Changing Lives

Local pro helps bring traumatic injury victims back to the game


NORTON – J.P. Norden lay in his hospital bed after losing his right leg in the bombing at last April’s Boston Marathon and assumed his days of playing golf were over.

“I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do anything ever again, let alone play golf,” he said.

Four months later, he was anxiously awaiting the day when he teed it up again. More important, it wasn’t just a dream for Norden, 33, and others like him who have suffered traumatic injuries. Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, in conjunction with Golfsmith and Nike Golf, is making it a reality through its innovative “Back in the Swing” adaptive golf program.

Rick Johnson, longtime head professional at Hyannisport Club who is now assisting Bob Miller at The Golf Club in Yarmouthport, experienced his own life-changing moment when he discovered the program.

Johnson spent decades teaching golf at Hyannisport and, more recently, at Willowbend in Mashpee. He learned of Spaulding’s program while listening to a local morning talk radio show. Intrigued, he began volunteering. Soon after, he offered suggestions to improve the program.

“I thought they needed to add something with the mechanics and knowledge of the golf swing,” he said. “I became passionate about it. The rewards you get from working with the participants and their caregivers are unbelievable. There is such joy in bringing people back into the game of golf.

“This program has completely changed my life.”

Johnson was at TPC-Boston last fall as part of The Deutsche Bank Championship’s Community Appreciation Day, where he teamed with PGA Tour pro Robert Garrigus to provide swing tips to help victims bring golf back into their lives.

Norden, a 12-handicap before his injury, still faces additional surgeries before he will be able to swing a golf club again. But he’s counting the days.

“This is an amazing program, and it’s unbelievable that they would do this for us,” he said. “Playing golf again is something I really want to do bad. I’ve got a little road ahead of me, so I can’t really go out and do it [yet], but I’m looking forward to it. It’s the first thing I want to do.”

Mery Daniel, 31, is also excited to have the opportunity to play golf. She lost her left leg on that horrific Patriots Day, and she has taken up the sport for the first time.

“I never played, but I liked to watch golf, especially Tiger Woods,” she said, a smile flashing across her face. “Golf is a challenge, and I love challenges. It helps me mentally and physically. I have to deal with the fact that I’ll never have my leg again, and I have to get accustomed to what I have and make the best out of it. I’m just learning golf now and it’s exciting. It’s a beautiful game, and I think it will help me rehabilitate.”

As part of the adaptive golf program, those who have suffered traumatic injuries are custom-fitted through Golfsmith and provided with Nike clubs and other apparel. They also receive personalized instruction.

The program is yet another step in their recovery, said Johnson.

“Social rehabilitation is just as important as physical rehabilitation. Golf provides a 360-degree approach that encompasses all aspects of life. Adaptive golf gives these people a reason to get out, push themselves and accomplish something,” he said. “Golf is therapy for all of us who play it, in different ways. For some, it’s very competitive and for others, it’s just to relax and enjoy great surroundings.”

Johnson works with people suffering from a wide range of disabilities, including strokes, spinal cord issues, amputations and brain trauma. “We have people who have looked at their clubs sitting in the corner for years thinking they would never play golf again, and all of a sudden they’re back in the game,” he said.

The nature of instruction is clearly different, the challenges unique. Johnson assesses each golfer based on their individual situation, then makes adjustments. “You take your knowledge of swing mechanics and see where they can fit in,” he said.

He finds that positive results are quickly achieved.

“In some ways it’s easier [than teaching a golfer without a disability], because their minds are cleansed and the expectations are relatively low,” he said. “They just know that they’re back swinging a club and they think, I can do this again.”

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