Rubenstein: Paralympian provides a lesson for us all
Published on Thursday, May. 09, 2013 12:01PM EDT Last updated on Wednesday, Sep. 12, 2012 09:18AM EDT
Markham, Ont. – John Rollins and Jim Furyk won the 2002 and 2007 Canadian Opens at Angus Glen Golf Club in Markham but it’s hard to believe the place has seen a more impressive champion than Billy Bridges.
The 28-year-old was born with spina bifida and has represented Canada internationally in sledge hockey and wheelchair basketball. I had the privilege this week of playing Angus Glen’s South Course with Bridges in a Hockey Canada media event, and was amazed at what he could do with a golf ball.
Bridges, who lives in Oakville, Ont., has with his teammates won world championship gold medals in sledge hockey in 2000 and 2008. He competed for Canada in the 2006 Winter Paralympics in Turin, Italy, where the team won Canada’s first gold medal in the sport.
I knew nothing about sledge hockey before I met Bridges. I suppose I’m like many people who pay more attention to sports in which able-bodied athletes compete, and to the Olympics and not the Paralympics. But sledge hockey is a fascinating sport, as I realized when I watched some video on YouTube.
There’s Bridges, on a sled, with blades underneath. He’s holding a short hockey stick in each hand, using one end to propel himself forward on the ice, at high speed, and the other to shoot the puck, also at high speed. He has immense upper-body strength, for which he trains hard. spina bifida robs a person of leg strength and muscle development there, among many other effects.
Bridges plays golf left-handed. He uses a cart and walks to his ball with the help of crutches. He hands the crutches to a fellow player as he sets up, or drops them on the ground. He points his right foot straight ahead, at 90 degrees to his back foot, which he arranges conventionally.
I was startled the first time I saw Bridges swing, because he lets his back (or left) hand drop off the club as he comes into the ball. He can’t rotate onto his right side because of his condition. I was equally startled when I saw how fast his right arm whipped through the ball, the solid contact, and the flight and distance he generated. Bridges’s drive on one hole went about 250 yards, with an ideal slight draw.
Many golfers can learn from Bridges. There’s a lot of talk in golf instruction circles about the importance of taking the hands out of the swing, and of the body as the primary control. Bridges hits the ball with power because, in part, of his upper-body strength. But the whip of his right hand through the ball is the main reason. It’s also the source of his fine touch around and on the greens. He uses his crutches for stability while putting. He usually scores in the 90s.
There’s something here that might help golfers simplify their thinking, and it’s not new. The great teacher Ernest Jones lost his right leg below the knee when a grenade exploded while he was serving for England in the First World War. Jones, a professional golfer, found he could still swing effectively. He went on to become a renowned instructor in New York who worked with many of the game’s best players.
“Swing the clubhead,” Jones instructed, always. Bridges swings the clubhead beautifully. He’s some athlete.
He’s also married to an athlete, Sami Jo Small, a three-time Olympian and a goaltender in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. They were married on July 1, 2001 – Canada Day.
“Because we’re Olympians and because we’re dorks,” Bridges said.
Bridges is no dork. He’s studying English literature at the University of Toronto. He’s visited 35 countries while competing. He wears foot braces, a knee brace, his crutches are always nearby, and at lunch he used a wheelchair to get his food. He’s an athlete through and through, and a competitor.
I look forward to watching Bridges play sledge hockey, and to another game of golf with him. And maybe his example will remind me again about the importance of the hands in the swing.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round’s on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf’s Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein