Rolling hills and fast greens greeted athletes competing in golf Tuesday, as the newest sport for the 2017 Invictus Games teed off at the par-71 St. George’s Golf and Country Club in Toronto
By Brittany Martin
Team USA’s Michael Nicholson takes a swing at the second hole in his Paragolfer during the golf competition at the 2017 Invictus Games. (Photo by Courtney Verrill)
Rolling hills and fast greens greeted athletes competing in golf Tuesday, as the newest sport for the 2017 Invictus Games teed off at the par-71 St. George’s Golf and Country Club in Toronto.
For Italy’s Roberto Punzo, golf is relatively new, too. He started practicing last November with the help of the Italian Defense Sports Group and a donated ParaGolfer, a golf cart for those with mobility impairments, from the Stand Up and Play Foundation. He’s golfed a total of five times, the minimum requirement for entry into the Invictus Games.
Punzo was working as a helicopter pilot with the Italian Army Aviation when he sustained injuries to his L4/L5 vertebrae when he was shot in Lebanon in 2006.
“Anyway, I’m here playing golf at Invictus Games,” Punzo says. “I’m really happy, delighted. It’s incredible, but actually, it’s an achievement in the true spirit of the Invictus Games.”
Italy’s Roberto Punzo starts off the golf competition at the first hole during the golf competition at the 2017 Invictus Games. (Photo by Courtney Verrill)
Punzo is also a para-badminton player and Paralympic archer and plans to compete in archery later this week for his Invictus Games team. His team was in the running for third or fourth place at the first Invictus Games in London in 2014 and won bronze in Orlando, Fla., last year. Punzo said he and his team were up for a challenge.
“It’s not a matter of medals, it’s really a great experience to be here together, with the civilians cheering at you,” he says. “You know, this is not so usual in Italy. So when we come here, we get a different feeling of what it is to be a serviceman, servicewoman. And I hope this kind of culture, because it’s a culture problem, somehow through the Invictus Games, can get through to Italian society.”
He looked at his participation in the golf event as an opportunity to increase awareness of adaptive sports and overall accessibility issues in Italy.
“Try to make people understand the possibility of golf, because in Italy it’s still a sport for rich men and the fact that someone thought of golf for wounded, injured and sick servicemen and women should make people reflect on the social importance of any sport actually,” Punzo says. “But the scenery, here, I breath, it’s wonderful … I think anybody could enjoy.”
Punzo carries a 41 handicap and finished with a score of 10 on the Stableford scoring system, which awards points based on the number of strokes taken at a hole, rather than counting individual strokes. Punzo had some difficulty adjusting to his ParaGolfer, but his strategy was to do his best and listen to his caddie. He was also able to learn by observing Team USA golfer Michael Nicholson, who played alongside Punzo.
Nicholson, a retired Marine sergeant from Tampa, Fla., and triple amputee, started golfing from a ParaGolfer about a year ago, though he’s played golf since he was about 8 years old. Nicholson was injured when a roadside bomb exploded in Kajaki, Afghanistan, in 2011.
“It was a hard course, but it was a beautiful course,” Nicholson says. “It was absolutely amazing, well maintained. The greens were fast, but it was a privilege to play out there.”
Nicholson had plenty of support from spectators, his wife, Katie, 12-year-old daughter, Callie, and 7-month-old son Sawyer, as well as his mother, father and brother and a royal visitor.
“Well, [hole] 16, I knocked it on the green in front of [England’s] Prince Harry, so that’s not bad,” Nicholson says. “I’ll take that. He’s a very likable person, very easy to talk to. He’s a really nice guy. We just talked about the game, what other sports I was playing, lot of small talk.”
Nicholson said the front nine was harder for him, but he just tried to keep his head down and keep swinging. With a 27 handicap, he finished with a score of 11 points on the Stableford scoring system.
“My putting was a little off on the front, trying to get used to the fast greens,” he says. “This is 100 percent the hardest course I’ve ever played. The terrain on it makes it a little harder to play with the chair because everything’s on a slope and you’ve gotta work the chair to that instead of just having to adjust your body. Now, you have to adjust the chair and your body to the terrain.”
This year is Nicholson’s first trip to Invictus, and he has a lot on his plate, with several track events earlier this week and swimming and wheelchair basketball in the next couple of days. But his family keeps him motivated whenever he gets tired.
“Making sure they don’t see me quit and making sure I give my kids the lesson that you don’t give up no matter how bad a situation is or how crappy you’re playing, you just keep at it, you keep going,” he says.