In his weekly Limerick Leader column, Ivan Morris plays with Tony Brouder, the wheelchair golfer from Newcastle West.
Off the white tee, the Index 1, 16th hole at NCW is a 397-yards dogleg, uphill, par 4. Tony Brouder drove his ball 180 yards dead straight. It didn’t quite reach the turn, leaving an awkward, constricted, second shot.
No bother, Tony caressed a deadly accurate, fairway metal through the gap to within 50 yards of the green. A sweetly floated chip pulled up 12 feet short and Tony missed the putt for par by a millimeter. “So what?” I hear you say, especially when I had to listen to a ‘cudda, shudda, wudda been four-stableford points’ routine that one hears from every other disappointed golfer who plays this frustrating game. Except for one thing - Tony plays golf out of a wheelchair.
Disabled sport enjoys a high profile these days. In golf, it has advanced to the stage that the Annual Disabled British Open was held for the fifth time at Ufford GC in East Anglia last week with participants traveling from far and wide to claim their version of the claret jug.
Before he set out on a grueling 13-hour journey by sea and road, I had met County Limerick’s DBO representative hard at practice at Newcastle West Golf Club. To watch Tony being hoisted upright at the touch of a button in order to take a swing at a ball, is quite extraordinary. When he whips the ball away as sweet as a nut and with such obvious glee, it leaves one feeling dumbfounded and humbled. What guts! What hand speed! What timing! What fun he is having!
The former construction foreman’s achievement is a fairytale come true - not least because Tony only took up golf after he was tragically rendered paraplegic from the waist down six years ago. The plot thickens when Tony admits that he did not participate in any sporting activities in his able-bodied life. “No time; too busy working,” he laughs.
“Hanging around at home, on my own, and feeling sorry for myself wasn’t much fun. To help cheer me up, my cousin, Eddie Brouder, often came to visit me. Eddie, who is a keen 7-handicapper at Newcastle West GC, introduced me to watching golf on TV even though it was the furthest thing from my mind back then.
“Watching golf with Eddie changed my attitude and I began to understand the game. With the encouragement of my partner, Michelle, who had nursed me through my darkest days, I began hankering to be out in the open again, having a bit of craic. I thought I’d like to give golf a try. But, how would I get around the course? How would I manage to make a swing?
“Trawling the Internet, I found an engineering company, Ottobock, dedicated to improving the mobility of disabled people. They invited me over to Birmingham to try out one of their hi-tech, custom-designed wheelchairs for paraplegic golfers.
“I spent a whole day testing it. I wanted to be sure I’d be able to play ‘proper golf.’ In my innocence, I did not realize that this wouldn’t happen without putting in hours and hours of practice and having ‘Patient Eddie’ standing by acting as my coach.
“I was always a single-minded bloke, so when Eddie took me to the golf course at Ardagh, I was prepared to work hard. The determination and practice paid off. Last year, I went from 40 to 26-handicap and won Golfer of the Year - something way beyond my wildest dreams. Before I discovered golf, I was the most impatient person you ever met. Golf is a great game for teaching patience. Golf has given me a new life.
“Derek Murray of ForeGolf at Killeen Castle kindly sponsored and built a special set of clubs for me. The shafts are longer than standard and as light as can be made, 39-gms, instead of the standard 110-gms.
“Disabled golfers play exactly the same rules and off the same tees as other golfers. The exception is, for ‘health and safety’ reasons, wheelchair players are allowed a free drop out a pot bunker (not a flat bottomed one) or from a side hill lie if the chair could be in danger of toppling over.”
Playing a few holes with Tony was an education but I should not allow the occasion to pass without saying that the course at Ardagh is in superb condition and going from strength to strength. Some minor changes on the back nine are blending in beautifully and the members can be as proud of their course as they are of their fellow-member, Tony Brouder, who returned from England with the East Anglia Trophy, which was presented to the best placed wheelchair golfer in a field of 20; mission accomplished.
Tony also came third overall, nine points behind the overall winner, a leg amputee. By no means could an amputee be considered as difficult a handicap to overcome as playing out of a wheelchair but that’s being picky. They are all winners in my book.
Words of the wise
Golf is a game comprehensive enough to satisfy the different tastes of those who are by nature imaginative; of those who are intensely rational; or, in the third instance, of those who regard it as an activity to be dealt with politically, controlled and regulated as a matter of statecraft - Tom Simpson