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Thursday, December 4, 2014

ParaLong Drive World Championship

ParaLong Drive World Championship

Round of golf with para-athlete both humbling and inspiring

Story by Dick Harmon

Golf Mesquite Nevada recently provided a handful of golf writers a chance to be humbled and inspired at the same time. In early October on a typical sun-splashed Mesquite day, golf scribes from around the country and ParaLong Drive World Championship athletes played a morning round of golf at the Canyons Course at the Oasis Golf Club and lives were changed.

I had the blessing of playing with Brad Clayton, a likable 47-year-old with a polished Southern twang from a little town called Oxford in North Carolina. In a foursome of passionate golfers, Clayton outdrove the rest of us on nearly every hole. Most of the time he hit approach shots closer than us. His wedge play was automatic and he putted with a satin-smooth stroke.

Thing is, Clayton has one arm. He could drive the ball 290 yards and most of the time smoked it past everyone in our group.

Clayton lost his hand on May 18, 2000, while using a post auger on the back of a tractor on his driving range. He never let that stand in the way of his life’s passion, playing golf, which his father introduced him to at age seven. At 12 he wanted to do it for a living. A PGA professional, Clayton was named the North Carolina PGA Section Teacher of the Year in 2008. He routinely teaches golf to Marines and members of the U.S. Marine Special Forces, many of whom are Wounded Warriors, at Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune.

“Losing my hand was the best thing that ever happened to me besides my children,” says Clayton. “It opened doors and enabled me to approach people that I would never be able to reach if it had not happened. I work with people who see me in a different light and connect.”

Clayton competed in the World ParaLong Drive championships, though he didn’t make it to the final round, which was won by Jared Brentz of Knoxville, Tennessee. Brentz, who had both legs amputated below the knee, won the Open division with drives of 352 and 360 yards.

“We not only have arm and leg amputees, but we have athletes who are paralyzed and have had platforms built to allow them to position to hit a golf ball. Just because they’ve been injured or born without arms or legs hasn’t diminished their love for golf or passion to compete,” says Byran Dangerfield, co-organizer of the event and director of athletics and leisure services for Mesquite City.

Clayton, author of a golf instruction book Puzzleduck Golf, with a foreword by David Leadbetter, says the most fulfilling thing in teaching servicemen who’ve lost limbs in combat or who suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome is seeing them find something that draws them out and gets them engaged. “Golf can do that," he says.

After his accident, Clayton spent six years creating a device that would slip over the stump of his right arm, amputated below the elbow, and attach to a golf club. It had to have full rotation ability and be able to lock onto a club. “There’s not anything like this anywhere,” he says. “And this one is wearing out.”

After hitting a shot, Clayton immediately takes off the device and sets it in the golf cart. He does it so quickly; it’s like a gun fighter holstering a pistol.

“They call me Clank,” Clayton joked after one noisy shot. Always joking, poking fun of situations that a typical golfer takes for granted, he reminds me of the driving range pro in the movie Tin Cup.

Playing with flip-flops because he didn’t have time to put on his cleats before our tee time, Clayton was as laidback a golfer as one could be. But his passion for the game showed in everything he did.

Cody Law, executive director of Golf Mesquite Nevada says, “This is one of the most rewarding experiences and one of the best events we have been involved with. You gain a lot of inspiration hanging out with these athletes. It’s going to be one of the best and most important events Mesquite hosts each year.”

The experience with Clayton was as unique as I’ve ever had in golf. Here I was with a man labeled a Master Teacher by the PGA and at no time during our round did I ask him how to hit my driver better, which I kept in the bag most of the round. I guess I was a little gun shy.

I was as humbled as a guy with two good arms and legs could be.

These folks have overcome far more than I face with my faulty driver swing. Don’t ever tell any of them they can’t do something. And you don’t want them to see that you take anything in life for granted.

Dick Harmon is a sports columnist for the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, Utah. 

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