By Mike Dougherty
HARRISON – Most days, golf comes easy to Pete Stefanchik, but nothing about the game was instinctive on Monday as the head professional at Elmwood Country Club got an opportunity to walk the proverbial mile on another man’s prosthetic leg.
Perspective was gained with each awkward swing taken at Westchester Country Club.
The normal thought process was quickly discarded as Stefanchik and 23 other Met PGA instructors learned what it was like to hit a golf ball wearing a prosthetic leg. Forget about things like swing plane and ball flight. The most pressing concern was finding a way to stay upright on the follow through.
A dose of humility came with each tempered swing.
Many of the professionals are planning to use their newfound knowledge in May when the section’s first PGA HOPE program launches at West Point. The idea is to provide military veterans dealing with physical and emotional disabilities with adaptive instruction so they might enjoy the rewards golf can provide.
More programs in the region are planned for 2016 and will be funded by the PGA of America’s charitable arm.
“The level of newfound respect I have for these individuals in unbelievable,” said Stefanchik, whose brother, Michael, currently serves in a Special Forces group out of Fort Bragg, N.C. “Having every ounce of your weight on just one leg is so tiring, and I only took a couple of swings. You can’t teach anyone in this situation until you’re in their shoes. You wouldn’t even know where to begin.”
David Windsor, the national trainer for PGA HOPE (Helping Our Patriots Everywhere) and principal instructor at the Adaptive Golf Academy in Sarasota, Fla., spent the day at Westchester Country Club providing three hours of classroom instruction before setting up inside the John Kennedy Learning Center for a more practical lesson.
“This is the most important part,” he said while befuddled professionals took swings standing on the prosthetic leg, while strapped into a chair or utilizing one arm. “We call it the self-adaptation experience. There are so many levels of challenges the veterans have to deal with, but this gives our golf professionals a sense for what each person is feeling.”Positive results were hard-earned.
“If they didn’t have somebody hanging onto the belt, I was going down,” Fenway Golf Club head pro Heath Wassem said after he took a turn on the prosthetic leg. “It’s really eye-opening, all of the different sensations you feel.”
The instructors are now prepared to adapt lessons depending on the need of each veteran.
“You have to use a whole different set of muscles,” Sleepy Hollow Country Club head pro David Young said. “It’s hard to really be in their shoes, but I would think anything fun has to help them.”
There were four disabled veterans on hand, picking up tips and giving the pros a chance to see more developed swings in action.
“I had to learn how to walk all over again, learn how to golf all over again,” said 64-year-old Army vet Steve Levy, a Sullivan County resident whose right leg was amputated above the knee following a failed knee replacement in 2010. “This program is tremendous for those who played before. And if you have not played golf, it’s a great place to start because it’s so important to get really good instruction right from the beginning.”
Kennedy, the longtime director of golf at Westchester Country Club, has been running adaptive golf programs at the club for three years and has already seen the game lift up disabled veterans.
“They made a video a couple of years ago when I was given the PGA’s national Patriot Award,” he said. “One of the veterans we worked with told me, ‘I never thought I’d smile again.’ Sometimes you don’t know the impact something like this can have on somebody.”
Veterans that are interested in participating in the PGA Hope Program launching in May can find out more by going to www.metpgahope.com. The program is free of charge.