When Edmund “E.Q.” Sylvester retired from his career as an international businessman in January 2011, he had a plan to play golf all around the world. He hoped to travel to far-flung destinations, taking his photography skills along with him.
Life took that opportunity away but in return it has given him one of the greatest joys he will ever experience.
Four months after retiring, Sylvester came down with an infected kidney that sent him into a two-week coma. Doctors gave him a cocktail of antibiotics that brought him back, but he had suffered sepsis, an extreme response to infection that triggers a chain reaction. The good part was, he survived. The bad part was that he would leave the rehabilitation center nine months later as a triple amputee.
“In the months that followed, I was just trying to figure out what to do with my body,” Sylvester recalls. “I could swim but I couldn’t get out of the pool because I didn’t have any fingers. On the golf course, I couldn’t hit it out of my own shadow and thought, ‘Well this isn’t going to work.’
“I did some research and found 20 million physically disabled have a desire to play golf but don’t because they have the same constraints I had. They didn’t know how to get adaptive golf instruction and if they went to a golf course, they weren’t welcome and in some cases turned away.
“I said, ‘OK, I have a new mission in life.’ ”
That new mission has been fully immersing himself in the world of adaptive golf. In 2012, he founded the Freedom Golf Association just outside Chicago. The organization is dedicated to bringing joy to the special needs community, making golf courses and adaptive instruction more accessible.
The FGA held its opening clinic in January 2013. When the first student, a boy named Abraham who struggles with MS, learned how to hit a golf ball, his caregiver approached Sylvester.
“You know this is one of the happiest days of his life. He is normally confined to the couch and can only watch TV.”
In that moment, Sylvester understood what type of impact adaptive golf can have. All of us who play the game are drawn to it not just because of the challenge, but by the way we are allowed to escape the real world. It’s the ultimate meritocracy, a sport where any player, regardless of background, can find success, peace, relief and satisfaction. Sometimes that means the result of a shot. But it also means the feeling of a shot and the release of daily agony.
If you have attended an adaptive golf event – whether it be a clinic, a competitive tournament or other outing – you have seen that nobody feels golf quite like these men, women, boys and girls.
Not long ago, this segment of the population was marginalized. That is changing, rapidly. The FGA helped 178 participants in its first year; last year, the association touched 6,755 people with disabilities. Halfway through this year, it appears they are going to far exceed that number. The explosion of popularity is tangible evidence of adaptive golf’s impact, but it gets even better.
In 2014, Sylvester watched the ParaLong Drive Cup and approached the competitors about what they were doing to get golf into the Paralympic Games. They had been talking about the possibility for six years, but little came of it. This inspired Sylvester to form the United States Adaptive Golf Alliance to further their profile and bring in more players.
Four years ago, there were five member organizations in the USAGA, one of them being the FGA. Now there are nearly 40. Combined, they annually help 20,000 golfers with disabilities. Of particular importance, 24 percent are combat-wounded veterans.
“When you play golf, you may bring your problems from life to the first tee,” Sylvester said. “But by the time you get to the third green, you’re totally focused on getting the ball in the hole. That’s what happens with these soldiers. They get some relief.”
Everyone in the golf industry should be bending over backwards to support all adaptive golfers, regardless of their suffering. Many of them are supremely talented on the golf course. There is a full calendar of competitive adaptive golf tournaments, highlighted by the USAGA Open that will take place in Las Vegas this October, and each event is inspiring to witness. Because of the many types of disabilities, there are a lot of divisions – lower/upper limb impairments, visual problems, those with mental challenges, etc. – but all of them can play.
If you are wondering exactly how talented some of these individuals are, listen to this: A few years ago, the USAGA hosted the World Disabled Golf Championship at the venerable Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club in Oregon. There were 77 players from 10 countries who participated in a three-day tournament. They played the blue tees, roughly 6,800 yards.
The champion was Chad Pfeifer, a wounded warrior who lost his leg in Iraq. He shot 5-under 211. One stroke behind him was Chris Biggins, an Alabama golfer who has cerebral palsy. In third was Spain’s Juan Postigo. He can stripe the ball 280 yards with one leg.
It may be incredible to witness a Rory McIlroy drive, but seeing these individuals overcome both physical and mental challenges while mastering this game is even more remarkable.
“It’s really no different. Like teaching any player, it’s trying to find the golfer’s limitations and turn them into strengths.”
Some competitors have earned more than trophies. Jonathan Snyder, the No. 5 one-armed player in the world, has seen his life altered greatly by adaptive golf. After having success managing a golf club in North Carolina, Snyder met Sylvester and recently has served as the director of adaptive golf operations for the FGA. He does everything from teaching to fundraising to scheduling the clinics to finding new site locations for adaptive golf to take place.
Snyder is deep in the weeds helping to spread adaptive golf. One of the main principles he hopes to get across is that all people are adaptive golfers, even if you don’t have a disability. When amputees learn to adapt to their physical condition, it reflects what we all do on the course – we change our behavior based on the environment.
“It’s really no different,” Snyder said. “Like teaching any player, it’s trying to find the golfer’s limitations and turn them into strengths.”
That’s a thought we all should grasp. Adaptive golf is one of the purest forms of the game.
One of their biggest hurdles in the future, a place where they need and deserve more support, is in their attempt to get golf into the Paralympic Games. There will be no adaptive golf next year in Tokyo or in 2024 when the games go to Paris. Given how well Olympic golf performed in Rio, it would seem to be a perfect fit for the Paralympics. There is no simple answer for why it hasn’t happened, but the political gears in the Paralympic engine tend to move slowly.
“We have over 50 million disabled people in the United States and 30 disabled golf associations around the world,” Sylvester said. “All of us were disappointed to tears that the International Paralympic committee didn’t recognize golf.”
This is in spite of the USAGA having published a 36-page manual on how to hold a paragolf championship, all of it written in line with the protocol from the International Paralympic Committee. One of the organization’s directors helped Sylvester write it. The USAGA also has created a ranking system for American golfers. Unfortunately, no amount of thoroughness could break through the complicated political web.
That is a tough pill to swallow, but it’s not indicative of where adaptive golf stands proudly today. And the opportunities are endless given that well more than 50 million Americans are disabled and studies show that more than half have interest in playing or have played in the past.
So much of the current growth can be attributed to Sylvester’s tireless efforts to spread the word. Sylvester spends much of his time networking, going from the PGA Show to the Honda Classic to the Masters and too many other stops to name. The USAGA has endorsements from all types in the golf industry, including from players such as Jordan Spieth and Bryson DeChambeau.
“In what can only be viewed as a very short time frame, E.Q. has helped to accomplish an extraordinary amount in fundraising and infrastructure,” said Brian Gold, a USAGA board member. “It’s astounding that one person can bring into the fold people like Mike Keiser and David Leadbetter. He uses the three degrees of separation in a way like few people I’ve ever seen use them.
“He’s the most persistent person I know. If you bat .300 in baseball, you are an All-Star, but E.Q. probably bats .400 or .500.”
There are great examples of Sylvester’s persistence that personify the adaptive golf effort. Not long ago, he asked past Seminole Golf Club president Barry van Gerbig to meet him in Florida for a round of golf. When van Gerbig replied that he is going blind and can’t play, Sylvester wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“I told him that everyone can play golf,” Sylvester said. “We’re going to get you hitting the golf ball.”
About half way through the round, van Gerbig turned to Sylvester and said, “This is the best thing that has ever happened to me.”
It’s moments like those that keep Sylvester going. The near-fatal experience he endured eight years ago must have happened for a reason, because it compelled him to lead a movement.
At a recent clinic, Sylvester was asked how proud he was of the leaps forward adaptive golf has made. His response said it all.
“You know I haven’t really thought about it like that, but now that I do, it brings tears to my eyes,” Sylvester recalls saying.
That’s even better than traveling the world.
TOP PHOTO: Juan Postigo, of Spain, finished third in the World Disabled Golf Championship.
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