August 23, 2016

The Ride of His Life

A broken neck and the loss of an arm can't keep former jockey Peter Walsh from his golf
Photo by Nils Ericson

When Peter Walsh walks down the street of his adopted hometown of Middleburg, Va., children will occasionally stop and stare up at his empty shirt-sleeve and ask, "What happened to your arm?"

Walsh will smile and respond, "God took it. He needed an extra hand."

A native of Ireland and one-time renowned steeplechase jockey, Walsh competed in races like Great Britain's dangerous Grand National steeplechase over huge jumps at Aintree as well as all the best races in Europe and America. He also loved to play golf, a game he took up after moving to the United States, along with riding the horses he trains as a farm manager on a Northern Virginia estate.

This past January, Walsh made what he insisted was not such a difficult decision to have his right arm amputated, a choice he preferred over having it hang uselessly as what he described as "dead weight." How that surgery came about also requires a flashback to a day more than two years ago when he was out fox-hunting—yet another risky pursuit—with friends in Richmond, Va.

Walsh does not remember much about that frightening February 2014 morning when the horse he was riding took off galloping in deep woods after its bridle broke. It was a young, green hunter in full-sprint panic mode, and there was nothing Walsh could do but try to hang on.

To this day, he's still not sure what happened, but when one of his fellow riders eventually found him, Walsh was on the ground, bleeding and unconscious next to a fallen tree. When he regained consciousness several minutes later, he knew he was seriously injured, and when he was transported to the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center in Richmond, he learned just how badly he was hurt.

His neck was broken and so was his jaw, with a total of 30 broken or fractured bones (including 14 ribs), most on his right side, which apparently had smashed into that tree when he flew off the horse. His wife, Haley, immediately drove down to Richmond from their home in Middleburg, 50 miles west of Washington, D.C. Walsh was in surgery for several hours as doctors worked on repairing his neck.

The two weeks Walsh spent in the hospital remain a blur, as is another week in a Richmond rehab center. He'd also suffered serious head trauma and was taken north to the MedStar Washington Hospital Center to continue recovering. He was allowed to go home two days after Easter 2014, almost three months after his horrific fall.

"Even through everything," he says, "I was always thinking about how am I going to ride again, and how am I going to play golf again? I had played a lot of golf before the accident. I was down to an 8 [handicap]. I was pretty much an addict about it. And golf was a good reason to keep pushing in rehab so I could maybe play again."

A native of Dublin, Walsh had won a number of big professional steeplechase races in America after he moved here full time in 1985. He and Haley, who worked with racehorses and hunters, met when both were living in Unionville, Pa., at farms across the road from each other. They married in 1990, and he retired from the racing circuit in 1999.

After the accident, the broken neck had been repaired without leading to full paralysis, but the nerves in that area had been damaged and could not be fixed, leaving him without the use of his right arm.

Ride horses and play golf again?

Not likely.

To most everyone except Peter Walsh.

"I've known a lot of tough guys in my life, and this guy is as tough as a $2 steak," says Wayne VanSant of Middleburg, a low-handicapper and occasional Walsh golf partner. "He's also a superior athlete. If he's going to play golf, believe me, he's going to figure it out." And so far, he has.

Photo by Nils Ericson

Peter Walsh with Otis (foreground) and Finnegan at Dencrest Farm.

'MAYBE I COULD PLAY GOLF AGAIN'
When Walsh returned home after Easter 2014, he continued rehabbing with a local physical therapist, Del Wilson, also an avid golfer. In an early session, Wilson handed Walsh a putter and put down a gizmo that shoots the ball back if it goes in the cup.

"I kept knocking them in one-handed," Walsh says. "Del couldn't believe it. I think he did it for psychological reasons, too. It planted a seed that maybe I could play golf again."

Wilson had taken lessons from PGA of America professional Mark Guttenberg, who is director of instruction at the Raspberry Golf Academy at Bull Run Golf Club in Haymarket, Va. Guttenberg had some experience working with disabled golfers, particularly amputee military veterans, and Wilson recommended that Walsh seek him out to see if he could help him start playing again.

"Del called me and said, 'I have a patient of mine I'd like you to see. He used to play golf, and I think you can get him motivated to play again,' " Guttenberg says. "He came over to Bull Run, and we started working with him."

The first step was to change Walsh's equipment. He'd been playing with an old set of steel-shaft clubs, and Guttenberg advised switching to much lighter graphite models that would be far easier to swing. Because his right arm at that point was use-less, Walsh and Guttenberg manufactured a swing that emphasized keeping his left arm straight and moving it farther away from his body to create a wider arc before impact.

‘I’m a 20-handicapper now. I’ve moved up to the senior tees. My friends play farther back, and they tease me a little, but that’s fine.’

"He really started getting his enthusiasm for the game back," Guttenberg says. "He was very, very open to instruction. He looked at me as an expert. He wasn't stubborn at all and very easy to teach, and he could see the results right away. Now he can hit it at least 150 yards off the tee, and he's back playing again."

Walsh had never been one to practice much, and so he worked on what he was learning out on the golf course, mostly at Bull Run.

"I'd go play nine holes, usually by myself," he says. "I really didn't want to play with anyone until I could see how I was going to hit it. I'm a 20-handicapper now. I've moved up to the senior tees. My friends play farther back, and they tease me a little, but that's fine."

Walsh initially struggled hitting a driver until he "borrowed" a Titleist driver from the bag of his 18-year-old son, Liam, and started bashing balls at the farm. Now he won't give it back. Hitting middle irons has been the most difficult part of his game, but blasting out of bunkers has not been much of a problem.

"I do try not to get it in the sand," he says. "And putting and chipping has been great. I get out and play as much as I can, usually once a week, or two or three times a week when the weather's good. I'm enjoying the game, very definitely."

Before the amputation, to play golf he used a hernia brace wrapped around his waist to keep the arm tight against his body and out of the way of his one-armed swing. Walsh says he has no regrets about the amputation, and less than 10 days after that operation, he was back on a horse. And taking golf lessons. A few months later, there was one more surgery. Because he was feeling phantom pain from his right arm, a complication from the amputation, doctors operated again on nerve endings to relieve the discomfort. He had to cease any physical activity for two months while his body recovered from yet another major surgery in early April.

Remarkably, Walsh had also willed himself to ride not long after he returned home from the hospital after the initial accident. He made it a point to get on the same horse that threw him into the tree in the countryside. Soon, he was jumping fences, and not long after was back out fox-hunting four or five times a week. He galloped across fields. He jumped the coops and the dry stone walls. And he almost always stayed on.

Courtesy of Peter Walsh

Walsh winning the Power Gold Cup Chase aboard Sean Ogue in Ireland in 1982.

His most recent surgeries kept him off the course and out of the saddle for about three months, but he resumed riding and playing golf in June and again is taking lessons from Guttenberg. Walsh has been playing in a regular weekly game with a local group known as the Wednesday Whackers. His main goal: lowering his handicap and winning a few $2 nassaus.

"He's an athlete," says Haley, a former school administrator who also helps her husband manage the farm. "When he was in rehab after the accident, they'd ask him to do two reps, and he'd do 20. He's an Irish steeplechase jockey. That's something that will always be there. He's not afraid of anything."

Even a knee-knocking 10-foot putt?

For Peter Walsh, no problem at all.

Leonard Shapiro was the longtime golf writer for the Washington Post and a past president of the Golf Writers Association of America.


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