The calendar was full, the East Georgia weather was boiling, and somehow, I wanted to squeeze in a round of golf. It may be Spring in Georgia but sauna-like humidity already envelopes anyone adventurous enough to step outside, much less play 18 holes of golf in the middle of a sun-drenched afternoon. My wife wondered out loud if I had already suffered a sunstroke. I just wondered if I could figure out how to hit my 3-wood.
Not to be deterred, I took along water bottles, sunblock, and a wide-brimmed hat. Now if my golf game could heat up as much as the sweat on my brow, I might have a chance at a good round on this sultry May afternoon. “Now, where did I put the bug spray?”
Fully equipped, I entered the pro shop with every intent to hit a few range balls before starting my round.
The head pro offered to let me tee off early if I wanted to play with another single. Turning to meet my cart buddy for the next four hours, I came face to face with a short, stout man named Donnie.
His smiling face hinted at a cordial time to come. Sure enough, Donnie proved a most pleasant golfing partner. Friendly, courteous, and a dedicated golfer, he boasted that he was trying out for the Olympic golf team, that is, the Special Olympics golf team. You see, Donnie is a man with disabilities. Before we tee’d off, he explained that he is mildly retarded and has what he termed a borderline case of Down’s Syndrome. He lives on a Disability income, has a part-time job at a local golf course, and he loves golf. Then, he asked me what tees I wanted to play from.
Donnie’s friendly manner evaporated any concerns I had about my playing partner. By the second hole, I learned that he had a girlfriend and had moved to Augusta to be close to her. They had met on an internet dating site. I laughed and admitted that my wife and I had met in a similar fashion. As we continued our conversation, I noticed that Donnie was a rather decent golfer. He proudly said that over the past 20 years he had lived in several states and had won the Special Olympics Golf Title in three of those states. Watching him hit the ball, I could see why. He had game.
We had only played a few holes when I realized I had lost focus on my game and had become fascinated with this determined runt of a man who refused to let any disability slow him down. I asked him how he approached life, especially one with disabilities. “I just live one day at a time. You never know what tomorrow will bring.”
He alluded to his faith and how Jesus had forgiven him his sins, and he just wanted to be a good man. I noticed whenever he hit a bad shot or lost a ball, his temperament didn’t change. No anger, no profanity crossed his lips. His next words were simply, “I’ll take a drop right here.” He loved working at a golf course. Even though he did the most mundane of tasks, you could tell he loved to be involved in all the game had to offer, even if it was raking bunkers and collecting range balls.
As we transitioned to the back nine and having gotten to know him better, I asked him if he ever got angry with God about his disability. He stopped, thought for a second, and said, “Not really. I realize that God has a plan and a purpose for everything.” Then he promptly refocused on his ball before hitting it down the fairway.
As we drove along the 18th fairway, I asked him what he loved to do. He sheepishly admitted, “I love my girlfriend, and I think she wants to get married.” “I love golf.” “And I love the homeless.”
What? The homeless?
Donnie explained that he has a heart for the homeless. He can’t explain it, but he wants to help them any way he can. What an extraordinarily kind spirit!
I beat Donnie by several strokes. But not as many as you might expect. The heat of the day had been softened by light afternoon breezes and an enlightening conversation with this man who refused to allow his disabilities to control his life or dissolve his passions.
When we walked off the 18th green, I had the profound sense I had just concluded another divine appointment. I am often paired with a stranger when I arrive at a course as a single player. Rarely does conversation go very deep, other than golf and whatever sport is currently flooding the airwaves. This day was an exception. Getting to know Donnie offered a glimpse into myself. What are my priorities? What are my passions? And, am I as committed to them with the same fervor as Donnie?
Golf has taught me many lessons about life, none more so than an afternoon round with a man named Donnie.