By EDDIE CAIAZZO
MESQUITE, NV — Las Vegas is where Americans go to view the best shows, concerts and live events. The star-power and production quality is of the highest standard, all in the middle of the desert. But an hour northwest of Las Vegas is the small town of Mesquite, Nevada. With a population of more than 16,000, it has become the home to a different kind of superstar…The Long Driver. And now, the ParaLong Driver.
For first-time visitors to Mesquite, a trip to the desert is an eye-popping experience. Rock formations of the most brilliant shades of red and orange frame a picture that is straight out of the Old West. Towns are miles apart with only a thin ribbon of highway cutting through the desert solitude.
Cell phones may lose reception in the desert and travelers coming from long distances away may suffer a bit of fatigue … but nothing seemed to deter those who traveled from around the world to participate in the first ever ParaLong Drive World Championships. After all, they have already overcome greater obstacles.
The ParaLong Drive Worlds included competitors from seven different countries (U.S., Canada, Australia, England, Israel, The Netherlands and South Africa), all competing for long drive glory. ParaLong Drive allows disabled golfers from all walks of life to challenge themselves against the best in the world, based on category of disability.
The divisions for competition were paramobile, one-arm assisted and unassisted, leg below knee amputees, leg above knee amputees, vision impaired, hypermobile and traumatic brain injury hitters. The first ever women’s division also squared off on the grid. These world-class competitors are proving to themselves, the Paralympic committee and the world that golf is a universal cure to immobility.
The event took place in mid-October, under perfect weather conditions.
Day One began at Conestoga Golf Club in Mesquite for a friendly skills competition. Different participants had a meet and greet with each other, along with event-planners responsible for the gathering: Bryan Dangerfield (Director of Athletic Events for Mesquite, NV), Geno Withelder (Mayor Pro Tem of Mesquite, NV), Dean Jarvis (Amputee Long Drive Championship Founder) and Brad Clayton (PGA Master Professional in Teaching). Clayton, in from Oxford, NC, was also a participant in the one-arm assisted division of the ParaLong Drive Worlds and very optimistic about the direction of this event for the future.
“This is just the beginning,” says Clayton. “This will grow to include more than just amputees participating in skills challenges other than Long Drive. With more people getting involved, we expect to have local qualifiers next year with Mesquite being the final stop, this will definitely become more competitive with time.” The skills competition included a chipping contest into a target as well as a putting contest around various obstacles laid out on the practice green.
On the two days following the Skills Competition, the atmosphere changed. The rock music provided a lively backdrop, the hitters began blasting Bridgestone e7 golf balls into the desert and the main part of the competition took place. The venue was the Mesquite Sports and Events Complex, home of the RE/MAX World Long Drive Championship, and also home to the first united ParaLong Drive event in May. The ParaLong Drive Nationals (May 2014) included two ParaLong drivers hitting the ball more than 400 yards.
Brendon Jacks, of Prescott Valley, Arizona, a below the knee leg amputee, was the first ParaLong driver to top the 400-yard mark. But his record would not last long, as Jared Brentz of Nashville, Tennessee, a double below-the-knee amputee, would best him for the title driving the ball 409 yards. Both drives drew national and international attention from the media and others in the sport, and the idea for the ParaLong Drive Worlds was born.
Stemming from the Paralympic committee rejection of golf as a Paralympic sport in 2016, many hitters and fans are making the case for long drive. For some in the golf industry who complain about pace of play, long drive is the perfect solution – requiring only a 500-yard long grid and a few tee-boxes.
“It just makes sense,” professes Dean Jarvis, an above the knee amputee and founder of the Amputee Long Drive Championship. Jarvis was instrumental in creating the ParaLong Drive National and World competitions. “You have so many people with disabilities who want to play golf. Well this is how to do it!”
Many other organizations were well represented in support of the ParaLong Drive Worlds. Sharing the same sentiment as Jarvis, EQ Sylvester of the Freedom Golf Association (FGAgolf.org), himself a triple amputee, could not have agreed more. “There are over 18,000,000 disabled people interested in playing the game of golf,” exclaimed Sylvester. “Even if only five percent of that number was taught how to play in some capacity, that’s almost a hundred thousand new people playing the game.”
Adam Benza, from Hellertown, PA was one of the participants in the Worlds competition. He was not only in town trying to go for a world championship title, but more to network with people like Dean Jarvis, EQ Sylvester and Brad Clayton about growing the game among people with different disabilities. Benza, 28-years old, had his right leg removed below the knee after battling Ewing’s Sarcoma as a child.
A graduate of the Penn State PGM program and currently carrying a 1.6 handicap, Benza is among the best golfers with a disability in the country. He was selected by the National Amputee Golf Association (NAGA) to represent the USA in the first ever World Disabled Golf Championships (WDGC) in Japan. The WDGC, in its first year, was designed to put the best in the world against each other in a team format, in another effort to include the game of golf in the Paralympics.
More important, Benza, along with USA teammate Kenny Bonz (Farmingdale, NJ) and ParaLong Drive Worlds competitor Kellie Valentine (Erie, PA), is also planning on helping grow the game among disabled people in the Mid-Atlantic US. “The working title is Moving Foreward,” comments Benza. “The mission is to help people with disabilities learn how to play the game, and to also teach current club professionals how to properly introduce and instruct people with different disabilities.” Benza has been teaching golf for nine years, and plans on expanding the business in a similar fashion to Freedom Golf Association based in Chicago.
Benza’s longest drive came on Friday, the final day of competition, where he let one fly 288 yards. While it was an improvement over his first day longest drive of 274, it was not enough to advance to the final round. Competition concluded with two world-renowned hitters squaring off to be named the first ever ParaLong Drive World Champion.
Jared Brentz, who won ParaLong Drive Nationals glory in May, once again found himself competing for the title. His drive of 360 yards was the longest of all competitors going into the final round, but he would have to face Tim Herrmann, a below the knee amputee from Belle Plaine, MN.
Herrmann, whose longest drive going into the competition was 373 yards, blasted a drive 325 yards in the semi-final round to advance…very impressive, but 35 yards short of Brentz’s best. The format for competition is six shots in 2:45. Almost two and a half minutes may seem like a lot, but for maximum distance, every second in the setup is crucial.
A beautiful brand new crystal trophy, presented by Golf Mesquite Nevada, and an interview with Golf Channel’s Bailey Mosier awaited the longest driver. Both men hit a few out-of-bounds, but in the end, Herrmann’s longest drive traveled 333 yards, and Brentz’s traveled 340. Brentz was then crowned the first ever ParaLong Drive World Champion.
“Right now I am just taking it all in,” commented Brentz. “I really hope this story reaches out to amputees everywhere, and any and everyone who has some sort of disability. If you have the will-power and the drive to do something, nothing can stop you.”
The ParaLong Drive Worlds return to Mesquite in November of 2015, and a new world champion will be crowned. For further information, find ParaLongDrive on Facebook, or go to www.paralongdrive.org.
Divisional World Champions
Triple Amputee: Paul Hebert, St. Albert, Alberta, Canada 239
Traumatic Brain Injury: Humberto Reyna, Liberty, N.C. 255
Hypermobile: Rene Olgers, Aalsmeer, Netherlands 296
Women-One-Arm Unassisted: Kellie Valentine, Erie, Pa. 224
Women-One-Arm Assisted: Tineke Loogman, Aalsmeer, Netherlands 217
Women-One-Leg Below Knee: Kim Moore, South Bend, Ind. 242
Wheelchair: Dave Sawtell, Queensland, Australia 199
Paramobile, 1-Arm: Matt Farmen, Denver, Colo. 201
Paramobile, 2-Arm: Anthony Netto, Capetown, South Africa/San Diego 289
Blind/Vision Impaired: Scott Aughtry, Hot Springs Village, Ark. 313
One-Arm & Leg: Bill Frey, Goshen, Ky. 245
One-Arm Unassisted: Alan Gentry, Louisville, Ky. 275
One-Arm Assisted: John Rogers, Apopka, Fla. 285
One-Leg Above Knee: Christian Sidebottom, Phoenix, Ariz. 252
Two-Leg Below Knee: Jared Brentz, Nashville, Tenn. 360
One-Leg Below Knee: Josh Williams, Kitchener, Canada 322
Military-wounded in action: Ivgi Shlomo, Netanya, Israel 225
Age 45-49: Rene Olgers, Aalsmeer, Netherlands 296
Age 50-54: Anthony Netto, Capetown, South Africa/San Diego 297
Age 55+: Bill Davis, Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. 290
Article also appears in Golf Pennsylvania-Golf Northeast – Winter 2014 Issue Vol. XXVI No. 7