Golf

'We dumped the buggy at the second hole... feck that, I'm here to play golf - I'm no different to anyone else'

The first professional disability golfer to compete on the European Tour, Brendan Lawlor is beginning to make waves on the biggest stages. Neil Loughran hears the story of a young man who has always defied the odds...

Dundalk's Brendan Lawlor is currently fourth in the disability golf world rankings, but has his sights set on so much more within the game. Picture by Hugh Russell

IT was the biggest day of his career to date but, as they make their way to the first tee, Brendan and Billy Lawlor are feeling uneasy about different things. For dad Billy, who doubles up as Brendan’s caddy on the road, it’s the circumstances that surround the task at hand.

Here is his son gearing up to take on the iconic Belfry course, the eyes of the golfing world gazing down upon him. It was last August that Brendan became the first professional disability golfer to compete on the European Tour, making his debut in the ISPS Handa UK Championship.

The interest, the “15 to 20” different interviews that come with it, is all new. Billy knows his boy – Brendan loves the attention, loves being centre stage. Pressure has never been a problem.

But as the time neared, his worries were less parental and more of a practical nature.

“He was coming back off knee surgery he’d had the February before, and he’d only had his new TaylorMade clubs for about a week so it was a brave decision to play – probably foolish, in my opinion.”

For Brendan though, it is the optics that niggle early on.

The Dundalk man was born with an extremely rare bone growth condition called Ellis-van Creveld syndrome, which is characterised by a shorter stature and shorter limbs. Standing 4’11, for every step most take, he takes two or three.

Since joining the European Disability Golf Association (EDGA) three years ago, Brendan has had a buggy exemption that allows him to navigate 18 holes with greater ease. When the knees stiffen and the back gets sore, he is glad of it.

But at the Belfry, it just didn’t sit right. There, with the Sky cameras rolling, the messaging mattered more than the scoreboard.

“I don’t know, I just wasn’t happy,” says the 23-year-old.

“There’s people watching on TV and you’re in a buggy… like, I’m well capable of walking. I can walk 26 holes in one day never mind 18, so we dumped the buggy at the second hole - feck that, I’m here to play golf.

“I’m no different to anyone else.”

The defiance as those words are spat out lands like a slap to the face. This is what makes Brendan Lawlor different. The skill and the technique can be fine-tuned, but the fortitude, the fire in the belly?

It was those qualities that kept him alive when the odds steepened at the very start, and they have taken him all the way to where he stands today.

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

AS proud grandparents go, Bill Lawlor would take some beating. Originally from Kildare, Bill worked as a schoolteacher in Cushendall for a time during the ’60s before a job as an instructor with the Royal Air Force took him to parishes further afield, in Oman and Germany among many others, picking up six languages along the way.

Now 86, watching Brendan become one of the leading lights in disability golf – he is currently the world number four – far surpasses anything that has gone before.

And the best thing about it all? It was a dream born in Bill’s back yard.

“I live on a farm and there’s a two acre garden where I’ve laid out three par three holes – 70, 80 and 90 yards in a triangle,” he chuckles.

“We got Brendan started when he was only three and hadn’t long come out of Crumlin Children’s Hospital. He was born with two holes in the heart, you see, so he was two down before he even started…”

Crumlin became a home from home for longer than the Lawlor family could ever have anticipated. They didn’t know anything was wrong until he was born and, even though he had six fingers on each hand, doctors weren’t overly concerned early on.

Alarm bells kept ringing though, parental intuition eventually proving correct.

“He needed open heart surgery,” says dad Bill.

“He wasn’t expected to survive because a chamber of the heart was missing, there was a massive hole. He couldn’t breathe properly, he was on oxygen all the time.

“They told us they’d operate at about six months but they had to operate after 10 weeks because the morning he was going for the operation, all the lines hit. When they were putting in the cannula for the operation, he just stopped.

“The operation happened there and then, he wouldn’t have made it otherwise - and it was miraculous. Once he was breathing unaided, everything changed.”

And this is when Brendan came into his own. The medics predicted he would be in intensive care for up to six months post-op. He was home in 10 days.

Initially told he would never be able to drink, tube feeding was proving problematic in those early stages. Like he always has done though, Brendan adapted.

“He kept pulling them out… there was always a serious fire in him. He was a very feisty little human being – still is.

“After a couple of days his granny just said ‘look, there’s no future in this’ and started giving him a bottle. It was a lot of hassle the first two or three times she tried it, I think it took four of us to hold him down but eventually we got there.

“After that there were multiple operations on the knees, plates in the knees, plates in both legs, the fingers were removed when he was three… the young part of Brendan’s life was difficult. He was prone to everything, he would’ve had severe asthma too.

“But he had everything young and then sort of grew through it, and then the strength and the power just came after that.”

At primary school he played soccer and GAA, but by then the golf seeds first sown in Bill’s back garden had taken a firm grip.

“I had just recently retired, so I had the time to take him out in the garden as a kind of physiotherapy,” says Bill.

“I chopped down golf clubs so by the time he could walk, within a week he had clubs. He took to it like a duck to water and just developed a passion for pitch and putt.

“Brendan was always such a lively personality, so upbeat… my contribution to it was almost just to say be calm, be confident, step up on the tee like you’re entitled to be there - because you are entitled to be there.”

Brendan was striking the ball true from four, breaking par in pitch and putt and winning Leinster titles by 10. The trophy train didn’t halt when he graduated to full scale golf either, landing an adult All-Ireland at 16 thanks to an 11 under par final round.

Some things are just meant to be, and he was a natural. But there were still battles to be won away from the course – like navigating life, and the challenges it would throw his way as adolescence, and the move to Dundalk Grammar, loomed.

“In primary school you’re growing up with your peers, you’re the same level, and you’ve gained such a great relationship in those years you’re seen the same, but going into secondary school, mum and dad probably feared it because I was bait.

“I was thinking I can either get the shit slagged out of me here or enjoy my six years at school. On the first day I went into this big room and I made friends… before people started looking I sort of made a joke.

“I made it easy for me.”

“From a parent’s point of view it was hard,” adds Billy.

“He was lucky because he had his older brother Liam there too, but you have to realise Brendan was raised in a village where no-one sees him as any different. I was a GAA coach, he was at every football game, every outing, they never saw him as different.

“It’s only when you went into town that kids would be coming running up and pointing and looking, because they don’t understand difference. That takes an awful lot of strength to deal with, but that’s a normality we would have discussed with Brendan since he was young.

“He was always told you are who you are.”

And that’s who he has always been, the same grounded approach standing him on solid ground even when he started rocketing up the EDGA rankings in his first couple of years on tour.

There was no great ambition, no grand plan – everything he did and everything he achieved came from a deep love of the game.

“I always had a passion for it but, career-wise, I never thought it was going to be a road I would go down. I was a good amateur player but I wasn’t a good enough player at a pro level. I had a talent but I was no Rory McIlroy, I was no Shane Lowry.

“Also I didn’t realise I had a disability. I was just thrown in at the deep end, found myself normal from day one… that has probably stood to me now because I was competing against scratch, plus two, plus three golfers in Ireland all my life.”

Management company Modest! – co-founded by singer Niall Horan – could see the potential a mile off after EDGA title successes in three different countries, signing him up in 2019 and accelerating an unexpected move into the professional world.

“They wanted him because of what he represents,” says Bill.

“There are companies out there who want to be associated with this now, which wouldn’t always have been the case. It’s been a huge transition.”

Just last week Brendan put pen to paper on a long-term deal, a clear indication of the faith Modest! have in him to transcend the sport and help raise the game for disability golf.

It is a challenge he is more than happy to accept.

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

Bryson DeChambeau piled on 20lb of muscle last year in a bid to improve his game

BOOOOOOMMM….

BOOOOOOMMM….

BOOOOOOMMM…. 

IT’S getting on for midnight but there’s not much sleeping being done. The various lockdowns and the closure of golf courses across the country have allowed Brendan Lawlor the chance to innovate, Bryson DeChambeau style.

A physics major, the American has always gone in search of the most scientifically efficient way of shooting a low score. During last year’s pandemic-enforced period of inactivity he piled on 20 pounds of muscle, ‘The Incredible Bulk’ returning to shatter previous boundaries in terms of speed and distance before galloping to his first Major at September’s US Open.

Likewise, Brendan has used this time to improve himself physically. And while the family attempt to drift off, he can be found downstairs hammering balls against a screen on his Trackman simulator.

“I’m probably driving about 260-270 [yards], so I get it out there. I’m swinging out of my shoes in the house for now.

“I’m literally doing a Bryson. The pressure he’s putting on his body, if I was his size I probably could do the same thing he did because it’s so unnatural how far I hit it for someone so small.

“I’m flat out in the gym, working with a personal trainer three days a week, waking up in the morning and doing five or six kilometres every day. When I do go back, I want to be able to walk 18 holes and not be tired after it.

“I’m a bit of a freak,” he laughs as dad Billy nods in agreement, “I can’t sit down and watch TV, can’t sit on my phone for too long. I just always feel I should be at something.”

For all the conditioning work that he continues to do, though, the iron will that saw him battle back from the brink years earlier remains a crucial part of his armoury.

“I was playing an EDGA competition in Germany in November 2019 and, after the very first shot on the range, I heard a popping sound. I felt good that morning too, I was one or two shots behind going into the day.

“I kept going though, played the whole round and shot three under – I was two over after nine but shot five under through the last seven holes. I just got into a different level of focus, it was mad.

“And then when I got to the airport that night I couldn’t walk. I got off the flight and pretty much had to be rolled to the car. I was in bits.”

He had torn his meniscus in seven places and would eventually require keyhole surgery in February last year.

When the calendar opened up again in the summer, the invite to the Belfry was extended. Others might have shied away but, despite Billy’s concerns, Brendan was never going to say no.

Even in the absence of crowds it was an experience like no other - one he can’t wait to repeat.

“You were just received as a professional golfer like any of the rest of them.

“I had chats with Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer. Bryson DeChambeau texted me, Greg Norman texted me… hold on I have it here: ‘Absolutely fantastic what you’re doing Brendan, love to see it, just remember - always be you’. Lovely, meaningful messages.

“But then there were the messages not from other golfers or celebrities, but people from all walks of life saying ‘I’m missing an arm from the forearm down, how do I do this?’ It’s those people you want to reach and bring into the game, the same way I was brought into the game.

“Those messages really showed me the impact we can have.”

And while becoming the world’s top disability golfer remains a priority in a competitive sense, that bigger picture means more than anything as he plots his course over the years to come.

Lobbying continues for the inclusion of disability golf at the 2028 Paralympics in Los Angeles. He is determined to do whatever is asked to make that happen.

And while his invitation to compete at a European Tour event was widely celebrated, Brendan wants to make sure that, having got a foot through the door, he and others can finally kick it wide open.

There is a fine line to be walked, though.

“When Brendan won at the Renaissance Club in Scotland in 2019, that was the first disability Major ever held in conjunction with a Rolex Tour event,” says Billy.

“Sam Torrance had him in, he shot level in the rain and beat 16 of the pros that had made the cut on the day. That was really good for him because it showed a level of ability that didn’t not belong – because you’ve got to be very careful.

“When you’re bringing in the best of the world from disability golf, it’s a different thing from the very best in the world in able-bodied golf.

“EDGA is where he wants to be winning but in terms of the European Tour, making a cut would be the target. That’s down the road.”

“I see myself at the forefront of disability golf so any chance we get to promote the game on that stage, we have to grab it,” adds Brendan.

“At the minute the opportunities that are being given to disability golfers are only to the elite. I know I’m lucky to be in that category and that has to change down the line, but we have to start somewhere.

“Attitudes have changed towards disability and inclusion, and hopefully they will continue to change. The time is right for it.”

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