Saturday, June 13, 2009

Double amputee picks up game, earns PGA membership

You probably don’t know Don Vickery. I didn’t know him until recently.
Nevertheless, his story is one of the most inspirational that I have encountered in a long time.
Vickery is a 51-year-old military veteran. He served his country from 1976-83 and wound up in Augusta, Ga., to earn an education degree.
Vickery lived close to Fort Gordon in Augusta; and on a July day in 1989 he was walking his dog in a restricted area on the military base.
“I knew I shouldn’t have been there,” Vickery said this week from his home in Savannah, Ga. “Something blew off, and the next thing I knew I was in the hospital.
“I really don’t like talking about it, and when I do, it’s like I am telling a story about somebody else. I have tried to forget it.”
The consequences were severe. Vickery lost his right leg just below the knee, his left leg just above the knee and a portion of one of his hands. The accident left him in an amputee ward in Eisenhower Hospital at Fort Gordon.
“I was there with other amputees, and you get paired randomly with companies that fix legs,” Vickery said. “Ray Rice Jr. was the company representative that I dealt with. We immediately hit it off, and it turned out that his father was also an amputee who loved golf.”
Golf was the last thing on Vickery’s mind in 1989.
“When you have an accident like that, you have to relearn everything,” he said. “It took me a year before I could walk again.
“By 1992, I was getting around pretty well, and Ray encouraged me to try golf. I had never played before. I was a pretty good athlete, but I had played football and basketball.”
Rice and his understudy formed a solid friendship through golf, and as Vickery’s game improved, the two became competitive on the course.
“I can still remember the first par I ever made,” Vickery said. “It was Number 8 at Pointe South, a par-4 dogleg right, and I made a 10-footer for par.”
In 1993, Vickery got a job at a driving range working for another friend, Jackson Carswell.
“I worked the range, picked up balls and just watched people hit balls,” Vickery said. “Jackson taught me a lot about chipping and putting. He could chip it in a hat.
“A lot of people thought I was crazy for pursuing something they didn’t think I could do.”
In 1995, Vickery moved to Savannah and got a job working at the Sheraton Golf Club, which has since been sold and is now Wilmington Island Golf Club.
“This was a great course for me,” Vickery said. “The people welcomed me, and the course was relatively flat, which made it easy for me to play.
“I had a chance to work in the golf shop in late 1997 for Charlie Dobbertin, PGA Professional. The course got sold, and Patrick Richardson, PGA, became my new boss. He told me that he wanted me to be a PGA member.
“I didn’t think I could do it. The playing ability test was 36 holes in one day, and my legs just couldn’t take that. The PGA Board of Control granted me a waiver to take the PAT over two days. But still I knew it would be hard to meet the PGA playing standards.”
This spring, Don Vickery shot 78-75 at Wilmington Island to pass his playing ability test. He finished the third level of the PGA Professional Golf Management Program and will be elected to PGA membership. Vickery will be the first double amputee in the 93-year history of the PGA of America to become a member.
Keep in mind he had never played golf before his accident.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am to accomplish my PGA membership,” he said. “This is an organization of people who love what they do, and they promote golf to whoever will listen.
“Golf lends itself to everybody. It is a game of the people. Golf gave me my life back.”
His low round is 71. He hits his driver 240 yards and his 7-iron 158 yards. Vickery has all of the same issues with the golf swing that most of us have.
“My upper body carries my lower body,” he said. “I am a shoulder-and-arm swinger.
“Timing is everything for me. I try to let my shoulders rotate independently of my head. If I do that, I hit it good. If I let my head move left, I trap it a little.”
Vickery now teaches at Wilmington Island.
“People want my help with their swings,” he said. “I teach a lot, particularly juniors.
“Kids just want to whack it out there. They feed off of praise. With adults, their expectations usually exceed their ability,” he added with a laugh.
This summer, Vickery will make his second trip to Walter Reed Medical Center, where he will talk to people who have suffered similar circumstances.
“I try to encourage them to understand that there is a difference between difficulty and impossibility,” he said. “They need to grab life back. It takes hard work and perseverance.”
Vickery is a pioneer in his own right. Even in PGA of America circles, few of us knew that he had never played golf before he suffered his terrible accident.
It wouldn’t have been Vickery’s style to make a big deal out of
the magnitude of his accomplishment.
National media are now part of Vickery’s life, like it or not. Golf World highlighted his accomplishments last week. The Golf Channel is working on a segment, and his new association, The PGA of America, will welcome him with open arms.
“Like anything else, you get out of it what you put into it,” he said. “I am just a regular guy who has tried to fly under the radar. I guess I now have the chance to reach out to other people.”
Ted Bishop is director of golf for The Legends of Indiana Golf Course in Franklin and secretary for PGA of America.

Photo Caption: You probably don’t know Don Vickery. I didn’t know him until recently.
Nevertheless, his story is one of the most inspirational that I have encountered in a long time.

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