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Local Special Olympians Compete, Golfing for the Love of the Game

By Linda CooperSpecial Olympics Dad and Coach Steve Broome and son Herbie Special Olympics Golfer Herbie Broome, Coach Rudy Bernil, Terri Willis and son Cody. Special Olypmics Golfer Cody Willis and his mom Terri

More than 40 Special Olympics golfers, coaches and volunteers recently participated in a Regional Qualifying Tournament held at Forest Hill Golf Course in Drummonds, leading up to the State Championship Tournament slated for Sept. 25 in Smyrna. Special Olympics athletes must compete in two regional events to qualify for the state tournament.
The goal of the Special Olympics program is to help persons with intellectual disabilities to be active, productive and respected members of society at-large, by offering them a fair opportunity to develop and demonstrate their skills and talents through sports training and competition. In turn, the program seeks to increase the public’s awareness of the athletes’ capabilities and needs.
Special Olympics of Greater Memphis offers a dozen different sports activities including swimming, track and field, basketball, bocce, bowling, canoeing, distance running, power lifting, soccer, tennis, volleyball and golf. More than 2,500 Special Olympics athletes are registered with Special Olympics of Greater Memphis.
Cody Willis, 20, of Munford and Herbie Broome, 34, of Millington, were among the local athletes competing in the event. Terri Willis, Cody’s mom noted her son is “focused” and “highly competitive.” He has won several gold medals and has competed twice in the national Special Olympics golf tournament.
“My goal is to be a golf pro,” Cody said. Broome, who has been playing for 10 years, cited “having fun,” as his favorite thing about playing golf, and his least favorite, “rain.”
Senior Director of Field Services and Director of Golf for Special Olympics for the state of Tennessee Joanne Drumright noted that more than 16,000 athletes participate in a broad range of sports across the state, with some 300 golfers. She explained that without the Special Olympics program, 90 percent of the athletes would not be introduced to the game of golf. “We want to allow these individuals to participate in sports, with the goal of helping them to be independent and to play in their own communities,” she said.
For golf, there are five different skill levels at which Special Olympics athletes compete. Drumright explained that Level 1 teaches the basic skills of golf, and there are six basic skills that an athlete must master before they can compete at Level 2. At Level 2, an athlete plays nine holes with a partner. At Level 3 an athlete plays 18 holes of unified play with a partner, as part of a team. At Level 4, an athlete can play nine holes of individual golf and at Level 5, an athlete can play 18 holes on his/her own.
Willis is a Level 5 athlete and Broome is a Level 3 athlete. Drumright noted that the ages of golfers in Tennessee’s Special Olympics program range from 12 to 65. Phil McCarthy, 65, of Senatobia, Miss., noted he has been playing golf for a long time. A Level 4 player he said, “I like getting out in the fresh air.”
Maura Moore, 39, of Memphis, and one of a handful of women athletes on the course is a Level 2 athlete. She said, “I’m learning to play with a partner. My goal is to be able to play without a partner.”
Volunteers and partners, or coaches play a key role in the sport, offering advice as a caddie would do, reminding athletes of the rules and etiquette of golf, keeping score and driving carts. The Knights of Columbus at Millington’s St. William Catholic Church are among the volunteers actively involved with Special Olympics in the community.
Coach Rudy Bernil of Millington commented, “The athletes have a heart for the sport. The goal is to develop the athletes to their best possible potential. The challenge is educating the community about intellectual disabilities and the preconceived notions and assumptions. These athletes are no different from anyone else picking up a golf club or bucket of balls, playing for the love of the game.” He added, many of the golfers cross-train in other sports such as swimming to strengthen and maintain muscles as well as coordination.
Steve Broome, a coach, and Herbie’s dad, also noted that generous donations of equipment from golfers throughout the region help ensure the athletes have everything they need to play to game.
Bernil also noted that Forest Hill Golf Course welcomed a relationship with the Special Olympics, offering the nonprofit organization a substantial discount for practice, as well as tournament play.
Lisa Taylor, director of Special Olympics Greater Memphis, said the local organization runs all of its various sports programs for the athletes on a $300,000 annual budget. Several well-attended fundraisers throughout the year such as its Polar Bear Plunge and Chili Cook-off held in February are vital to its success.
Current Tennessee state champion Jeremiah Doane, who also was competing in the tournament, received the gold medal for Level 5 play. Cody Willis received the silver medal in Level 5 and Herbie Broome received the bronze medal in Level 3.
All three competitors are excited to be going to the state championship next month and like golfers everywhere, enjoy playing for the love of the game.
For additional information, visit the Special Olympics of Greater Memphis website at www.specialolympicsmem.org or call (901) 683-1277.

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