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Learning to Drive

New Golf Program Serves Special Olympics Athletes


Tom Peale stood over a ball on the driving range at Tijeras Creek Golf Course with a stern focus etched into his face.

Clutching his club with a white-knuckled baseball grip, he slowly drew it back, accelerated on the downswing and finished in a corkscrew follow-through.

Somewhere in there, he ticked the top of the ball, barely hitting it off the mat. Afterward, he peered out from under his baseball cap. Upon noticing that several people had seen his swing, he broke into a wide smile.

That smile quickly turned into a giggle and finally a hearty laugh.

"Did you see that," Peale said, bending at the waist and laughing almost uncontrollably.

Those who had, already were smiling. It was almost impossible not to.

Peale, is one of about 50 mentally challenged athletes learning to play golf from a group of instructors headed by Marty LaRoche, Tijeras Creek's head professional.

The athletes are preparing for a Special Olympics golf tournament May 13 and a possible berth in the Summer Special Olympics Games, June 16-18 in Long Beach. This is the first year that golf will be part of the Special Olympics program in California.

While the goal is to compete, getting there is about laughing, learning and smiling. "The athletes make everyone around them feel good," LaRoche said.

Involving Special Olympics with golf in Orange County was the idea of Bucky Kahl, whose 22-year-old twin sons are among those participating at Tijeras Creek.

Kahl moved to Orange County from Tennessee, which has an extensive Special Olympics golf program. Surprised to learn no such program existed here, Kahl began an effort to start one.

He passed out handwritten fliers at Special Olympics basketball and softball games and at track meets, and he called golf courses in an effort to line up a practice facility and instructors.

Tijeras Creek came through, offering two hours of range time on six consecutive Saturdays. That so many athletes were interested was no surprise to Kahl.

"These kids watch TV," he said. "They know what golf is and who Tiger Woods is. They were pretty excited to get out here and try it."

And once they got on the golf course, their excitement grew.

One of the first lessons involved etiquette and the proper way to fix ball marks on the green. The athletes were instructed to place a ball on the green and then step on it to make a mark. That was a huge hit.

"They had a ball making holes in the green," Kahl said. "They kept wanting to do it over and over."

The athletes have been divided into beginning and advanced groups. Some, such as Ryan Kahl, are quite advanced. Ryan, who is one of Bucky's sons, has a USGA index of 33 and won the silver medal at the World Special Olympics games last summer.

Peale is in the beginners' group. An accomplished athlete in other sports, Peale was selected Orange County Special Olympics athlete of the year in 1999. Though not quite ready for the golf course, he said it's only a matter of time.

"Golf is easy," he said. "I like it because everyone is so friendly and I like all sports."

He then demonstrated his track technique by getting into a starting-block stance and pretending to sprint away.

"Especially track," he said.

While the golf lessons are prone to such impromptu demonstrations, LaRoche has had no problem getting his points across, mostly because he has plenty of help.

Many of his teaching staff have volunteered, as has Tijeras Creek's general manager, Jennifer Alderson. With Saddleback College Coach Bill Cunerty and some of his players also chipping in, there is nearly a one-to-one student-teacher ratio.

"The best part about this is for the kids to get out and be with each other in a social environment," said Marilyn Harvey, who has a son learning golf. "It's another way to help them integrate into society."

The athletes aren't the only ones learning.

Normal golf terms, such as hook and slice are like a foreign language to these athletes, many of whom can't differentiate between right and left. Some also have physical limitations in addition to mental disabilities.

"It challenges me as a teacher to be a better communicator," LaRoche said. "I have to figure out new ways to say things. I'm probably learning more than they are."

The key, Kahl said, is having the kids do things over and over.

"They learn through repetition," he said. "Just show them what to do and let them keep doing it."

During one lesson, LaRoche had the players line up, side by side, with their clubs and instructed them to swing on his count of three.

He watched in admiration as everyone swung and everyone held their follow-throughs. After heaping praise, LaRoche instructed them to do it again.

Everyone assumed the address position, with their heads down . . . but nobody swung.

LaRoche watched, his arms folded across his chest, waiting patiently for someone to do something. Still, no movement.

Finally, one of the athletes, Danielle, spoke up.

"She said, 'Why aren't you counting to three?' " LaRoche said. "I forgot to count, and every one of them was waiting for me to count to three."

Each lesson ends in some sort of contest. One day it was a putting contest, won by Danielle. On this day, they lined up for a chipping contest.

Surrounding the putting green, all the athletes had a pile of balls at their feet and took aim at holes about 15 yards away. Ball after ball rolled toward the holes, some stroked too hard, some too soft. Some rolled close and some hit the edges of the cups.

Each time a ball found a hole, a jubilant celebration ensued, complete with fist pumping, hollering and looking around to see if anyone was watching.

And smiles, of course, lots of smiles.

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