Golfers with disabilities to play in benefit tournament

Players with disabilities adapt to stay in swing of benefit tournament
By BRAD WILLIAMS, April 7, 2007
When Gary Kupfer pulled off Interstate 40 one day six years ago, he knew something was wrong.

What he didn't know at the time was that he was having a stroke. "I could have stayed in the car and died," he said.

Instead, he got out and walked a mile to his home, dragging one leg.

"The words 'I quit,' it's just not in my vocabulary," he said.

That's why Kupfer plans to be one of about six golfers with disabilities in East Tennessee Technology Access Center Inc.'s Mack French & Phil Williams Golf Tournament on April 23 at Fox Den Country Club.

ETTAC provides technological assistance to people with disabilities to improve their enjoyment of life and independence, serving about 1,000 people each year.

"When (ETTAC) asked me if I needed any special accommodation, I said, 'I'm going to need somebody to watch my golf ball for me, because I can't see it,' " said Kupfer, who lost part of his vision as a result of the stroke. "I can still hit a golf ball. I just can't see where it goes."

Brett LeSueur can't see the ball at all, but recently he took third place in a golf tournament for the blind in the Midwest.

LeSueur didn't start playing seriously until 2005, but his personal-best score is 121, quite competitive in blind golf. Last year he hit a 275-yard drive.

"That was the longest, straightest drive in the ETTAC tournament last year," LeSueur said. "If I hit the ball, I'm already happy no matter how far it goes."

He said 275 yards was a rarity. He hits with a little help from his coach or caddy.

"Blind golf is a team sport," LeSueur said. "They have to line you up and tell you your distance."

Often it's his mom or friends. His coach, 2006 state PGA Teacher of the Year Des Mahoney, pushes him to achieve more.

"He says I have talent, and that's what encourages me to keep playing and keep trying to do better," LeSueur said. "My goal is to play in the national championship (for blind golf). That's what I'm working for '07."

LeSueur lifts weights and trains with a backyard net and a 16-foot putting green he built in his basement, or at Rick Hill's Chapman Highway Driving Range, where Hill lines him up to swing. He's trying to find a group to play on the course with regularly.

"When I practice, I think that every shot that I take, that's one shot closer to making it there," LeSueur said.

He said he hopes his playing will inspire other golfers with disabilities to get out and do things they think they can't.

High-tech help A car accident paralyzed Rick Slaughter from the waist down. That was 1979. He's since been No. 2 in the nation in singles wheelchair tennis and No. 1 in doubles.

He's also a golfer. Less than three years ago, a SoloRider golf cart brought him to the tee box.

Slaughter tees up his ball with a tool and drives from an outstretched swivel seat. The cart can go anywhere on a typical course, even sand traps.

Rob Witherington, southeastern regional manager with SoloRider and a sponsor at the event, said it's a help to seniors, too.

"The baby boomers are turning 60 and there's going to be a big wave of senior play," Witherington said. He said because people can strap into the seat, which will actually lift up and tilt to put a golfer in a standing position to swing from the cart, seniors with hip or knee problems, difficulty breathing or fatigue can keep playing.

The golfers encourage others not to give up.

Kupfer played his last full round in 2004, after his stroke. At the time, he thought it marked an end to 40 years of golfing.

But he said he can't put down his clubs for good.

"Never think that you can't do anything," Kupfer said. "If your heart's in it and your mind is in it, you can get your body to do it."

Brad Williams may be reached at 865-342-6432.