Tyler Whitehurst stared intently as the ball soared through the air and headed toward his target over the water. When the ball landed on the green and rolled within 6 feet of the cup, Whitehurst managed a slight grin while several fans started clapping and screaming their approval.
It was one of many quality shots that Whitehurst struck during last week’s 12th annual Special Olympics Golf National Invitational Tournament at PGA Golf Club. Asked about the shot afterward, Whitehurst smiled again.
“It was a 6-iron,” he said. “Just like the 6-iron Phil Mickelson hit out of the woods on the 13th hole at the Masters last year.”
Tyler’s dad, Jim, chuckled when he heard his 20-year-old son recount Lefty’s risky play. “He never forgets a shot,” Jim said of Tyler. “He remembers them from years ago — even when they’re not his.”
When Tyler was 5, he was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, a form of autism that is usually characterized by difficulties interacting socially, physical clumsiness and restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior.
Those traits can make it difficult to function at a high level in a real-world setting, but for Tyler they have translated well onto a golf course. He has won several Special Olympics golf titles in Florida the last few years, was an honorary member of the East Lake High School golf team near his hometown of Palm Harbor, Fla., and Sunday won his first national title at PGA Golf Club in Level 5 with scores of 84-91-80-255.
“He likes golf because there’s a starting point and an ending point on every hole,” Jim Whitehurst says. “He likes the order of golf.”
Whitehurst was among more than 175 golfers from 21 states, as well as Canada and Bermuda, who took part in the tournament for children and adults with intellectual disabilities that was sponsored by the PGA of America, PGA TOUR and the U.S. Golf Association. There are more than 18,000 Special Olympic golfers in the U.S. The golfers compete in five levels, depending upon their abilities, with Whitehurst playing 18 holes by himself in Level 5.
“It feels awesome because this is my first national tournament and I won a gold (medal),” Whitehurst said. “It’s a whole new level of competition and accomplishment for me. I just want to keep getting better.”
To watch Whitehurst hit a shot, you’d never know he is autistic. His swing is long, balanced and creates the same sweet sound as a scratch handicapper. What seems different, however, is his never-failing optimism.
In the first round, for instance, he cracked a solid drive that failed to hook as he hoped, splashing into a lake. “That’s OK,” as he prepared to take his drop. “I can still get up-and-down from here.”
And he nearly did, his 9-iron approach landing next to the hole before rolling over the back edge. Whitehurst almost holed the chip shot for par, tapping in for a solid bogey. His resilience in golf has helped him off the course, as well.
“What’s so amazing is he never had an opportunity to set a goal, and get that sense of self and feeling of pride to reach it,” said Amy Whitehurst, Tyler’s stepmother. “Special Olympics has given that to him and from that moment forward, it totally changed his life.”
Last year, three-time major champion and PGA TOUR member Padraig Harrington became a Global Ambassador for Special Olympics. He said he first got the idea to get involved when the Special Olympics World Games was held in his homeland of Ireland in 2003.
“It’s probably the biggest event that’s ever happened in Ireland,” Harrington said. “The whole country got behind it. It has always been on my consciousness and I got an opportunity a few years ago to get involved and I jumped at it. It’s such a great cause.”
Harrington does more than lend his name to the cause. He has conducted several clinics for Special Olympics golfers, including one last month at The Barclays, where he gave every athlete a free, autographed putter from Wilson.
“I get more out of the time I spend with them than they do around me,” Harrington said. “They are just some of the most enthusiastic guys and girls in the world.”
Yes, there were smiles and fist-pumps all over PGA Golf Club during the tournament. And not just from the golfers. There is something so special in watching the unbridled joy in a Special Olympic athlete. So many times in life they feel out of place, but not with a golf club in their hand. Fittingly, the second round was held on the second anniversary of Eunice Kennedy Shriver Day, honoring the woman who founded Special Olympics.
“They certainly have some challenges in life, but golf gives them a way to participate in sports, enjoy the competition and the camaraderie and an avenue to be active people in our society,” said PGA of America President Allen Wronowski. “Their motto says it all: I want to win, but if I can’t win let’s be brave and enjoy it.”
Jim Whitehurst says he hopes his son can someday get a job at a golf course. They are already making plans to once again attend the nearby Transitions Championship at Innisbrook next year where he hopes to meet Harrington.
“Tyler has been handed so many lemons in life,” said his father, “but he somehow always turns them into lemonade.”
Craig Dolch is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM. His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.