Special Olympics Golf: Growing the Game Through Inclusion and Why I Love the Game

Special Olympics Golf: Growing the Game Through Inclusion and Why I Love the Game
Special Olympics Golf: Growing the Game Through Inclusion and Why I Love the Game

QUICK NOTE: Special Olympics Fall Games are being conducted over the next couple of weeks at the state level. If you wish to save yourself the reading of the bit long winded story that follows, I encourage you to attend one of the games, go check out the golf competition, and you can see everything I share below with your own eyes and ears and heart.

The mission of Special Olympics is to provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community.

After a four-year emailing campaign, the Special Olympics Virginia, Area 13 Golf Team participated in a competition for the first time since prior to COVID. On a beautiful Sunday morning at the Sandy Bottom Park Par 3 nine-hole course in Bridgewater VA (see the nearby Air Park whose runway ends a wedge shot from the first green and second tee), six members of the Area 13 Golf Team and two members of the Area 3 Golf Team, participated in a competition of two nine-hole rounds as part of the Shenandoah Regional Super Games.

Cheered on by family, loved ones, and volunteer students from Bridgewater College’s Alternate Education programs, the golfers battled through tough wind and even tougher course conditions. A five-dollar Honor Box at the first tee is going to provide little if any budget to maintaining course conditions, but that did not matter today. Today I was a proud coach of all eight golfers, but nothing gave me more pride than caddying for my son and watching him play golf. The same golf I play. The same golf I see on television.

Like any Father or parent, I had grand dreams of what my son, or daughter, would one day become. Being an avid sports fan and having grown up competing in athletics, those dreams for my son often involved him making it to the highest levels of professional sports. He would be the one to break the Curse of the Bambino for my beloved Boston Red Sox. He would be the one on the 12th tee at Augusta, Sunday at The Masters. I would be the proud parent who guided their child through life and helped them achieve their loftiest dreams.

April 2003, life brought me back down to reality sooner than it does most parents, when my son was diagnosed with Autism at the age of three. The word perspective is heard a lot in golf circles these days, and it is usually invoked in relation to a professional golfer having their first child. Except for those who have unfortunately experienced it, one cannot properly describe the emotions one goes through when a physician gives you that type of diagnosis for your child. Your only thought is fear. Fear for your child. Every thought is a scary one for your child. Attempting to contemplate what this means for your child’s future is overwhelming and impossible. Often times it destroys marriages. Destroys families. All those dreams you had for your child and you as a parent are dashed with such finality. The thought of having your child born with a disability is something every parent considers and worries about, but I, like them, with our partners, never said I only want a child if … There is no fine print, and you do not get to put any in.

I signed up to be a parent and a father, and believing I would be the best ever, and giving my children amazing lives and helping them reach their dreams and goals. I remember in a moment of reflection thinking after the diagnosis, this does not change anything. I can still be the best dad ever. I can still give my son an amazing life. I can still have the highest of expectations for my son in life, and while the dreams and goals may not be the same, they will still be as lofty, if not more. And we will chase them.

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And we have. I have been blessed to see my son step out on a little league baseball field with his fellow Challenger Division teammates, and watch him as my father watched me. And playing for his team the Dulles Little League Red Sox. I have seen him earn a black belt in Taekwondo when everyone told us he would not be able to. He has a regular job at the local grocery store. And now, having a front row seat, caddying for him as he competes in a golf competition.

Golf has had an unexpected influence on my life since I was seven and picked up the game when my Father bought me a used set of clubs to play at the community golf course. The driver shaft was warped, but I loved swinging it. I always felt like I could buggy whip it and allow me to swing faster. I remember my first birdie on a par-3 with a range ball I picked up from the driving range where I got paid five bucks to come out and pick up using just one of those hand picker shag bags. My current employment with the Marine Toys for Tots charity came about because I met one of the former Vice Presidents when they happened to be picking up golf. They learned I played regularly and it eventually led to a situation where I was offered and accepted a job while the two of us were playing a round. I met my wife while she was a bay host at TopGolf. Golf has weaved its way through my life, but often in very important areas of my life. Each time the outcome has been for the better. As a special needs parent, when you find something that helps you connect and teach your child, you find ways to encorporate that in your child’s life even more.

My golf journey with my son started by just bringing my son along with me and riding in the cart while I played nine or eighteen holes depending on his tolerance level that day. Shifted to him tagging along with me to the driving range and getting his small bucket of balls and kid length driver. His participation with me kept growing, and the coordination he had acquired from playing little league allowed for some quick improvements in his golf game. It was very obvious that golf was that piece of the puzzle I was looking for my son’s future. I wanted to find interests he could keep for the rest of his life. Or just as importantly, interests we could both share. An activity that is disability friendly. An individual activity, but that allows for an actual one-on-one teacher or coach to be right there for support. A sport that can be taught at the most basic level, but also can be played at the most basic level as our golfers did at the Sandy Bottom Par 3 golf course, or the weekly Saturday morning practices at the driving range, putting green, and yes, putt-putt course. A sport where my son can share the field of competition with his typical peers similar to the handful of college kids that were out playing amongst our groups Sunday morning. A sport that almost literally requires the same motion be on repeat, and compliments the way their minds work and learn. Baseball will not work. Football definitely not. Pretty much every major sport requires a level of coordination, teamwork, and cognitive processing that our athletes cannot compete. The only sport this will really work with is golf.

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In 2019 I began reaching out to the local Special Olympics about my son participating in golf as an athlete. He was aging out of Little League Challengers, and we had begun putting more emphasis on his golf with an eye at him competing in 2020. COVID changed that plan, and changed it for 2021 and 2022 also, as each of those three years the season was cancelled as well. But if you are going to be the best Dad ever you cannot be deterred so easily. This year, 2023, I see a response to one of my inquiries about the golf season, and like a kid opening a college acceptance letter I quickly scan for the answer, and there it finally is.

We are excited to re-establish golf as an official Special Olympics sport in Area 13

Fine print … We are in need of coaches for this sport.

I have played golf recreationally since the early eighties. Took a couple lessons at a local driving range when I grade school age. Never broken 80. Have shot 80 around a dozen times. Never had a hole in one. Do not keep a handicap. My minimum goal for a round of golf is seventeen bogeys and a par to break 90. I did not know if I could teach golf to my son, but I knew I could coach him and knew how to coach him, and I thought it gave me as good a chance as any person to attempt to coach these athletes and allow them to participate, and have fun while doing it. What I lack in coaching experience I can hopefully make up with enthusiasm and effort. We were hoping for a foursome of athletes our first year. We were excited to have up to eleven golfers rotate through the team this year. The six that competed on Sunday will also be representing Area 13 at the Special Olympics Virginia State Games taking place in Virginia Beach VA, November 4th and 5th at Virginia Beach National Golf Club. While the course conditions will be demonstrably tougher than the Sandy Bottom Par 3, our golfers are going, and they will compete.

As a special needs parent, the one thing I chase the most in life is the opportunity to experience being a typical parent for and with my son. I am also blessed with an amazing daughter who is typical and provided me with many of those experiences, but it is obviously different in relation to my son. His mother and I can tell you in great detail when many of these experiences happened and how. They are that powerful, and they provide hope to the families for their disabled loved ones. Most importantly they help you keep going by giving you hope. To push you to never stop being the best parent you can be, and giving your child the best life possible, with the best memories.

The energy and emotion of the event on Sunday will not soon be forgotten. You could hear the cheers across the course from the families and supporters walking along with their golfers. I myself was caught up in the moment walking side by side with my son down each hole. Carrying his bags, clubbing him, reading his putts. I’m cheering, I’m coaching, I’m completely dialed in. Yelling at balls in the air, putts tracking towards the cup. Reacting with each swing or stroke. I stood on the first tee and could look out over the entire nine holes and watching these golfers, who many thought could never “play” golf. Whose own families may have doubted it. Not anymore. There were great shots made, sick up and downs, birdie bombs, and flag seeking approaches.

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After the round, we gathered all the golfers on the first tee. A sweet backdrop with the commercial Air Park in the background. We presented all the golfers with medals of participation. We did keep score, but it is not what matters. It may be cliche, but each of these golfers was a winner the first step they took onto the first tee.

After the medal presentation, we gathered the golfers and coaches for a group photo. Standing on the first tee with the golfers, and looking out at the group of parents, family members, loved ones, and volunteers taking pictures of the group and seeing their smiles and the joy in their faces it provided great perspective. To see the pride in their eyes and heart. I knew I was experiencing the exact same emotions in that moment they were, and you cannot help but just be so damn happy for them. Certainly proud of myself, but humble, that I was able to help these folks have a moment of normalcy. A moment where they can see their athlete, participate like any other athlete. A moment where they can feel like any other proud parent. I have only ever seen this possible in golf.

None of our athletes will every hit a home run in Fenway Park. None will play a rally on Wimbledon Centre Court or score the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl. But they can make a sandie on the 16th at Waste Management (shout out to Amy Bockerstette, Special Olympics Athlete). They can play St. Andrews. My son can play a best ball or alternate shot format with me at Bethpage. They can also plunk one in the pond at TPC Sawgrass. Only golf can provide this type of access to the highest levels of a major sport to Special Olympics athletes. Only golf provides this type of access to anyone who wants to play the game of all abilities and ages. It is only golf that makes these types of moments possible for these parents and families.

As a sports romantic, my fandom comes from experiencing the memorable moments in sports history and the emotions they invoked. My love of sports comes from the spirit and excitement of competing in sports and cheering on those competing. Especially if they are your child. It may not have been the most famous of sports venues, but on Sunday, at Sandy Bottom Park, each one of those Special Olympic athletes felt like they were in one of those venues. As they watched their kids play golf, all of the parents experienced the same level of pride and emotion that any professional athlete’s parents experience when watching them.

Golf gave me one of the proudest moments as a parent on Sunday, and 18 of the most unforgettable holes of golf in my life. It was not on a professional tour, and I did not hit a shot.

Matt McDonald

PS – If you want to add to the equipment/distance discussion I can share a story of what happened when I put a 460cc driver in these kids hands for the first time. Wow!

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