The inspiring stories of four adaptive golfers—and what they can teach us
The United States has more than 5.7 million adaptive golfers, according to the National Golf Foundation. The U.S. Adaptive Golf Alliance conducts over 30 national tournaments a year and has 40 chapters nationwide. Last year, the USGA debuted the U.S. Adaptive Open in which players compete in one of 10 categories based on impairment with the field determined using USGA handicaps and the World Ranking for Golfers with Disability. In honor of the 2023 U.S. Adaptive Open, we’re sharing the inspiring stories of four golfers who will be competing. We asked each to explain how they developed their unique golf swings and then asked Sasho MacKenzie, a sports biomechanist at St. Francis Xavier University, to help us understand what makes them work. “Each joint has several muscles capable of powering motion,” MacKenzie says. “Nature may limit a particular golfer’s options, but never underestimate a determined golfer’s ability to find a new way to get the ball in the hole.”
BRANDON CANESI, DORAL, FLA.
Brandon Canesi was born without hands. His left arm ends at the wrist joint, and his right has a malformed thumb and index finger— enough for basic functions like holding something or teeing up a ball. When Canesi found golf at age 6, he instinctively clasped the two together and lodged the grip end of his grandpa’s club under his armpit to shuffle the ball into the hole.
When Canesi was 16, he and his uncle set out to design a full-size set of clubs that would work in the same way. Canesi found a broom in his uncle’s garage and thought, This is how long the driver needs to be. That broom was 58 inches, so Canesi and his uncle reshafted his woods with an extra stiff 48-inch shaft designed for long drivers, plus 10 inches of graphite-shaft extensions and a long grip typically used for arm-lock putters. The combination (pictured) was an instant and transformative success.
“I could swing faster and hit the ball farther and higher,” says Canesi, now 31. “I beyond fell in love with the game. I’d wake up and watch golf all day or sneak out to the golf course whenever I could.”
Most golfers use their hands and wrists to release the club into the ball. Canesi can’t do that. Instead, he relies on core strength and weight shift to create a powerful body rotation through the ball.
“Brandon’s clubhead speed is very much determined by his torso-rotation speed at impact,” MacKenzie says. “It’s an innovative way to have repeatable clubface control at impact.”
Canesi teaches clinics for adaptive golfers at the Rick Smith Golf Performance Center in Florida. His stock drive is a 200-yard butter cut, and his career low is an even-par 72.
“Sometimes on the course people say: ‘Oh, good for you that you’re out here.’ Then they’ll see me rip a driver off the first tee, and they know I’m for real.”
CATHY WALCH, BUFORD, GA.
Cathy Walch, 58, doesn’t know how or why she was born with a severe malformation in her right arm. Ultrasounds weren’t as advanced in 1965 as they are now, and her parents didn’t know about it until the moment she was born.
Walch’s parents were avid golfers, and their logic was simple: Why couldn’t their daughter play, too?
Jan Fuller was coach of the Glenbrook South High School golf team at the time. When Walch joined the team, she swung left-handed. It was her way of using her left arm to mirror the throwing and batting motion she used to play softball. But when applied to golf, the results were inconsistent.
“Jan was the first person who suggested turning me around and swinging righty,” Walch says. “She said I would be stronger and have more consistency pulling and leading with one arm as opposed to pushing the club, and she was right.”
The primary challenge for one-armed golfers is the sheer weight of the club. With only one arm supporting it instead of two, it’s easy for gravity to drop the club too far behind the body. Switching sides, MacKenzie says, effectively transformed her left arm and club into a slingshot, powered by the weight of her body.
"It can be very difficult for lead arm golfers to generate enough torque on the club to square the face in time for impact," MacKenzie says. "Keeping the center of mass of the club stay beneath the grip early in the downswing. This will help them use physics to their advantage, and square the face in time for impact."
Walch’s game started clicking, and she got hooked on the competition. She teed it up in her first adaptive golf tournament in 1981. There were hardly any adaptive tournaments when she first started playing them. Now, there are more than ever.
“I saw how good these players were and I thought, Maybe I can be a decent player,” says Walch, a retired educator whose career-low round is 75. “I just hope us playing golf helps people realize that your life isn’t over just because you’ve got a disability.”
TREVOR STEPHENS, GREENWICH, CONN.
Trevor Stephens, 38, was born with a condition that affects the growth of the upper part of the thigh bone. Stephens had two surgeries before the age of 2, and with an almost six-inch difference in length between his two legs, he had the full amputation procedure on his right leg when he was 4.
“Anything my parents expected of my brother, they expected of me,” says Stephens, a Manhattan real estate agent. “Growing up with one leg, it’s really all I’ve ever known.”
Stephens gravitated toward golf and was a fixture on his high school team, but his game was inconsistent. He spent years trying to follow the conventional advice of loading his trail side on the backswing but struggled to push off his prosthetic leg on the downswing.
Tired of inconsistency, Stephens stopped trying to do what he physically couldn’t and embraced what he could. Now, he feels 70 percent of his weight stacked over his lead leg and relies more on his 6-foot-8 wingspan to create a whipping transition move. This creates “angular momentum” between his arms and club, MacKenzie says, which helps generate clubhead speed of up to 115 miles per hour.
These days, Stephen’s drives routinely travel more than 300 yards. He likes to walk every round he plays, his career low is 68 and he’s down to a 2.4 Handicap Index. “Everyone has moments where life can be a bummer,” he says. “Golf helps me appreciate the good things. It reminds me that my brain is my most powerful muscle.”
CHAD PFEIFER, NAMPA, IDAHO
One day U.S. soldier Chad Pfeifer and his unit in Iraq were on a routine mission. The next, he was in a hospital bed, his left leg gone, feeling his life had changed forever. “Being injured this way is devastating,” he says. “A lot of guys get to where they’re not sure how they’re going to keep living.”
Pfeifer, 41, never particularly wanted to play golf, but he finally agreed to try because a friend he met in recovery, who lost both his legs in a similar accident, wouldn’t stop asking. It only took a few shots on the sweet spot for golf to become a form of therapy.
Golf marked a fresh start, a skill Pfeifer could develop and not one defined by recovering something he lost.
Pfeifer was nervous to shift his entire body weight on his newly installed prosthetic leg because he might lose his balance and fall over. His solution was to set up with a closed stance, which promotes an in-to-out swing path and positions the joints in his prosthetic left leg in a way that makes it easier to post as he turns through. It helped him become a 0.3 Handicap Index and a two-time U.S. Disabled Open champion. (His career-low round is 62.)
“His setup is ingenious,” MacKenzie says. “Golfers with limited lead leg function could benefit from this setup, especially if they struggle with a slice.”
Says Pfeifer: “Golf gave me that sense of competition back,” he says. “When I got injured, all of that was taken away. I want to get my handicap as low as possible. I want to play people straight up, and I want to win.”