Athletics

Andrew's Return to Golf

Contact: Justin Long

It’s a Thursday afternoon at Amherst Golf Club, and Andrew O’Brien is preparing for his tee shot on the fourth hole. Spectators are watching his every move, silent and motionless, as not to miss a single moment of his unorthodox approach.

Andrew’s swing is a thing of beauty. People stand in awe of his shots, which wind up being some of the day’s best. He’s hitting straighter than several competitors and getting closer to the green than most. He’s a natural.

He’s also paralyzed below the waist.

This is Andrew’s first full day on a golf course in nearly 10 years. He was once an avid golfer, but a spinal stroke at the age of 15 changed that. In the blink of an eye, Andrew’s life had taken a drastic turn. An avid sports fan and versatile athlete, he played tennis, squash, soccer and basketball. He was also an above average golfer and excelled in baseball as a hard-throwing, left-handed pitcher. He could do it all.

Ten years later, on Apr. 26, 2012, Andrew—now a student at Amherst College—finds himself surrounded by 90 friends, family and varsity athletes for the “Andrew O’Brien Stand Up and Play Golf Fundraiser.” The goal of the event is to raise enough money to purchase Andrew a “paramobile,” an innovative machine that would enhance his quality of life and enable him to return to his days of playing golf.

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Purchasing a paramobile would allow
Andrew O'Brien to revive his love of golf.

The paramobile—which Andrew has borrowed for the event—allows him to move about the golf course as he would with a regular cart. He is strapped in at the legs, waist and chest so that he can be raised into a standing position when swinging a club. On the armrest are controls that adjust the incline of his seat and allow him to move.

Andrew uses the word “jubilation” to describe how it feels to be back on a golf course. It’s a fitting word for Andrew, who possesses an infectious smile and incredibly positive attitude. If you spent 30 seconds with him, you’d be convinced he was the nicest person you’d ever met. He describes himself as “super competitive,” though he does a nice job of hiding it.

That positive attitude and likeable personality made it easy for Jeff Edwards—an Amherst College police officer who met Andrew when he was a freshman—to organize a fundraiser on Andrew’s behalf. “A lot of kids like to complain, but they don’t realize what someone like Andrew has to go through on a daily basis,” Edwards says. “He doesn’t complain and he’s always happy. You never hear anything negative.”

Andrew’s positivity is on display at Amherst Golf Club’s fourth hole, where he sits in his paramobile with his sister and parents by his side. Andrew jokes with players and chats with classmates as they pass through, but for the first time since he was 15, he isn’t limited to spectating. He's there to compete.

Andrew takes a shot with each group at the par-3, 160-yard fourth hole. After positioning the paramobile the ideal distance from the tee, he adjusts the incline of his seat until he has the proper bend in his knees and is standing nearly straight up. Bracing himself with his right hand for stability, he holds a club in his left hand. He needs help placing the ball on the tee, a job Edwards happily volunteers for throughout the day.

Andrew connects solidly on his first shot of the day, but he pushes the ball farther left than he wants to. After making adjustments, his third shot flies straight and falls only a few feet shy of the green. A majority of the day's participants would have gladly traded for that shot nine times out of 10. (Remember, this is his first time golfing with the paramobile, and he's swinging with one arm.)

Andrew’s shots are consistently above average. When he connects, people use words like “amazing” and “fantastic.” After pushing his fourth shot to the right, his fifth lands just a foot off the green, his best attempt of the day. His competitive nature surfaces for the first time, and he says he knows he can put one on the green.

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Andrew was able to enjoy an afternoon of golf
with some of his closest friends by his side.

His sixth shot is perfectly straight, but it falls short. “That will be the best shot you see out of this group!” one golfer says. (He's right.) His seventh is squibbed to the right, and his sister apologizes for not placing the tee in the ground correctly. Andrew is too nice to let her take the blame. “I should be able to adjust,” he tells her.

After roughly two hours, Andrew admits he's getting tired. He's been using muscles he hasn't used in years, and he isn't shooting quite as well as he was to begin the day. He says consistency has been his biggest issue. “I’ll get better. I have faith.”

With daylight running out just before 7:30 p.m., there's time for one last team to join Andrew at the fourth hole. In this group are Ben Kettering ’12 and Brian Merrigan ’11, who have been good friends with Andrew for the past four years. Merrigan has become particularly close with Andrew, living in the room next to him as a freshman and even vacationing with the O’Brien family during winters.

This last group isn’t like the others. These guys call Andrew by his nickname, O.B., and when they finish teeing off they invite him to the putting green to close out the fourth hole. Andrew had yet to try putting with his paramobile, but now was as good a time as any. The players take turns putting from the back of the green, and Andrew joins in as they tell jokes and make fun of each other’s less-than-stellar golf skills. Andrew’s last shot of the day whizzes past the hole, but he's having too much fun to care.

Back at the clubhouse, the 90 golfers and other friends have gathered for dinner. The event’s organizers—Edwards and Michelle Morgan, head coach of Amherst's women's golf team—inform the group that they are halfway to their fundraising goal of $20,000, which they are determined to reach this summer. “O.B. is just an amazing guy,” Merrigan says. “He has a tremendous attitude and outlook on life. The fact that athletics can once again become a part of him and he can compete with his friends is going to be great.”

Andrew addresses everyone in the clubhouse in his usual optimistic manner. “I want to thank everyone from the bottom of my heart. I’m very thankful—I think it will all work out.”

On the walk back to the clubhouse from the fourth green, Brian and Andrew talked about anything from the fundraiser to the NHL playoffs. At that moment Andrew was just another student-athlete wrapping up a successful day on the golf course with his friends. He has become an avid sports fan from the sidelines, but for one afternoon he was taken back to his days of competing. And with a little help, pretty soon he’ll be able to have more days just like it.