PINEHURST, NORTH CAROLINA | The inaugural U.S. Adaptive Open played this past week in the sultry summer heat at Pinehurst No. 6 was like no other national championship in the game’s long history.
And, at the same time, it was just like those other USGA championships.
It was about golf and the people who played it.
What separated this one and touched places that most other tournaments could never reach was the spirit that ran through the event, not just among competitors but among anyone who took a moment to watch what was happening.
There were 96 players in this championship, spread among eight impairment categories, and each had its own story.
Some were famous:
• Dennis Walters is a 73-year-old member of the World Golf Hall of Fame for his work as a teacher and golf ambassador after being paralyzed nearly 50 years ago.
• Ken Green won five PGA Tour events but lost a leg in an RV accident several years ago and now suffers from a debilitating nerve disorder.
• Amy Bockerstette, who has Down syndrome, became an instant celebrity in 2019 when she made a par while playing a hole with Gary Woodland in the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
Others aren’t so famous:
• Chris Biggins has cerebral palsy that makes walking difficult, but hasn’t stopped him from becoming a popular instructor at the Country Club of Birmingham.
• Jake Olson became the first blind person to play in an NCAA football game five years ago at Southern Cal, and he later won the U.S. Blind Golfers Association national championship.
• Alex Fourie was born with one arm and a cleft lip and palate, believed to be the result of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster about 70 miles from his home in Ukraine.
In Pinehurst, they were golfers.
They smiled at their good shots and winced at their bad ones. When they finished their rounds, they shook hands or offered sweaty hugs, then some walked away on their prosthetic legs and others drove away in their specially outfitted carts, which were allowed on the greens.
There were caddies and scorekeepers. There were rules officials and player hospitality just like at other USGA championships. There were threesomes that included a player missing a leg, another missing an arm and a third of short stature.
It was beautiful beyond the golf.
“People are going to find it hard to believe, but I’m going to remember this more than I am any of the Opens or (other events) that I played in,” Green said. “I don’t know the reason, because obviously you wanted to play well in any event you play, but this is the combination of life beating people down and every one of those people picking themselves up and then using golf to go the next step, and there’s no better picture than that.
“Even winning a U.S. Open is phenomenal, but it’s golf. This is life and golf mixed together, and there’s no better combination.”
Brian Bemis (above, left) plays an iron shot; Kim Moore’s name is engraved in her trophy; Moore and Simon Lee celebrate victory.
It played out in moments big and small through the week and culminated when 25-year-old Simon Lee of South Korea won the men’s overall title and 41-year-old Kim Moore of Portage, Mich., captured the women’s overall title.
Lee was born with a congenital autism developmental disorder that limits his cognitive skills. He plays on the Korea PGA Tour, and he strung together three consecutive rounds of 71 to beat Felix Norrman of Sweden for the title.
When it was over, Lee received a celebratory water-bottle shower from his friends.
“Today I played with my mind of thinking, ‘I can do it, I can do it, I can do it,’ ” Lee said.
His goal in the game?
“My dream is that maybe one day I’ll go to the Masters, and I want to step on the 18th hole, Augusta National, in the final round,” Lee said.
“If you were here, I don’t think you would ever forget this. If you haven’t come out this week and you’re in the golf business, you’d better come and watch this.” – Dennis Walters
This was a precious first step for a unique national championship. It will be played again at Pinehurst No. 6 next year and some tweaks will be made.
“When you’re doing the right thing, there is a pride that goes with it. It would have been really easy for the USGA and for me to say, Wait, let’s think this through over the few years because when we go we need to have it right,” USGA CEO Mike Whan said.
“This one is dicey. It’s not easy. We had to learn a bunch of new things. Maybe Plan A would be, work through this and in 2026 really nail this. The alternative was, go in 2022, know you’re not going to have it exactly right but keep fixing it as you go. We took that strategy, and I’m so glad we did. Everybody is learning.
“Sometimes you just have to jump off the cliff and figure out how you’re going to splash on your way down. That’s kind of what we did.”
It made a big splash in all of the right ways.
“Everyone says I’m inspiring them, but I couldn’t help but be totally amazed and inspired by the sights I’ve seen here,” Walters said. “If you were here, I don’t think you would ever forget this. If you haven’t come out this week and you’re in the golf business, you’d better come and watch this.
“I wish some PGA Tour players came out here. I wish LPGA Tour players came out here, manufacturers. Every part of the golf industry should come to this. This is so enlightening, and it is so revealing of the character that the people who played in this tournament. It’s amazing.”
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