Not many people will know who the highest ranked amateur golfer in Ireland is but at just 4’11”, Dundalk’s Brendan Lawlor holds the lofty title ahead of the likes of Conor Purcell, Caolan Rafferty and Olivia Mehaffey. The 22-year old is the world’s third best disabled golfer, having played his whole life with Ellis-Van Creveld Syndrome, a bone growth disorder that leads to shorter limbs. We met Brendan draped in his Team Ireland colours at Carton House this summer but what he lacked in height, he more than made up for in presence as the smiling swinger brought us right up to date with his golfing journey.
From the day his Grandfather Bill cut-down a driver for the then three-year old toddler, Brendan has rarely gone a day without a club in his hand. Armed with his “custom-fit” wood, Lawlor began his golfing journey in the realm of Pitch & Putt, honing his short game skills around the local track at Channonrock.
“I’d be whacking this thing at these 60-yard long par-3s,” Lawlor recalled, before remembering, “I actually had my first hole in one with a driver; the hole was only 65 yards long!”
Naturally, as he got older, Lawlor got stronger and he soon grew to the top of the tree on the Pitch & Putt circuit, winning multiple All-Ireland under-16 titles before becoming the youngest player ever to win a Senior crown at the age of 17.
Having largely conquered the short form of the game, a natural progression saw Lawlor turn his attention to full-length golf and with Dundalk golf club just down the road, the ambitious teenager signed up and hasn’t looked back since.
But before we got into golf, I asked Brendan if he recalled the first time he wasn’t growing at the same rate as everyone else?
“I’m still trying to realise it,” he laughed. “I don’t know when I stopped growing to be honest, 12 or 13 maybe – my upper body kept growing but my legs are just shorter.
“I never saw myself as any different but maybe that’s the reason why I’m succeeding at this high level, because I’ve played able-bodied golf all my life. I’ve played Senior Cup with Dundalk – competing with Caolan Rafferty who’s one of the top-50 amateurs in the world. When you’re coming to disability tournaments, the standard’s really good but it’s not that standard. If I can compete against Caolan, I can compete against anyone.”
However, the transition into golf wasn’t all plain sailing. Despite his Houdini-like short-game capabilities, Lawlor could only hit the ball 160 yards off the tee and although he recognised that he needed to get longer, help wasn’t overly forthcoming.
“I went to Darren Clarke Golf school and they looked at my swing once and they literally said, ‘we can’t do anything; the way you swing is the way you swing it’.
“So, I practiced every hour I could get and have never got a lesson to this day. What I believe is, if I’ve hit it well before, I’ll hit it well again. If I play bad, I’ll go to the range, I’ll switch up a few things. If I start hitting it well, I’ll go out the next day and try that. I didn’t get a lesson because I don’t like to think about anything when I go out to play golf. I like to go out and swing it and whatever happens, happens.”
Without the need for instructional videos, Trackman or notebooks, Lawlor’s enviable persistence saw him add 100-yards to his game. Now hitting it comfortably 260 off the tee, coupled with a razor sharp short-game cultivated at Channonrock Pitch & Putt, it’s no surprise that the 1 handicapper regularly puts many abled-bodied men to the sword on the golf course.
A proud part of Dundalk’s Leinster Barton Shield win last year, there’s nothing the competitor in Lawlor likes more than flipping the playbook on unassuming challengers underestimating his playing prowess.
“You get that all the time, but to be honest, it works in your favour,” said Lawlor. “People walk up to the tee against me and think, ‘alright, handy match here’ and then they’re losing on 15 or 16 and they don’t know what’s happened. I love match play situations. You’re always in with a sniff in match play; it’s never over until the end. In the Senior Cup last year, I was two down with four to play and I birdied 15, 16 and 17 and won the match. So, they might think they’ve an easy match but…”
Having grown up pitting his wits against able-bodied golfers his whole life, and more than holding his own while doing so, Lawlor wilfully admits that there was always a ceiling on his development in this sphere. But when his Auntie Anne suggested to his Mother that Brendan try his hand at Disability Golf, a path he had never considered soon opened doors to an unexpected future.
She didn’t want to ask me in case I got insulted,” recalled Lawlor. “As I said, I never saw myself as any different. I was competing pretty well at amateur level anyway but I thought, ‘yeah, I’ll give it a go, it’s another road to go down’.”
Lawlor signed up for his first event in November 2017 at the European Championship for golfers with disabilities took place at Troia Golf Resort. Funnily enough, the Dundalk man, just as those he’d previously put paid to in able-bodied golf had foolishly done, found himself guilty of underestimating the opposition, and he learned a swift lesson in attitude from an underwhelming debut in Portugal.
“I was going over thinking it was going to be a breeze,” he remembered. “‘I play to a high level in Ireland. Disability golfers, what are these guys?’ but the way I was thinking was completely wrong because they’re incredible.
“You’ve probably seen videos of guys like Juan Postigo. He’s playing golf with one leg and hitting it out there 300 yards! The standard is crazy. I came fifth in the very first event which wasn’t a great result – I was very disappointed. I lost the head a bit and tried to chase it but I learned a lot and won my next event in Portugal. I actually won three in a row.
“Sometimes you need that little bit of shock at the start to kick you on. Also, my temperament is a lot better since I started. I was always very fiery, even at pitch and putt. It’s cost me more tournaments than I won but playing with the guys I do now gives you a different perspective on the game and a new appreciation for it.”
However, don’t be fooled. Although the camaraderie on tour between the European Disabled Golf Association members is strong, the competition is as fierce as you’ll find across any fairway in the world. With each one of Lawlor’s competitors fighting for their own bit of exposure, and only limited invites available for some of the tour’s biggest events, winning remains paramount if rankings are to be maintained.
And with inclusivity in golf the hot topic of the day at the boardroom tables of the game’s governing bodies, opportunity has never knocked so hard for Lawlor and co. Indeed, never was exposure greater than last November’s All-Abilities Championship in Australia, where Lawlor hit the headlines in Sydney when he rubber-stamped his credentials as one of the world’s best disabled golfers after finishing second at The Lakes Golf Club, in an event that ran alongside the stars of the golfing world competing at the Emirates Australian Open.
With 5,000 people watching on, Lawlor proved no handicap is too great in golf in a performance that got the whole world talking about the stars of Disabled Golf and their eye-catching performances.
“It’s something different and everyone likes something different,” Lawlor accepted. “When we played in Australia, we didn’t hold any tee times up. I was playing behind Matt Kuchar and we went around in 4 hours 10 minutes, but in that situation, it was quite a good time to get around in.
“Since Australia, there’s been a big change in that the likes of Shane Lowry and Paul Dunne are really interested in it. I was chatting to Paul last night, having the craic with him. I would never have thought that would be possible and even now, sitting here, I’m wondering how this is happening.
“I’m still working three days a week in with my Dad, practicing four or five times a week. Life isn’t changing massively but the opportunities I’m getting are humungous. I guess they’re inspired by what we’re doing.”
With ISPS Handa founder, Dr Haruhisa Handa continuing his mission at a ferocious pace to break down barriers and promote inclusivity in sport, the evolution of Disabled Golf is happening at a rate even Lawlor didn’t envisage. In May, the European Tour announced two 36-hole EDGA Championships that will run alongside the ASI Scottish Open and the DP World Championship in Dubai, and the world number three believes that as long as performance levels are maintained, such platforms mean the sky’s the limit for Disability Golf.
“ISPS Handa are trying to merge disabilities golf into able–bodied golf,” said Lawlor. “Obviously, we’re not going to compete with those lads at a high level but if we’re within four or five shots of the pros, there’s massive interest in that. If they’re seeing us hit the ball 260 yards off the tee, they’re thinking, ‘what’s going on here – how can they only be a few shots off the pros?’
“Johan Kammerstad in Australia shot level par the last day. He beat 60% of the field and that’s someone with a disability. They love to see that. The crowds watching me and Adam at the Belgian Shootout were amazed. You’d hit a shot off the tee and they’d be like, ‘ooooooooh’, they’re not expecting anything! And golf’s entertainment at the end of the day.”
Still, beyond the instant thrills and standing tall amongst Lawlor’s many goals now is a driving ambition to put Disability Golf front and centre on Ireland’s golfing map. It’s been a long-standing aspiration that only two years ago, looked to be a far-fetched dream.
“They’re not ignoring it,” said Lawlor when asked what the governing bodies within this country have done for the cause. “They might have ignored it before; I went to the GUI, I think it was after my first event and as they should have, they basically laughed and said ‘no, we don’t know anything about this’.
“But to their credit, they didn’t push it to one side either. As the results started coming, I contacted them again but soon it was them approaching me and they were really interested in doing something. But we have a long way to go.
“The European Team Championships for Golfers with Disabilities are on this week in Spain –Ireland don’t have a team. The woman from EDGA asked me if Ireland are putting in a team but I said we don’t have enough players. There’s only four needed for a team. We have two.
“There’s another fella called Gareth McNeely, and it takes someone like myself or Gareth to push it on. There was no one pushing it on before this but people are getting on board now. I’m only at this a year and a half so it’s still early.”
It’s early but lengthy conversations have started with the game’s governing bodies in Ireland around the idea of an ‘Irish Disabled Golf Association’ and the concept has gained traction elsewhere too, with Blind Golf keen to get on board with any potential project. However, despite widespread interest from other organisations hoping to get involved, Lawlor is hesitant, believing that a blueprint must first be put in place before too much can be considered.
“It’s a tricky one because everyone wants their place on the map,” he explained. “We want this on the map, that on the map. It’s hard to put everything on the map if there’s nothing there to put it in. I don’t want to be putting anything down. Blind Golf is an inspiration, Disability Golf is an inspiration – but you need something to put it forward.
“As it stands, Disability Golf is going to be shown everywhere and it’s going to get massive exposure in Scotland, Dubai and Australia this year.”
When we suggested that other organisations would struggle to replicate the standard of golf that those with disabilities have already produced on a world stage, Lawlor added:
“I didn’t want to mention the word ‘performance’ but that’s what sport is hung on. They want the elite to be playing. It’s based on results.”
It’s results that will decipher whether or not Lawlor’s ultimate dream is fulfilled, as his quest to secure golf’s place in the Paralympics remains his Holy Grail. Indeed, perhaps his one regret, not that he labelled it as such, is that the momentum Disability Golf has gained in catapulting the sport to the next level came that bit too late for it to be considered for the Paralympics in 2024, but with Los Angeles only around the corner in 2028, it’s full steam ahead to ensure Lawlor gets there.
“If all this happened maybe four months before Australia – I mean, look at it now with Scotland and Dubai – we could have qualified for the 2024 Olympics.
“Representing Ireland would be my dream. I know you represent Ireland every time you go out but there’s something about the Olympics that’s special, isn’t there?”
For now, Lawlor is happy to leave such discussions to the driving forces behind the scenes, but at the rate doors are opening and with the powers that be united in driving forward inclusivity in golf, he’s confident that one day his dream will come true.
“The people behind the scenes are fantastic. Tony Bennett, the CEO of EDGA does some incredible work. European Tour Chief Executive, Keith Pelley is so interested in it. He can see a Disability Tour in 2021 and that will probably mean prize money for us. As it is, it’s fully funded by ourselves to go around Europe and play.
“In saying that, thanks to Shane [Lowry], Srixon have helped me this year with clubs and balls and things like that that all add up. Dundalk are helping me out, the GUI will hopefully come on board soon as well. They’ve been really good to me, helping me go to Australia. The funding is there, it’s just all so new and they’re trying to see how it works.”
Still, despite attracting increased attention from further afield, Lawlor’s biggest supporter has always been his Dad, with Brendan working three days a week atthe family business – CTI – with flexibility assured so he can chase his fairway desires. Not only that, but Dad even dons the caddie bib on Tour to keep his son in check.
“Dad’s been incredible,” Lawlor smiles. “If it wasn’t for Dad, we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing. It costs a lot of money to do it but he loves it, he’s my caddie as well and he’s travelling with me, but that means it’s basically double the expenses any time we go anywhere.
“But he’s good to keep the lid on. He doesn’t help with club selection or anything like that but if I’m in the trees, he has the wise head to chip out; ‘don’t go for the wee gap in the trees, you’re two shots ahead’. He’s really good.”
And so’s his son at playing golf. Now a 0.7 handicap, scratch is just around the corner for Lawlor who has higher ambitions than that; one being his goal to topple the current top-dog in Disabled Golf – world number one, George Groves.
“He is good, very good… His disability is very slight now, I must say,” laughed Lawlor. “I like George, I get on well with him. The first time I saw him I was like, ‘what’s up with you, what’s wrong with ya, nothing!’
“In fairness to George though, he actually receives a bit of ‘agro’ because of it. Juan Postigo has one leg. How could someone as small as me hit it that far. People look for visible disabilities but George is a lovely guy and he falls under the category as a disabled golfer [George was born with Erbs Palsy which affects his movement] so he has every right to play in it and he’s worthy of the world number one spot because he’s a fantastic player.”
Lawlor hopes to climb the mountain to world number one this summer but he also retains hopes closer to home of being afforded the chance to show off his skills to the Irish public too. The Irish Open Pro-Am at Lahinch is something he’d love to compete in while the opportunity to play as Ireland’s representative for Disabled Golf at the JP McManus Pro-Am set for Adare Manor in 2020 is another distant dream that makes him smile.
Yet, if you get a chance to see the likes of Brendan in action, or Juan Postigo defying logic with his booming drives from his one–legged stance, you’ll quickly realise there’s merit in the inclusion of these guys in such established company. Golf is one of the few sports that presents a level playing field to people of all abilities, regardless of physical or mental shortcomings or handicaps. It boasts a starting position of equal opportunity and Lawlor is one of many who forged his way, not as a disabled golfer, but as a golfer, to where he is today.
“I was speaking to a fella recently, Dougie Bell, and he was talking about Juan Postigo and he said, ‘that ball doesn’t know who Juan is – he hits it a different way but it makes no difference to the ball’. It really is an amazing game when you think about it.”
And luckily for us, the average punters afforded the opportunities to see some incredible things via modern mediums of communication, there’s some amazing people playing this game too.
“That’s what Mam said to me,” Lawlor smiled when we compared the influence he’s having on Disabled Golf to that of which champion Katie Taylor has had on women’s boxing. “She watched a Katie Taylor interview on Netflix this week and she said, ‘Brendan, you’re doing the exact same thing for Disabled Golf as she did for women’s boxing.’”
You could tell by his humility that he wasn’t so sure but after spending only an hour in his company, we had no doubt that Brendan’s influence was headed that way already.
Lawlor returns to action this weekend at the Renaissance Club for a 36-hole EDGA tournament that will run alongside the Scottish Open.