Alan Gentry stood by his ball off the seventh fairway and took a few practice swings. He had no club in his hand. Like any other golfer, he was grooving a perfect shot in his mind before selecting the proper stick. But unlike most, he had no right arm in his socket. So when a car drove by Gentry as he warmed up, four heads whipped back to catch the sight. Did you see that? Was that guy actually warming up with one arm?
The golfers who gathered in Las Vegas in October for the North American One-Armed Golfer Association championships will tell you they're used to the stares. But keep looking, and you'll find some of the most inspiring play on the planet. Golf is frustrating enough with two arms. "Having one arm is difficult for balance, hard for timing and hard for getting the clubhead in the right spot at impact," says Mike Altman, head pro at Stallion Mountain Country Club in Las Vegas, which hosted the one-armed players' tournament. "And these guys do it for 18 holes. It's mind-blowing."
The one-armed golfers will soon step out of obscurity. Just days before next year's Ryder Cup in Louisville, Ky., the North American organization, which Gentry and a group of friends founded in 2000, will square off against Europe's best one-armers in a Cup-style match-play event. This inaugural Fightmaster Cup, named after Louisville resident Don Fightmaster, an Arnold Palmer of the one-armed-golf world, will be an official part of the Ryder Cup festivities.
And it will not be some friendly freakfest. Tensions between the Americans and Brits are running high over the question of whether prostheses and other aids have a role in one-armed golf. So much trash talk has been exchanged that the Fightmaster Cup might prove more compelling than that two-armed Ryder Cup thing.
How do the single-wingers do it? They essentially swing a golf club like the two-handers they call "normies." But without a second hand to guide the club, they find their backswings are often shorter, their follow-throughs a little wilder. "People tend to avoid you at the driving range," says Christian Fisher, whose left arm was cut off in an elevator accident (the limb was reattached but is not functional). Driving the ball is particularly difficult, which makes it all the more amazing that the good players consistently hit 280 yds. and above. "I've lost muscle mass on my left side because I don't have anything there," says Scott Lusk, 34, who has been missing his left arm since a car wreck in 1992. "You have to pull with your hips and legs to make up for it, which takes away the consistency on your swing."
While it's also harder to control pitches and putts with one arm, some players say that on these shorter shots, it's advantageous to single-wing it. "On chips, I see so many guys move their second hand all over the place and get the yips," says Steve Quevillon, a bond trader from Montreal. "We can just let the club do the work." Quevillon, who won the 2006 North American title, is even more unusual: though he has two good arms, his legs were paralyzed in a car accident--so he uses a crutch in his left hand for balance while swinging the club with just his right hand.
For many of the players who have been through horrific accidents, membership in the North American organization or its British-based counterpart, the Society of One-Armed Golfers, is therapeutic. "You don't feel like you're on the outside," says Lusk, whose accident left him very depressed. "You come here, hell, everyone has arms missing. It's rehab as much as anything else."
Want to tell amputee jokes? Go ahead. "We tell the young lads, If you want to join the society, get yourself a motorbike," says Peter Priscott, a member of the British group, referring to the disproportionate number of members who have lost arms in cycle wrecks. Lusk greets buddies with "high stumps" all over the course. At his first society tournament in Scotland, David Bailey--another motorcycle casualty--walked into a bar with an ax. Confused members wondered what the hell the new guy was doing. He then unbuttoned his collared shirt to reveal a T shirt that read RECRUITING OFFICER--SOCIETY OF ONE-ARMED GOLFERS.
It can get less chummy on the course. For example, at the North American tournament, a golfer named Bobby Baca made opponent Laurent Hurtubise tap in close putts during their semifinal match. Usually a competitor concedes those gimmes. "He's not a golfer," Hurtubise barked as they approached the 14th hole. "He's not a gentleman."
You thought Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson didn't get along? Baca, from New Mexico, and Hurtubise, from Quebec, will be teammates at next year's Cup-style event, so they're better off fighting the Euros than each other. They won't need much motivation: though the North American and British organizations share members and have worked amicably to launch the Fightmaster Cup, one American calls the Brits "snobs," while a British golfer who played in Las Vegas called the North American organization a "shambles."
Some North Americans are ticked that so-called assisted players cannot participate in the Fightmaster Cup. The North American organization has an assisted division in which golfers can use a prosthetic device or their damaged arm to support the club. The unassisted division outlaws all aids. The Society of One-Armed Golfers, founded in 1932 as an avenue of competition for World War I amputees, has never had an assisted division and probably never will. Tradition, you know. At the Fightmaster Cup, only the unassisted players will be allowed. "Not to be disrespectful, but this has to be in the pure context of one-armed golf," says Michael O'Grady, who owns a driving range in Ireland and plays to a seven handicap.
What makes the issue trickier is that there's often a fine line between assisted and unassisted playing. When Klaus Schaloske, a retired schoolteacher from Ontario, takes a backswing with his left arm--from a right-handed stance--the stump of his missing right arm grazes the club. Under the society's rules, that counts as assisted play, though its president, Malcolm Guy, has promised to review Schaloske's case with his rules committee. "It's a silly rule," an incredulous Schaloske says. He holds up his appendages. "How many do I have?" But that stump makes a difference. At the driving range, Schaloske tried moving the stump out of the way on his swing. He missed the ball. "I'll have to go to the meat cleaver and cut off some more," he says.