By Steven Hoffman
Bob Buck's golf swing was hard and true. The ball sailed toward the intended destination on a tight arc and even before it landed Buck was receiving encouraging words from Jim Pepple, the owner of the Wyncote Golf Club.
"I didn't you were a pro," Pepple said enthusiastically.
Buck was among the 55 participants from 12 states and Canada competing in the 27th annual Eastern Amputee Golf Association's championship last week. The organization holds at least a half a dozen tournaments each year, but the Regional Amputee Championship is the largest and most important. The golfers competed for trophies. They were divided into five flights so that golfers with similar disabilities are paired against each other. For example, the below-the-knee amputees are paired in one flight, while above-the-knee amputees were in another. Those who have had an arm amputated were grouped together. There was even an "associate" category for friends and family of the other golfers.
There was a wide age range during the competition. While the men and women found Wyncote's windy and rolling course to be a challenge, no one was making any excuses for poor scores. These golfers take the sport seriously, and they expect to play well, even if they are missing an arm or a leg.
"We don't have a disability," Buck said, "we have an aggravation."
He added that, "It's great to meet other amputees who like to play golf. There are a variety of
people who play in this tournament. They find it a very healthy thing to do."
Count Pepple among those who was impressed by how the EAGA participants handled the challenging course.
"These players just amaze me," he said. "They just go about their business." He explained that the most important part of a golf swing is maintaining good balance, and these golfers managed to regularly hit good shots. Men and women with prosthetic legs hit one good drive after another. A young player who lost his right arm below the elbow made putts using just one hand. Hole by hole, they managed to tame the challenging course, many of them complimenting Pepple when they saw him for how well the course plays.
Buck, 71, and a resident of Bethlehem, Pa., is the executive director of the EAGA. He helped found the organization 27 years ago when the National Amputee Golf Association wanted to develop a regional amputee golf association. Buck thought that it was a great idea and he led up the effort because he wanted to make sure that men and women and boys and girls who underwent an amputation would have the opportunity to golf because of the physical and psychological benefits.
"It's great physical therapy," Buck explained. "It's good exercise. You're outside, and what a great sport to play with families! There's no reason that they can't be playing golf."
Buck was already a golf enthusiast when he was seriously injured in an auto accident in 1969. He spent a year attempting to rehabilitate from the accident, but his leg wouldn't heal as he battled osteomyelitis. He eventually had to make the difficult decision to have his leg amputated. But he never let that stop him from playing the sport that he loved. He continued his career at Bethlehem Steel and fit in as much time on the links as he could. He has now been playing golf as a below-the-knee amputee for 43 years, more than three times as long as he played the sport before his accident.
Besides being an accomplished golfer--he has won 24 EAGA championships and finished second at the 50th National Amputee Golf Championship in 1997--he has conducted nearly 400 "First Swing" golf clinics for individuals with disabilities and their families. He has earned numerous awards through the years for his work with the EAGA.
He still enjoys going out for a round of golf with others who share the experience of having a limb amputated.
"You can call it a little bit of a support group," he said, noting that in most respects a group of golfers in this tournament will discuss precisely the same things that any other group of golfers would discuss.
But there are also conversations that are specific to this group of people--for instance, what kinds of prosthetics work best? Is there a lighter alternative for this prosthetic? How did you overcome this challenge? What did you do in this situation?
At the end of the tournament, Buck was like a golf coach who just watched a student turn in a fine round of golf. He was happy for every golfer's success. While the EAGA championship is very much a competition, these golfers understood what was really important about the event.
Buck is pleased that the EAGA exists to help these men and women improve not only their golf games, but their lives as well. In addition to the tournaments and clinics throughout the year, the EAGA also awards about two dozen scholarships to amputee students or children of amputee members.
Buck's involvement with the golf association requires a great deal of work, but it's clear that he doesn't view it as work at all.
"It's been a labor of love for me," he said.