Judi Brush realizes that golf is sometimes portrayed as less inclusive and welcoming than it ought to be. Her experience in the adaptive golf community could not be farther from that perception.
“I have found in the disabled community that there's an acceptance of different abilities and different age groups that you don’t find every day in golf,” said Brush, 80, of Alexandria, Va., who is the oldest competitor in the U.S. Adaptive Open and one of 18 females in the 96-player field.
On the eve of Monday’s Round 1 of the 54-hole event, Brush said, “Tomorrow I am playing in a group with three people who are scratch golfers, and I know they will treat me with total respect, regardless of whether I am able to finish a hole because of the length and everything involved.” (Note: the modified Rules of Golf for the Adaptive Open include players picking up their ball and taking a maximum score of double the hole’s par.)
Sophia Howard, 15, of Hudsonville, Mich., is the youngest player in the field, and is just the kind of player who Brush wants to encourage into the adaptive community.
“I’ve found in going to these events that often you’re one of five or seven [females], where the men have a larger group to support them,” said Brush. “While some women are uncomfortable and will say they can’t do it, I’ve been known to be hard-headed and not worry about that part of it.”
After many years playing tennis, Brush became an avid golfer in her 40s. However, leg problems hampered her for several years, and after unsuccessful ankle-replacement surgery, she had her left leg amputated shortly before turning 65. “I lost my leg in May and I turned 65 in November. I used to joke that I got my prosthetic and Medicare in the same year.”
When she was in the hospital recovering from her surgery, Fred Crowell, the golf professional from her home club, Belle Haven Country Club, visited her.
“He told me, ‘I’ll be ready when you get back,’” said Brush. “He was so reassuring, and helped me think about playing a little differently, a little more conservatively.”
Brush said when she returned to the game, she was “terrified” of hitting into some of the bunkers on her course, which have steep faces taller than she is.
“I was worried it was going to take me six shots to get out,” said Brush. “Not only that, as an amputee, the sand can feel very strange, and trying to rake the bunker as you walk backwards out of it, let’s just say the day that you can do that is one of the happiest of your life. You feel like you’ve won a gold medal right there.”
Brush learned to hit her approach shots over the green if necessary to clear the daunting bunkers, because, as Crowell reasoned, what was wrong with having to chip the ball back to the hole? “Nothing,” she replied. “I learned to play a little smarter.”
Brush, who won the U.S. Adaptive Golf Alliance (USADA) ladies’ net championship in 2019, has played in several national and regional amputee events and is a member of a USADA committee seeking to increase awareness and participation in golf for women with disabilities. The sense of community that Brush notes shone through when she made it into this week’s field.
“A group of us women made a pact that we would apply for the championship and see what happens,” said Brush. “Barely had I heard that I got in and was kind of reeling from hearing it that Tracy Ramin [the executive director of the National Amputee Golf Association] called to congratulate me. I can’t say enough about the people.”
Howard, who was born without a right hand and took up the game in earnest just three years ago at age 12, has had a similar experience in her short time as a competitor.
“The adaptive golf community is one big family,” said Howard, who also plays the outfield for a 17-and-under travel softball team. “If you know one person, they will know someone who you know, and they really take care of you.”
Brush does her best to encourage others to experience the joy and camaraderie she has found in the game.
“I’ve always been a big volunteer so that part comes naturally to me,” said Brush. “Because we live near Fort Belvoir, I have done some volunteering with the Wounded Warrior project, and just showing someone how to do it, and the smile that comes on their face, it’s worth a million dollars.”
Brush recently encouraged a 15-year-old girl who had starred in basketball before she got bone cancer and lost her leg.
“She was hitting the ball well, getting it up high, and her father called me a few days later for advice on finding some clubs for her,” said Brush. “I hope we’re going to see her in some of these events in the future.”
Sometimes there is a lack of awareness of the obstacles that adaptive golfers need to overcome – even in Brush’s own family.
“I lost my leg the same year that my first grandchild was born,” she said. “They have always known me as the person who just did whatever she did, never once thinking about the effort involved, or that it might be unusual. My son [Mark] realized that, in wanting them to think it was normal to have a disability, maybe he hadn’t made it clear enough what was involved. He asked them to read the biographies of the players who are here this week, and suddenly they realized what kind of effort it takes. They say they’ll never look at someone with a disability the same way again.”
Brush finds inspiration where she can.
“We have a gentleman at our course who still plays a respectable game at [age] 91,” she said. “He’s out there two or three times a week, and I want to be like him. I told him, I’m going to keep doing this until they won’t give me a tee time anymore.”
For Howard, Monday was momentous and eventful.
“There were a lot of firsts for me today – my first round, my first event, my first tee shot,” she said. “Once I calmed down, I got in my zone and did what I needed to do. Not everything clicked like it did during the two practice rounds, but that’s golf.”
Spoken like a true veteran.
Ron Driscoll is the senior manager of content for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.