July 7, 2007

My Shot: Bob Wilson

Stares in the supermarket, sidehill lies and dealing with the overly sensitive: It's a balancing act for a double-amputee golfer.

Bob Wilson, photographed June 21, 2005, at Manchester Country Club in Bedford, N.H., plays to an 11 these days

Bob Wilson, photographed June 21, 2005, at Manchester Country Club in Bedford, N.H., plays to an 11 these days

Age 64 Executive director, National Amputee Golf Association Amherst, New Hampshire

I asked the shoe attendant at the club if my loafers were shined and ready.

"Which ones are yours?" he asked.

"The ones that don't stink," I said.

Playing with me has its upsides and downsides. If your ball plunges into shallow water, I'll get it for you. If your ball stops near a rattlesnake, or if the cigar you tossed on the ground starts a small brush fire that needs stomping out, I'm your man. But if we're playing a scramble and we've got a sidehill or downhill lie, don't count on me to come through.

I was in line at a supermarket one day, and behind me is a mother and 5-year-old child. I was wearing shorts, and the child, of course, had his eyes riveted on my prosthetics. Now, instead of covering the kid's eyes and hissing that he shouldn't stare, she let him look for a full minute. Then she leaned down and said in a stage whisper, "Isn't that cool?" The child looked a bit longer, then nodded. "That's real cool. Can I have some?" That just made my day. And it helped shape that kid's view of amputees for the rest of his life.

Here's how it happened. In 1974 I was a lieutenant commander in the Navy, in charge of the flight deck on the USS Kitty Hawk. We were running routine takeoff and landing exercises in the South China Sea. Anything that moved on the deck was my responsibility. I was a nut for safety and a hard-ass about it—I once grabbed a guy and ordered him to put on a vest and helmet, not knowing it was Red Dog Davis, the admiral of the fleet. But that's another story.

One day we were particularly active. F-4 jets were coming in every two to three minutes. After a plane lands, it's vital that you get them out of the way quickly to make room for the other incoming planes. One pilot who'd just landed wasn't following the director's signals to pivot his aircraft and clear out. I quickly stepped forward and took over because I knew the pilot and knew he would recognize me in my bright yellow flight-deck officer's shirt. You're supposed to maintain eye contact with the pilot as you move him around. In doing that, I inadvertently took three steps backward and stepped over the "foul deck line," the painted line that marks the area occupied by the large cables that grab the tailhooks on the aircraft and bring them to a stop. When a jet hits the deck, it's traveling 170 miles per hour—and so is the cable when it catches the jet. Within two seconds of stepping over the foul deck line, in came a jet, and off went my legs. Clean, just below the knees.

I came to in a hospital in the Philippines five days later. Being delirious, I started ripping the tubes out of my body. A nurse rushed in and said, "What are you doing?" I told her, "I'm going swimming. It's too damned hot in here." Another shot of morphine, and bam, I was out again. Next thing I know, I'm in a Naval hospital in Philadelphia.

My first thought—every amputee's first thought—was, What do I do now? How do I provide for my family? I had a degree in economics from Fairleigh Dickinson, but I had no experience at it. Hell, I was a Navy guy. I was also old school. I had a wife, and my second child was born three weeks before the accident. My job is to provide. How do I support them? I ended up staying in the Navy. There was a lot of stress, a lot of worry and, of course, indescribable pain physically. But I knew I would make it, because my family was there for me. Other guys, they had divorce papers waiting for them when they got home. I'll tell you, golf was way down the list.

But it was on the list. I had taken up the game at 17 and was a 4-handicap player. I'd played all over Hawaii and the Philippines. My clubs were on the carrier the day I lost my legs. In the hospital one day, I pick up a copy of Golf World, and on the cover was a photograph of Bic Long, who had just won the National Amputee Golf Association championship at Pinehurst. Man, did that give me a spark. I won't horrify you with details of my recovery, but the bottom line is, I played my first round of golf that June.

My first round back, I had to quit after nine holes. I was exhausted. But I was elated because I shot 45. My first prosthetics were very crude, plaster and metal rods. Under the circumstances, it was the best nine holes of my life.

Who was it that was so offended by the term "arthritic grips" that they lobbied to have it changed to "jumbo grips"? I'd like to meet that person and have a discussion about being overly sensitive.

Within 10 years, we're going to see a bionic person. I mean someone with complex artificial limbs that receive messages from computer chips implanted in the brain, and which will perform very close to the real thing. Like Darth Vader in "Star Wars."

I'm the executive director for the National Amputee Golf Association [NAGA]. Our championship this year—our 57th—will be at Bethpage. We're playing the Red and Green courses because carts are permitted there, and the Black is walking only. More power to Bethpage for that! If the Black were the only course on Long Island, I'd sure want them to allow carts. But there are alternatives, and good ones, which is all the disabled person asks. On the other hand, there's the Old Course at St. Andrews. My dream is to play there someday, but that probably won't happen because carts aren't permitted—except during the British Open, when there are trucks, carts and other vehicles running all over the property. Come Monday, you can't tell they were ever there. It's not right.

In the mid-'80s I got a letter from an arm amputee in California who had entered a pro-am. At the check-in table the official looked at the artificial hand and said, "What's that?" He was DQd before he teed off. After being informed of this, I wrote to the USGA and asked under which rule he was disqualified. P.J. Boatwright responded and referred me to Rule 14-3c on artificial devices. A long discourse ensued between P.J., other members of the USGA rules department and me. P.J. really was guided by the spirit of the rules. Not long after, Decision 14-3/15 was modified to say that a person may use an artificial limb even if it assists him in gripping the club. Moreover, the club can have an attachment to help the disabled person grasp it. But the USGA left a loophole, an important "however," which states that if the prosthetic gives a player an undue advantage, then it is not permitted. Fair enough, though I don't think anyone would prefer to play golf with a prosthetic hand no matter how good it is. I'm very proud of my involvement in this matter. How many ordinary citizens have lobbied successfully to have a Rule of Golf changed?

Cartpath-only policies stink, don't they? Mowers as big as a dinosaur sail up and down the fairways and across the greens every day. So long as you have the carts scatter—not drive over the same area time and again—they'll do little to no damage in dry conditions. Course operators complain about soil compaction, the spread of disease and so forth, but these are the same people who put plastic covers over their sofas.

The single-rider cart is the next revolution in golf. There's a model called the SoloRider that is unbelievable—only eight pounds of weight per square inch, no more than, say, Ernie Els. They go anywhere, bunkers included, provided there's a flat area to exit and enter.

Disabled people have varying outlooks on life. After the initial period of shock, anger and denial, most of us just want to get on with living. Others embrace pity others show for them and turn that pity on themselves. Never show pity for a disabled person. The determined person resents it, and the quitter embraces it. Either way, everyone loses.

One day the phone rings. It's the agent for a famous trick-shot artist, wondering if we'd care to book the fellow to perform for our national championship. There would be a handsome fee, of course. I asked, "Does he hit balls on one leg?" The person said, "He sure does." I asked, "How about with one arm?" Answer: "Certainly." I said, "We'll have a lot of those folks performing already."

I was in the golf shop one day when a member came in and said, "Bob, will you show me how to hit the ball like you do?"

"I'd be glad to," I said. "Let's go to the range. But on the way we need to stop at my car."

"What for?"

"Because I have a miniature operating room in my trunk, and before you can hit the ball like I do, we first need to remove your legs."

Like I do. That's very key. People have the notion they can be taught to swing like Tiger Woods, but take it from me: Unless you have Tiger's strength, flexibility, speed and hand-eye coordination, you'll go backward trying to copy him. You're better off going with a method that's compatible with the tools God gave you.

Nobody should play through lightning, but I'm safer than most people. I'm very well-grounded.

Which arm supplies the power to a golf shot? Good question. If I'm a right-handed person and I slap you across the face with a forehand motion, it'll make you dizzy. But if I backhand you, you're going to lose some teeth. So you can argue the backhanded motion is more powerful—certainly it's the power shot in tennis. On the other hand, one of the longest hitters in our association, Quinn Talbot, can hit it 290 using a forehand motion with one arm. The greatest teachers in the world argue about this, and you're asking me?

After Casey Martin was given permission to play out of a cart, the media sought reactions from players. The most memorable I thought was Vijay Singh, who is a pretty tough dude. He said, "I'm glad it passed, because I'm getting older." He sort of smirked, but it pointed up the fact that there are a ton of baby boomers who will soon be senior citizens. In 45 years, by 2050, the number of people 60 and older will almost triple. The industry better do something to keep the golfers among them active, something more than the innovation of senior tees. They're going to be your core audience, not the 24-year-olds you see modeling in those equipment advertisements. If the old people quit, the game is not just going to stagnate, it's going to go backward.

Bob Wilson

Here's how pervasive senior golfers are already: In Florida there are courses that have handicapped parking for golf carts.

Anyone who has walked on stilts will tell you it's harder to stand still than it is to walk. Essentially I'm standing on stilts, which is exhausting mentally because I'm constantly trying to stay balanced. So if you catch me taking a step one way or the other out of the corner of your eye while you're putting, you'll know why.

One NAGA member, Tom Quinn, has made many holes-in-one. He's a "double A.K.," meaning he's missing both legs above the knees. He's made two aces sitting in a wheelchair. I envy him. I'd give my right leg to have one ace—but not my right arm.

You see an interesting dynamic at the annual NAGA championship. There are some seriously competitive people there, and some amputees want to beat certain other amputees so badly their game goes to hell. When I first started competing, there was a guy named Dick Bell, a double AK who balanced himself by swinging one of his prosthetics across a sawhorse. He consistently shot in the low 80s, and I could not beat this guy. His disability was more severe than mine, which we both were aware of, and he knew how much I wanted to outplay him. And I could not do it. He'd hit one stiff and grin. "How'd you like that one, Bob?"

My perception—I'm not a pro, but I've taught disabled individuals through our First Swing program for 17 years—is that strong legs in golf are somewhat overrated. The golf swing is a rotary, and that comes from the shoulders and hips. The legs move, but only to accommodate the movement of the hips. I've seen double AKs who can hit the ball 270 yards. I don't see how sliding the legs laterally on the downswing can help anybody.

NAGA offers an annual scholarship grant of $1,000 to a deserving amputee. We wish it were more, but we've found that when we conduct a fund-raiser in conjunction with our tournaments, the people who put up the money invariably want the recipient to be a kid from their state. Donors can be funny that way. We're a national organization, but not a real prominent one, so it's hard to do something on a nationwide level. But hey, a thousand bucks is OK. Every little bit helps.

Now I'll ask you a question: What's this thing they call athlete's foot?