (he was not allowed the use of a golf cart) and though the four rounds were held over two days (a gruelling 36 holes a day), Tommaso and crutch completed the event with rounds of 77, 78, 74 and 74.
But life on a crutch would clearly be far too difficult to consider making it professionally, so further surgery was necessary. Then, and now, Tommaso is very disappointed in the powers-that-be who refused to let him use a golf cart so that he could concentrate on his play, rather than limping the fairways with the crutch.
It was the second operation that led to disaster. All started well when 18 steel pins were inserted into his leg to strengthen it and make both limbs of equal size again. But he spent a whole year in hospital, weeks at a time on the ward, and was allowed home for just a few days at a time.
After all this effort, he was struck down with a life-threatening viral infection in the leg, enduring a rocketing fever that both he and his mother Francesca feared would kill him; it was a close thing. His body fought back and won, and the virus retreated to a small area of the bone where it exists even now, controlled by medication he has taken for over a decade. “Now we live together,” Tommaso says of this virus.
It was a hugely challenging time for Tommaso and his family over three years of treatment, just to cope and get stronger physically was difficult, while his dreams of reaching the top of professional golf started to fade away rapidly.
Tommaso said: “I say Mama, before all this I played golf and for the last three years all I could think about was playing golf again. The passion I had for beating the fever was to get my life back to normal again. I missed my friends at this time which is difficult… What were they thinking and speaking about? It felt strange to get back into that life and then meet up with my friends, who all feel they don’t know me quite as well. I felt I lost a lot of time.” Of course, his close family rallied around, as did those friends, and the game he adored was still very much there for him when he started to get well again.
Tommaso has a natural charm and feeling of goodwill towards others which is readily apparent when he talks to you. These skills, allied to his deep passion for golf, joined up to make him a natural candidate for forging a great career as a coach. And perhaps because of his accident and illness, his golf club, the Cosmopolitan resort, offered a genuine sanctuary for him at an important time. He has been there now for over 20 years and coached there for 13.
“Golf is all my life because all my life is around golf. My holidays, my work, my wife has started to play golf, all my family is playing golf with me, and it’s like I am in a wider family of golf. I go to my club and there are my friends and my cousin Andrea and it is like a little world for me. Sometimes my father says, ‘Tommaso you live too much within golf and you don’t understand enough about how the world is outside of golf.’
“For me, I live in a spectacular garden that is the golf course, where the people are friendly, there is never a great problem, and I don’t see the real problems of the life outside.”
It takes a certain philosophical outlook to realise this. For a great many sports people their working life can become something of a privilege, but those who can recognise this seem to remain free of the ego that can cause arrogance. A privileged position is best when hard-earned, with passion and teamwork.
As a coach, Tommaso has never stood still; his great capacity to learn has led him to thrive in the role. He enjoyed and remembers learning the game from two highly respected Italian coaches: the renowned Filippo Barbe, starting back in his teens, and then a second coach, Donato Di Ponziano, was an invaluable support to him throughout his twenties. Other key influences have been his cousin Andrea of course, who is his coach today, while Mauro Ravinetto was a very important mentor, and then afterwards Carlo Basciu, who is like a brother to Tommaso, and who introduced him to the work of top American coaches to extend his knowledge further.
Today, Tommaso is the Technical Director of the Italian Golf Federation’s national team for players with a disability, and he knows all too well that golf can be a highly positive and inclusive sport for a great many people. “It is a situation that can change your life for the best. Because you can learn with many other people and make many friends, you can have a chance to stay in a good environment, with good people – playing golf to make you happy. And then you can have another chance in your life. You can take your time, you can have one month or two years to understand this game but every person can do that.
“The person that has a problem at the start, they think their world is finished, but golf gives the opportunity to have a smile in their life. They must start to think like that, and I think I can help this person because I have a power inside that I want to give them, so they can arrive at the positive situation I have in my own mind.”
So Tommaso is progressing well as a coach. End of story? Well, not quite. Just as he assumed his cut-and-thrust competitive days were well behind him, a couple of years back he discovered EDGA, and its tournaments for players with disability.
He said: “In 2019, someone said to me, why don’t you play in EDGA – and I say what is EDGA? I don’t know this area of golf. And then I saw, and I said yes immediately. ‘When is the first tournament?’ I ask. They say it’s an Open, in three weeks, and I played in it. Then I started to play in more EDGA events and I was happy for that. It’s a second chance in my life to play and compete and I say thank you every day for [Tony Bennett and his team’s work] that helps us to have a chance to play another time.”
Most excitingly, Tommaso’s second bite at competitive golf hasn’t been only in EDGA events. In October 2020, he was invited to play in the Italian Open, his first European Tour event, after all this time. What was that like for him?
“Ah, it was great. Also, because they called me only four, five days before, and for me it was special that they called me, it was unbelievable. My heart was pumping very hard and I start to practise for three days, I think I hit 2,000 balls. I tried to do my best, but I hadn’t practised in the summer because of my work and there was no EDGA tournaments, so I was not perfect. But I worked with Andrea. He was great and he gave me the power to take part in this tournament because he played in it twice and he knows many players and it was like a little family. I was accepted into this family easily, and for me it was special because all my life I wanted to do this, I thought I could do this. But in 2001 when I was broken, I say, it’s finished, my experience in the great golf of the European Tour. So to be able to play one tournament was unbelievable.”
When Tommaso had endured all his troubles as a young man, he felt he didn’t get the support he needed from some of the people running the game in his country. Not only were they slow to help him with provision of a golf cart while he was trying to rehabilitate, indeed one national bureaucrat told him simply that golf was over for him and he was “stupid” to think otherwise. Tomasso says: “After the Italian Open, I wrote an email and said, ‘Do you remember when you thought I can’t play and should stop playing golf, and I was a stupid person? Well I made it and I can tell the world. This has been the best win I have had in my life.”
With very little practice, and with all the nerves and the strong emotions affecting him after all these years when he thought back to his youth, this writer thinks that Tommaso going out to shoot 75 and 76 in the Italian Open was a triumph of skill, willpower, family life and love for the whole game. This lad can still really play, and the spectacular garden is in full bloom.
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