Francesca’s husband, John, was an avid golfer who adapted his golf as a result of Parkinson’s. After a nasty injury on the course, it was through John’s recovery that they both saw golf is about someone’s ability, not their disability.
John always loved golf. Not in a low handicap, Rory McIlroy, fiercely competitive sort of way – but because it took him out in the fresh air with friends. It gave him exercise, enjoyment, and purpose.
He’d played on and off for years, and when we moved to Cornwall in 2004, he joined a family-owned club at Radnor, just outside Redruth.
The club, of course, has its excellent players, but all abilities peacefully co-exist here, and John spent many happy hours on its sea breezy course.
Adapting his golf to Parkinson’s
John was diagnosed with Parkinson’s about 7 years ago, in his early seventies. For a while it didn’t affect his golf too noticeably. When his clubs felt too heavy to carry he bought an electric trolley, and when just walking 9 holes began to tire him, he progressed to a buggy. Both were invaluable in helping prolong his golf activity.
Tremors can make balancing a ball on a tee quite tricky, but friends and fellow players were happy to help out when he got shaky. Bending over to retrieve a ball was also sometimes difficult as the condition also affected his balance.
He had several falls on the course and escaped relatively unhurt because of the soft grass. But one afternoon he tripped backwards down a rabbit hole, broke his shoulder, and was very ill for several months.
He was so immobilised and disturbed by the whole experience that he virtually stopped playing golf even when his shoulder had mended.
Inclusiveness in sport
Shortly before his 80th birthday, I decided to check with England Golf whether people with disabilities could be helped to adapt their technique enough to still play the game. I wish I’d made that call sooner. I discovered that many coaches in the UK teach people (adults and children) with all kinds of learning and physical challenges how to enjoy golf – whether they’re beginners or seeking to return to it after an illness.
John was lucky enough to meet local coach Matt Tucknott, who showed an immediate understanding of his condition, and for the next six months he inspired, reassured and encouraged John back into hitting a golf ball.
To an outsider, the sessions might have looked slow, basic, and frustrating. But for John to be back on the driving range or on the first hole was a major achievement. Matt adapted the grips on some of his clubs, placed a chair strategically behind him as he practised his swing, and trotted along beside him when he re-discovered the sometimes wobbly delight of driving his buggy.
Accessing specialised coaching
Bodies like the PGA are now offering more and more specialised training for coaches keen to develop their skill in teaching people with disabilities. Matt once said to me, “You have to change your mindset, from pursuing some sort of idea of excellence to appreciating that all success in sport is relative to the person doing it.”
An intuitive understanding of John’s Parkinson’s in his approach.
For John and I, Matt went beyond good coaching. He showed empathy and an intuitive understanding of John’s Parkinson’s in his approach.
Sadly, John died before he and Matt could manage more than 1 hole together. Yet the sessions enabled him to reconnect not only with a game he loved, but with an active part of himself so often stolen by Parkinson’s. I wish we’d done it sooner.