Golf

'I know how lucky I am, that's why I love the thrill of being out there on the golf course - because it's probably something I never expected to be able to do'

Gareth McNeilly had a passion for motorbikes, but an accident when he was 28 saw his right leg amputated above the knee. He also loved to play golf, and the Antrim man told Neil Loughran about his new sporting life, and the quest for respect...

Gareth McNeilly strides down the fairway at Massereene Golf Club. One day he hopes to break into the world's top 50 disabled golfers after battling back from a horrific motorbike accident 16 years ago.
Picture by Mal McCann

THE sun was splitting the rocks as the four of them headed out towards the Coast Road. Mark Gaul, Paul McLaughlin, Marty Maguire and Gareth McNeilly were bonded by their love of bikes, the sense of freedom it brought to hit the open road and pitch up wherever they pleased was something money couldn’t buy.

A glorious Saturday afternoon, the summer at its height. It was days like this that finally convinced McNeilly he needed to get onboard. The last of the crew to take the plunge, there was no going back once he had his own wheels.

“Probably growing up where I did, I always had that passion to get one.

“We would’ve been a very sporty family. Dad played Gaelic, soccer and rugby for clubs in Antrim town and my earliest memories are standing on the side of pitches, going to watch Manchester United, and going to road racing – Dundrod GP, the North West, they were always big days out.

“Nobody else in the family ever had a bike but, I don’t know, it was just always something I wanted to do.”

It wasn’t a natural fit; not at the start anyway.

“The first time I was on one properly was when I went to Philip McCallen’s in Lurgan to buy it off him, a wee 125. If you’d seen me riding it home,” he says, shaking his head, “shambolic. Completely shambolic.

“My sister was following me but on the way I ran out of petrol - I didn’t even know there was a reserve on the tank.”

Gareth McNeilly was 25 then. Still playing a bit of GAA with St Comgall’s in the town, and a golfer whose love for the game grew every time he stepped up to the first tee at Massereene, around a mile-and-half from his home. Life was easy.

By 28, he had upgraded to a Suzuki GSXR 600 sports bike. A machine like that is capable of going from 0-100 miles per hour in just seven seconds but when you’re brought up around bikes, there is an engrained awareness of the high stakes involved if that power is abused.

“I loved the freedom in the evenings after work. For me, it was just about relaxation; it was never about going hard. I loved going down the coast, or down to Newcastle, as we did that day…”

That day was July 31, 2004.

The four friends set off after lunch. As they made their way through Antrim town, McNeilly remembers waving to a fella he knew while they waited at lights near the police station. This was about 1.30pm on the Saturday afternoon.

His next memory is waking up in the Ulster hospital on Sunday night, feeling like he had cramp.

“We’d gone down to Newcastle then on through to Kilkeel. When we were coming back through Newcastle, the throttle jammed open on the bike and I obviously abandoned ship…”

If he hadn’t, he might not be here to tell the tale. McNeilly careered into one of the metal railings that line the Shimna Road, the barrier preventing him smashing into the wall metres away.

“That was my first blessing.”

Such was the velocity with which he hit the railing, the bottom of his left leg was still in the boot while he lay prone on the road. Then came his second blessing.

“Between my friends and an off-duty fireman, they got First Aid very quickly. One of the boys had a belt with him and he stuck a tourniquet on to stem the bleeding.

“I have no memory of any of this. It was only when we were having a beer a couple of years later that they told me about the leg still being in the boot. Thankfully I’m shielded from all that in my mind – I have no flashbacks, no memories of being in pain or anything else.”

With a shattered knee and broken bones in his thigh, an above knee amputation was recommended. The best case scenario was one operation, then straight into rehabilitation. This was McNeilly’s third blessing.

“I had a textbook recovery.

“After the operation I was into Musgrave Park about seven weeks later to learn to walk again. It just went really smoothly. The staff in the hospital and Musgrave Park keep you so positive; nothing’s too much trouble – ‘if this doesn’t work we’ll try something else’.

“I’ve always been given the best leg the NHS can provide. The first was a primitive, simple leg to get you used to walking again, adjusted by three different screws that you tighten and loosen to determine how quickly it flowed through.

“In 2008 funding became available for a computerised knee, I was one of the first here to get one and it’s a completely different ball game. It’s like going from your first car to your dream car. After that, I never really looked back…”

Now 44, he looks at his life as two distinct phases. And as one chapter ended, so another would begin.

************

STARING down the fairway, he breathes in and savours the moment. Eight long weeks Gareth McNeilly has waited to stand here. The grass has never looked so lush and green, with every sound and smell a treat for the senses as he sizes up his first shot.

Yet while it feels great to be back, his body isn’t so sure.

“I’ve a blister on my stump, which is making playing or walking painful – a side effect of eating too much during lockdown and not doing enough exercise.

“Hopefully in another couple of days I’ll be alright again. I lost three balls that first day back but when the weather’s like this, it’s hard not to be out there.”

McNeilly had been due to fly out to South Africa for the Canon Open at Mount Edgecombe Country Club last month until it became another sporting casualty of the pandemic. Indeed, all the plans he had for 2020, and there were plenty, have had to be reviewed or put on ice.

The fact he is in this position at all, weighing up what competitions to enter, where he would like to finish the year in the world rankings – he is currently 138th after just a couple of years on the disabled golf tour – feels like bonus territory.

“It’s only four years since I joined Massereene again. I had joined when I was 15 and for two or three summers I was down there nearly every day.”

It was in a different discipline that McNeilly eventually returned to sport after his accident, initially getting into swimming in a bid to shift some weight before becoming good enough to return with a clutch of medals from the 2010 UK Amputee Games.

Golf still pulled at him, but he wasn’t sure what was possible until he went to the driving range one morning seven years ago.

“I didn’t know how the leg would hold up.

“When I moved onto nine holes, you would always have been walking with you head down looking for pebbles, uneven surfaces… this leg, with sensors in the foot and in the knee, can - to a point - adapt to conditions. So that became a game-changer.

“Even something as simple as being on a green and you back off a putt… before I was turning and walking away from it, now I have the confidence that I’m not going to fall over.

“The more I stuck at it, the more I realised ‘I can still hit this thing alright – it’s still going the direction I want it to some of the time’.”

It was only when scrolling through Twitter one night that he became aware of the European Disabled Golf Association (EDGA), adrenaline coursing as the world of possibilities available began to dawn.

McNeilly bit the bullet, and his first tournament was the Scottish Open at Fairmont St Andrew’s in August 2017. To his amazement, he found himself leading after day one.

“I didn’t know what to expect, but being in the lead at any stage wasn’t in my thinking going there.

“The great thing is you don’t see disability, you just see golfers. You’d find yourselves talking about things like ‘what leg have you got?’ ‘What foot have you got?’ Nearly like you’re talking about what driver or putter you use.

“I was really taken aback by standard, the friendliness between the people and the competitiveness. It was a three round tournament with a practice day so halfway through the fourth day I was shattered.

“I hadn’t played four rounds in-a-row since the accident, and I couldn’t tell you when, as an able bodied golfer, I would’ve done that. I ended up finishing ninth and came home absolutely hooked, wanting more of it.”

That showing and subsequent performances saw McNeilly asked to represent Europe at the Phoenix Cup in Florida the following October. Appearing at disabled golf’s equivalent of the Ryder Cup is a memory that will stay with him forever – even if it is one tinged with sadness.

“The day after we got there one of our team-mates, Billy Cairns from Scotland, unfortunately died from a heart attack. I’d only met him that day and when that happened, we didn’t know whether to play or go home.

“His family wanted us to play, so from there it was like ‘we’re not going to lose’. Everybody did it for him.”

Europe won by two points to claim the bragging rights, and a new competition has now been named the Cairns Cup in Billy’s honour. The 2020 renewal had been due to take place at Celtic Manor in September, but has been put back 12 months, with whispers of corporate sponsorship, a pro-am and possible Sky Sports coverage.

McNeilly can’t wait, and remembers being struck by the seriousness and professionalism with which the Americans approached the event last time out.

“We were told smart casual for the welcome evening, they all turned up in chinos, shirt and tie and blazer with the crest and all. They were game on. The first morning they came out with 15 Titleist bags with their names on them, as well as hats, gloves, shoes.

“You’re thinking ‘these boys are taking it serious…’”

Gareth McNeilly would love to see one of Ireland's leading golfers, like current world number one Rory McIlroy, become an ambassador for disabled golfers. Picture by PA

That turned out to be a defining moment. A few years on, the wider issues of respect and recognition have gnawed at McNeilly. In order to compete at any EDGA events, he pays his own way – roughly £750 per tournament, just to get your name on the entry sheet.

Pre Covid, he had targeted six competitions in different destinations across the world, with the aim to cut his handicap from 15.2 to 13.9 (“I was 14 when I had two legs so that’s my goal”) and push himself into the world’s top 50 by the year’s end. That is a considerable financial hit to take in pursuit of a dream.

With such a rich tradition of golf in Ireland, especially during the past 15 years when Padraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell, Darren Clarke, Shane Lowry and current world number one Rory McIlroy have all won Majors, McNeilly can’t help but look on slightly perplexed by the lack of support Ireland’s disabled golfers receive.

“We’re competing against a lot of what we would see as smaller golfing nations so it does probably annoy you a bit when you see the Italians, Czech Republic turning up with full kit, blazers.

“I can understand the likes of the French, Dutch and the Swedish, who have backing from Henrik Stenson. Those countries would be there with coaches, fully funded, all the gear – they’re treated with respect.

“They’re on a disabled golf development programme and that’s ideally where I’d like to see things go in Ireland.

“My dream would be, we identify eight to 10 players with world rankings, that there would be coaching made available for them on a semi-regular basis.

“Golf Ireland and the two unions have been very good, and disabled golf is definitely going to have a part to play; I can see a time where you bring a corporate sponsor in to fund a high performance disabled team, and a programme.

“I’m not suggesting we should fund everybody to go everywhere, but it would be great if you could get some help at least with a certain number of tournaments a year.”

And bringing one of the big guns on board would be a huge boost.

“We’ve five Major winners since 2007 so to get one of those guys onboard as an ambassador would be unbelievable in terms of the publicity, the business contacts they would bring and the doors that might open.

“It’s amazing what can happen when the professionals throw their weight behind something. We would love to have their backing.”

These are all long-term goals, ideals McNeilly and others would love to see realised down the line.

For now though, he still feels like he is just starting out, with so much to learn and so much room to improve. The remaining months may be about trying to salvage something from 2020, but he is still sustained by his last European outing in November 2019.

Just as at St Andrew’s Fairmont, McNeilly hit the front early at the Algarve Open. Although he came up short again, the building blocks feel as though they are edging into place. Only five shots separated him and French winner Hassan Chakboub at the close of play.

The buzz, the highs, the lows and the sheer thrill of competing. In the weeks and months after his accident in July 2004, he could never have dreamt of any of this.

“Looking back, I can honestly say I have no bad thoughts about the accident at all.

“I mean, I’m in shorts now and I have no problem with how it looks, no problem talking to anyone who might ask what happened to me. I’ve spent time with other new amputees as a volunteer at Musgrave Park, encouraging them to be positive and show them what can be done.

“I’ve never had one bad day thinking about losing a limb or ‘why me?’ I’ve had other days where I’ve beaten myself up about other things, but never the leg. I was 28 when my accident happened – the day after two brothers from Antrim were killed in a motorbike accident around the Coast Road. They were younger than me, and they got no second chances.

“Sometimes I think of me before the accident as someone else; someone different from who I am now. I wouldn’t say losing a limb was the best thing to happen to me, but it’s certainly not the worst.

“I know how lucky I am, that’s why I love the thrill of being out there on the golf course - because it’s probably something I never expected to be able to do.

“Look at that first day in Portugal for example. Everything went to plan. I got a couple of good breaks too, but it felt easy, like this is what I do. Moments, days like that, they’re hard to put into words really.

“You just feel so… alive .”

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