Gary Head: Winning with Adaptive Golf
Gary Head: Winning with Adaptive Golf
Story by Cindy Reid | Photography by Leidy Lester
Guyton resident Gary Head has two passions—playing golf and helping others play golf. Paralyzed on one side of his body due to two strokes before he was forty, Gary never dreamed he would one day compete athletically. Typically a hard charging over achiever, after his second stroke he was grateful to learn how to tie his shoes and button his shirt. Gary’s life journey has taken him from struggling to achieve basic life skills to being the U.S. Adaptive Golf Alliance (USAGA) #1 ranked Senior One Arm Golfer in the country.
“Adaptive golf has become my joy and my passion,” says Gary. “I compete around the country in USGA,USAGA and GSGA tournaments against other one armed and physically handicapped golf players. More importantly I volunteer to help others learn what has brought so much to my life.”
Like many adaptive sports, adaptive golf allows people with disabilities to play the game of golf through modified rules or equipment based upon the person’s abilities. Through innovation and collaboration within the adaptive community, USAGA members have been able to adapt golf for everyone. This is regardless of current health, physical, mental, sensory, coping and wellbeing status. USAGA helps to bring inclusion to those wanting to learn golf by offering clinics to show them the game through clinics.
There are two Adaptive Golf locations locally—one in Savannah and one in Beaufort, SC. Both run monthly clinics using physical therapy and specialized equipment. No prior golf experience is needed. Participants can learn the game of golf or brush up on old skills. Specialized equipment including golf carts that can come into an upright standing position, as well as golf clubs, are provided. Both programs are entirely free of charge to all participants.
Veterans and civilians are welcome at both clinics. Due to the large population of active duty and retired military personnel in the area, many vets participate. The program helps those with challenges that range from stroke, amputee, brain/spine injury, multiple sclerosis, joint replacements, cerebral palsy, Parkinsons, macular degeneration, spina bifida, vision/hearing impairments, orthopedic, arthritic issues, joint replacement, and more.
In addition to golf, the monthly clinics offer something else of value—camaraderie. For many dealing with disabilities, social isolation is very real.
“It can feel like there aren’t any ‘people like us’ out there,” says Gary. “But come to a clinic and you will soon find out that there are many of us!”
Clinics typically host 50 to 70 participants with a wide range of physical challenges.
Many adaptive golfers take their new skills and play with friends and families in between clinics. Some, like Gary, start competing in adaptive tournaments. The best players in the country can then track their progress within their sports classification in the USAGA Rankings & Standards.
In the Rough
Gary took the long way around to residing in the south. Born and raised in Long Island, NY, his family moved to Savannah when he was a teenager.
“I started a temp agency while in Armstrong College, which I ran for ten years before selling,” he says. “And I then took a job flying for Key Air. Their headquarters was in Savannah and I was a chief flight attendant.”
Gary relocated to New York after the airline went out of business, where he met his wife Nancy, and after marriage the couple made their home in New York.
On the morning of Sept 11, 2001, Gary—who was now a partner in a recruiting firm in New York City-—was waiting for a client in the lobby of World Trade Center Tower One.
“I was there in the lobby, when the plane hit. I wanted to help, I kept thinking I needed to help people, but in doing so I did the worst thing I could have done, which was to go outside and see the horrific scene of people jumping and falling from the building,” he says.
Six months later, he had his first stroke, which was not related to 9/11, but was in fact due to a heart deformity. Gary subsequently had another stroke which was much worse and left him in a coma. He has had full left side paralysis since 2002.
“I will never get the use of my left side back so I learned to adapt. After overachieving my whole life I was now incapable of even driving myself. My wonderful wife Nancy taught me how to tie my shoes, button my clothes, and so much more. They say ‘necessity is the mother of invention,’ and I chose to make the best of what I could do.”
Back On the Greens
By now most of Gary’s family had moved back to Savannah so eventually he and Nancy did as well. “I was visiting my brother, who plays golf. I used to like to play and I still loved the beauty and serenity of the course. My brother put a club in my hands and I hit a ball! From there I became focused on trying to play the game. In between games I would practice my hitting.”
After being introduced to Adaptive Golf by Ed Gizara at the Fort Stewart golf course, Gary became a regular at the Adaptive Golf Experience at The Legends at Parris Island golf course in Beaufort, South Carolina.
“I looked forward to the monthly clinics to play with others with disabilities and getting the sense of satisfaction as a disabled person to keep up with the ‘norms’. I started to become good and I became passionate about competing and helping others.”
He says his two coaches urged him to become a competitive golfer with the USAGA, which hosts Adaptive Golf competitions.
“They rank golfers for sanctioned tournaments, both nationally and worldwide. I am currently ranked number ten in my Sports Class overall and number one in the Senior portion.”
Giving Back and Outreach to Vets
Gary says Adaptive Golf has become his passion, especially helping others. In honor of his dedicated service Gary was awarded Volunteer of the Year from Adaptive Golf Experience of Parris Island.
“I was very surprised and proud,” he says. “I am now getting payback in my heart from others in my shoes, and it’s very meaningful to me.”
Currently Gary is the Clinic Coordinator of Adaptive Golf Savannah at Crosswinds Golf Club, in Pooler. He stresses that no golf experience is necessary to participate and the entire program is free of charge.
“We provide golf clubs, training aids, range balls ,on-course learning and Solorider and Paragolfer adaptive golf carts. We work on swings and after the clinic we play a round of golf, either 3, 9, or 18 holes.”
They outreach to veteran organizations and rehab clinics both in person or via email.
“A lot of vets come to our clinics, it’s very popular in our area, and the rehab at Ft. Stewart refers many clients. If nothing else, come for the camaraderie and see what it’s all about.”
Gary says for him, golf is really a family affair. “Nancy is the Marketing Director at Rincon Golf Course—she has been there 14 years—and our son Thomas, who recently graduated with an MA from Emory University, enjoys golfing so it’s easy for us. Because I compete in tournaments my wife and I go on golf road trips all over America. The game of golf is embedded in me as my passion.”
For Gary, and so many others, Adaptive Golf has hit a Hole-In-One!