“Just because you have Cerebral Palsy doesn’t mean you can’t achieve anything you want to, it just means you have got to find your way of doing it.“
Kipp Popert – tough love and second chances
Kipp Popert has had a golf club in his hands since he was a tiny kid. The game is part of his psyche, and the way he plays his golf helps him to ‘press on’, and meet life’s challenges eye-to-eye.
When a golf club fits in your hands so well growing up, it’s natural to think about your potential, and today Kipp has a serious aim to play on the European Tour. This may seem slightly against the odds on first hearing, given the physical challenges Kipp has faced – he lives with a form of Cerebral Palsy – but talk to the 23 year-old from Kent, England, for any length of time and he shows the personal drive that makes you think, why not?
Kipp lost much time in his teenage years due to multiple surgeries and procedures on his legs and feet: the current count is nine of these. In his school years there was a lot of falling down and picking himself up again, literally. There were a few cruel remarks from some classmates, but he also made the firmest of friends and Kipp today has clearly developed a highly positive mindset, much encouraged by his parents who are both doctors. In short, he says, every day he is able to tell himself to ‘press on’.
And his technique is there. Playing with a compact, rhythmical swing and fine all-round game, this August (2021) he shot a stunning bogey-free six-under-par 66 at Fairmont St Andrews to win the EDGA Hero Open, which was allied to the European Tour’s Hero Open.
This victory would propel Kipp to the number one spot on the World Ranking for Golfers with Disability (WR4GD); a landmark win cheered by all his friends at his nearby Wildernesse Golf Club.
Suddenly people were talking about Kipp Popert.
Meanwhile, his relatively recent discovery of a whole other group of EDGA golfers with disability – who can each play seriously good golf – has also made its mark on Kipp. His EDGA Hero Open victory found him being interviewed by The Guardian newspaper and Sky Sports TV. Here he proved an articulate advocate for inclusive golf, from talking about a wish to see golf in the Paralympics to the game’s potential to encourage more people with disability to try the game and enjoy its health and social benefits.
Kipp was born with Cerebral Palsy, a form called Spastic diplegia, which impairs the muscular movement in his legs.
“I was born 10 weeks premature and from what my parents tell me, a little bit of oxygen didn’t get to the back of my brain, so it didn’t develop properly. This meant that I have the condition Cerebral Palsy and the specific form is called Spastic diplegia. The spastic in the name comes from the spasticity in the muscles, so my muscles in my lower half are very tight, very contracted, which means mobility is an issue.”
Kipp adds: “I was so fortunate to have two parents who are doctors because since day one they have told me that I can do whatever I want in life, and my Dad is a surgeon, a urologist, so he knew doctors who specialised in helping children with Cerebral Palsy.”
Through these difficult early years, Kipp’s parents Richard and Lindsey enjoyed great support and advice from expert medical friends and apart from the surgery. Constant stretching exercises all through his life, including being encouraged by his teachers at junior school, have played a key role in ensuring he can reach his potential mobility-wise.
The surgeries included two highly complex ones to completely restructure his right foot (2016) and then his left foot (2018). These took him away from his beloved golf course for months at a time but on the flip-side they played a great part in allowing Kipp to find more mobility, strength and balance in his swing.
But it all meant lost time as a boy, missing out with friends too often. Kipp can clearly remember finishing his GCSE’s at 16 and then the day after his birthday having his foot surgery that put him four months inside at home in the summer while all his mates were out enjoying the sunshine playing golf and cricket.
An early family story of another type of exclusion came when he wasn’t picked for a junior football team.
“The school gave the reason that they didn’t want me to get hurt, and I remember being in that football group and the team was picked and they all went to this match and I didn’t go. That was the first time I felt a bit excluded in a way, but it was something that was instilled in me by my parents, I had this feeling of let’s sort it out, do everything to make the team in future and not have this feeling again. It drives you when other people have stopped you doing what you want to do, to prove to them and yourself that you can.”
While there were tough moments for him in secondary school, Kipp’s bright and talkative nature and the skill and effort he showed in sport meant that he was valued by a core group of good friends. Joe Irvine, the school’s ‘top player in everything’, gave Kipp the respect on the football field he deserved by always trying to beat him in the tackle. Kipp describes him as a best mate, and though Joe never took it easy on him he was always the first to pick him up when he fell down. The pair have remained close friends to this day.
Kipp was single-minded in work too at Bethany School, and thanks teachers Miss Harper, Mr Norman and Mr Khan for being inspirational figures in his learning (Miss Harper would allow him to be in the classroom at 6am every day to sketch out his revision on the whiteboard before breakfast).
This drive has helped him reach a golf handicap today of +4.1. If a future on the European Tour is ‘Plan A’ (and he is well aware how challenging a goal this is), Kipp has already worked hard to lay out a possible good Plan B. He is a former R&A Foundation scholar and last summer he completed the Applied Golf Management Studies programme with The PGA at Birmingham University, recording a healthy 2:1 grade.
The love of his Mum and Dad and his siblings has played a big part in all this, including mutual support with his sisters Skye (aged 21), who is a physiotherapist, and Mitzi, 15 (who is aiming for the West End!), and younger brother Cole (18), a talented artist who has just started at the University of Art, London.
But there is also a special mantra that is well used across the whole family, none more so than by Kipp. His paternal Grandfather John would say, “Press on, independently”, or ‘Press on’ for short. Kipp says this really stuck with him and he repeats it in his head all the time. So… Foot sore on the golf course (Press on), win an event (Press on), bad result (Press on), major operation (Press on). This allows Kipp to work towards the bigger picture, and he always starts the day ‘pressing on’.
He must find more courage as he needs to continue working hard to be able to walk longer courses by foot without the fatigue that would impact on his performance, rather than use a buggy. This continues to be a challenge but Kipp believes one he might conquer.
Kipp says: “Having to have operations and then start again, it definitely makes you resilient.
“It is a powerful force being at a disadvantage at the start, because you learn that you have to work hard to achieve what you want, be it just getting out of bed in the morning and walking to the shower with your muscles tight. I think it gives you that drive and that work ethic that you can become whatever you want to be in life.
“Just because you have Cerebral Palsy doesn’t mean you can’t achieve anything you want to, it just means you have got to find your way of doing it, and when you do find a way, and when you come through the setback, you’re going to be a more dominant force, including mentally.”
There are family stories of Kipp sitting on his Father’s knee as a baby, gazing together at a video film about the great Bobby Jones and watching his swing.
“When I started walking at three or four, the first thing I did was swing a golf club. As a baby you just absorb everything. For some reason I could just do it and I’ve seen pictures and to be honest it looks better at impact than it is now!”
Father and his other grandfather Ian took three-year-old Kipp to The Open at Royal Lytham & St Annes in 2001. On a practice day, with Kipp happily chipping a ball with his sand wedge on toddler’s legs, a passing BBC camera crew asked if they could film the youngster, who ended up as part of a short montage on golf’s past, present and perhaps future champions as seen on national television before the live play. Starring in this clip with Tiger Woods was a promising start.
Kipp began to realise in his teens that the individual challenge of golf was perhaps more practical than continuing competitively in the team games he enjoyed with his friends.
“There is no better feeling when you have been in hospital or in a bed at home for two months when you can’t walk, and then just hitting a putt, it just feels amazing, stuff you take for granted, like just playing golf with my Dad I guess.”
Kipp adds: “I love how with golf you don’t need anyone to practise with, but the biggest thing for me is you can’t be good because of other people and you can’t be bad because of other people, it’s all down to you. Basically, the determination I’ve got, I’ve always had. I’ve always wanted to better myself and golf is just what I measure it on.”
Kipp joined Wildernesse Golf Club as a junior aged 11, and hasn’t looked back. He is full of praise for everyone at the club. As a boy in the clubhouse he would keep seeing a name, ‘Richard Partridge’ on every honours board (he’d learn he is a legend of Kent and English amateur golf) and he started to picture his own name joining on the boards. Kipp achieved this daydream in 2019 while actually playing in the same group as Richard, making five birdies in seven holes to help get his name up there.
He was first coached properly as a boy by Matt Newman and then his next coach was Howard Bonaccorsi, at the Kent Golf Academy. Though they have recently gone their separate ways Kipp says he has Howard’s straightforward guidance in his head every time he plays.
This summer Kipp has been pleased with progress, reaching the semi-final of the Kent Amateur for the second year in a row. This August he finished 22nd in the Brabazon and 15th in the Irish Amateur Open Championship, and in neither event did he bring his ‘best stuff’ as he calls it, so he feels more confident about what he might do when he has a good run at these events in 2022.
So Plan A is still on. Meanwhile, in 2019 he happened to see an EDGA event on TV, in Scotland, and he was suddenly drawn to other golfing opportunities.
“I was watching on Sky Sports, the EDGA Scottish Open, and that was the first time… I remember just watching and did not expect it at all, and you see people just striping shots with one arm, and I thought this was the coolest thing, but also maybe that’s something I can get into. The other disability athletes, growing up, they probably didn’t realise there were other people like them.”
As a result, he entered the end of year EDGA event in the Algarve, Portugal, and he was amazed by the experience. Kipp said he was “blown away” by seeing a one armed golfer on the practice range hitting controlled draws with a mid iron, and he was then welcomed as part of the gang when he played with two excellent EDGA players, Adem Wahbi of Belgium (who also has Cerebral Palsy) and Jiri Jandra of the Czech Republic (leg impairment).
“Growing up in school or university, there’s always that inkling in your mind and in perhaps everyone else’s that he can’t be a good golfer, because of his disability, and being judged before I have had a chance. And that was the beauty of the Algarve event, that everyone’s been through that so they know to be kind and accepting of everyone and it felt like I somehow belonged in a way.”
Kipp adds: “It was just nice to be in an environment where you’re with other people who have been through setbacks and used golf to help them. I think it’s a powerful thing for anyone with a setback to have a goal, be it playing tennis, football, or music or just something to focus your energy on.”
The Algarve event made Kipp look at the World Ranking (WR4GD) and envisage his name near the top, but he knew it would be a real challenge to get there. By 2021 he had risen to number 26 in the world after good form which saw him win the English Open for Golfers with a Disability earlier in the summer.
Then came the landmark win in Scotland in the EDGA Hero Open which saw Kipp rise to number one in the Ranking following that spectacular 66. His faultless round included a memorable birdie, birdie finish on the challenging course set-up, which eight qualifying EDGA players shared with the stars of the European Tour in this linked event, courtesy of everyone at the European Tour.
Kipp clearly relishes the physical and mental struggle that is seeing him be the best he can possibly be.
“There’s beauty in the struggle I guess… The tip I would give is never let anyone else set your goals for you, never let anyone else limit what you can achieve.
“If you listen to every successful person that has ever achieved anything… their one tip is always you can be what you want to be. And that they are there not because of how talented they were, but because they were the kid who didn’t give up.”
Looking ahead, Kipp has set his sights on the famous amateur championships in the UK, the proving ground for many of the game’s great players, and also playing smaller professional events as an amateur. He will then consider turning professional in late 2022, aiming his sights on the European Tour’s Qualifying School.
It is only in the last two years that he has been able to fully focus on golf, free from time-consuming medical procedures.
Can he now make Plan A work?. Well… “Press on.”
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