by Bart Potter
The plan for Mark Benson’s recent Sunday lesson is a lot like many other golfers working to refine their games: Stay in balance, don’t sway off the ball, finish with your chest facing the target.
While we’re at it, his teacher said, let’s work on not de-lofting the club at impact. Let’s think about tucking that left elbow on the swing-through.
“The drill I’m gonna give you is a pain in the butt, especially if you’ve only got one arm,” instructor Matt Crotts said, positioning Benson with his right leg back behind his left, foot up on his toes. With all the weight on his left leg, if he swayed at all in the takeaway he’d fall out of balance.
It’s a drill Crotts has given to many a player with two working arms. For Benson, 62, of Covington, Wash., it’s different: he had his right arm amputated above the elbow after a motorcycle accident 37 years ago.
For Crotts, 33, a transplanted North Carolinian, Benson represents the first private lessons he’s given to an amputee.
“I think the challenge, mainly, for Mark missing the right arm, it’s tougher for him to push with his right side,” he says. “He has one less hand to hold the golf club. It just makes it more difficult, golf being a bilateral game.”
Benson and Crotts have an easy rapport as they work through the lesson at the Southcenter GolfTEC facility in Tukwila, Wash.
“Turn those tight hips,” the teacher said, laughing as he tried to turn them by hand. “They’re locked in place. Holy cow!”
Improving his golf swing and thereby reducing his handicap (he’s a 20 now with eyes on 16) is something Benson works at and takes seriously. It’s a goal.
“I want to be able to hone the skill and become more proficient at it,” he says, “and enjoy the game even more. How important is it to me? I’m not going to let it run my life.”
Inspiring other amputees to play golf, however, is something else again. It’s a cause.
“(Golf can) be a positive reinforcement,” Benson says, “to give you confidence not only in playing golf, but in living life. If you surround yourself with positive people you get positive reactions. That carries into things other than golf … into relationships with people at work or people you meet on the street.”
Benson is on the board of directors of the Western Amputee Golf Association (WAGA), which represents 11 western states. He played in the Western Amputee Golf Championship late last month at Riverbend Golf Course in Kent, Wash.
Broadening the outreach of WAGA is always on the board’s agenda, Benson says. For instance, he wants people to know their first WAGA tournament is free, thanks to the sponsorship of prosthesis companies like Hanger and Eastside Prosthetics.
Through the First Swing program, new amputee golfers can get free lessons from PGA professionals at events of WAGA and its parent, the National Amputee Golf Association.
“The key thing is, these guys, and gals, they maybe don’t want to play these tournaments, because they think they won’t be good enough,” Benson says. “It’s not true. We need to break that mental block.”
In June, Benson played in the world championship tournament of the UK-based Society of One-Armed Golfers at Headfort Golf Club in Kells, County Meath, Ireland. He cut short his stay in Ireland by one day so he could return home to serve his stint as a volunteer for the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay.
In 2012, the Society marked its 75th anniversary with a tournament in St Andrews, Scotland. Benson was there.
“I played the Old Course on July 4, 2012,” he says. “I’ll never forget that date.”
After the motorcycle accident in August 1978 in Denver cost him most of his right arm, he soon jumped into active sports – skiing, hiking and mountain climbing – first in Colorado, and later after he moved to Washington. A bronze medal in a national amputee skiing competition opened his eyes, he said, to what he could accomplish physically.
As for golf, he came to it gradually. He would play in an occasional church tournament, but wasn’t sure how he would progress in the sport. Eventually, he bought a set of clubs from a friend at Peace Lutheran Church.
Another friend, Gary Egeland, introduced him to swing path and other nuances of the game. The two would chip on Egeland’s front lawn or putt on the practice greens at nearby Lake Wilderness Golf Course.
“He was pretty much my teacher,” Benson says.
When he came to the brand new Southcenter GolfTEC in 2010, his first teacher there, Lyndon Bystrom, helped him break 100 for the first time.
Now, he’s in the men’s club at Druids Glen Golf Club, about five blocks from his home. His wife, Cheryl, also loves golf.
Benson’s seat on the board of WAGA is his official service to other amputees. Just as important are the smaller, personal ways he helps fellow amputees find the way to golf.
After that Sunday lesson at GolfTEC, he was chatting with Crotts, arranging their next meeting, when Crotts mentioned a player with an amputated leg coming in for a swing analysis. Benson jumped right in: Does he know about the Riverbend tournament? He can play for free, you know, if he’s never played it before. How can I get in touch?
Always working on his game, and others.
Bart Potter has taught journalism at a public college and private university, and won awards for sports writing and news reporting as a daily journalist. He manages the golf and travel website, www.greygoateegolf.com.