55: The Drive of a Champion

55: The Drive of a Champion

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tales of Golf and Sport

The Drive of a Champion

Having already accumulated a host of trophies since starting to play competitive golf at the age of ten, Larry Alford, at sixteen, had developed into one of the best young golf prospects in the country. Already shooting in the 70s, he was elected the most valuable player of the McCullough High School team during both his sophomore and junior years. Following his junior year, Alford matched against seventy-four of the nation’s best junior golfers at the Mission Hills Desert Junior Tournament in Rancho Mirage, California. He was tied for the lead going into the final round after firing a 72 and a 71, but he dipped to a 78 in the final round, which tied him for second place, five strokes behind the winner—Tiger Woods.

Alford’s performance drew the interest of coaches from some of the best college golf teams in the country, including Arizona, Arizona State, Stanford and Oklahoma State. Wanting to stay close to home, he accepted a scholarship at the University of Houston. “Just think, everything will be taken care of, and I’ll be close to home, and it won’t cost you anything while I’m going to college,” Alford said to his mother, Missy, “and I’ll be playing for one of the best college teams in the country.”

Fighting back tears, Missy Alford hugged her son tightly, knowing that he had worked so hard to earn a scholarship to make it easier for her. “That’s wonderful, Larry,” she said. “I’m so happy for you.”

That summer, Alford worked harder than ever on his golf game, hitting hundreds of balls daily while working at the golf cart barn at The Woodlands Country Club. At night, he and one of his best friends, Brendan, waded into water hazards at nearby golf courses to retrieve golf balls. Salvaging as many as 2,000 a night, they sold them for eighteen cents apiece, which enabled Larry to play more golf that summer. His paychecks from his golfing job went to his mother, an art teacher who also made and sold decorative wreaths and did wallpapering. “That’s Larry,” his father, Larry Alford Sr., said. “Finishing second in the biggest junior golf tournament of the year and then wading into water hazards to fish out golf balls. In no way was success going to change him.”

Late that summer, a golf teammate asked if Larry could do him a favor and drive the teammate’s father’s Corvette to a relative’s house. The teammate in turn would follow in his car and then drive Larry home. Larry said fine and off they went. Shortly after 6 P.M., while it was still broad daylight, Larry lost control of the Corvette on Interstate 45. The car flipped over three times, catapulting Alford through the open sun roof and onto the highway. Alford’s friend braked his car to a halt and saw his teammate lying motionless and bleeding badly from the head, face and left arm.

In the emergency room at Hermann Hospital in Houston, a doctor emerged from behind a curtain and asked Larry’s parents to come in. “Oh my God!” Mrs. Alford screamed to herself on seeing her son, who was the color of gray ice with a head as big as a basketball. Out of the corner of one eye, she saw what she perceived to be a look of horror on the face of one doctor.

“I got the feeling that they wanted us to see Larry once more, maybe for the last time,” Missy recalled. Then, as she and Larry Sr. were led out, she pleaded to herself, “Dear God, please save him.”

From the moment Larry Alford arrived at Hermann Hospital, Dr. James “Red” Duke, the hospital’s chief trauma surgeon, knew that his severed left arm could not be saved. Far more important was a life-threatening head injury. Then there were the lesser injuries: a fractured eye orbital bone that had jarred Larry’s eye partially out of its socket, a broken jaw, ankle and shoulder blade, a collapsed lung and a badly injured right arm. “I’m sorry, but we had to amputate your son’s arm below the elbow,” Dr. John Burns, an orthopedic surgeon, told Larry’s parents.

“Is he going to be all right?” Missy Alford asked.

“We don’t know,” Dr. Burns answered.

Standing alongside Missy was Jay Hall, a friend of hers who could not help but wonder about Larry’s reaction to the loss of his left arm if he were indeed going to survive. “How would Larry ever get along without golf?” Hall thought to himself. But then, catching himself in mid-thought, Hall also realized there was a far more pressing matter than a golf career at stake. They’ve got to save Larry’s life, he said to himself. That’s all that matters right now.

For almost ninety days Larry Alford remained unconscious and in critical condition. Then, gradually, his condition improved and he was no longer in danger. But his parents knew that difficult days lay ahead. For one thing, he would eventually learn that he had lost his left hand.

One night, Larry awakened and suddenly realized that his left hand was missing. He cried out for a nurse. One hurried into his room and said softly, “I’m sorry, Larry, but they had to amputate your hand.” Meanwhile, his father, alerted, raced to the hospital.

“Dad, how am I ever going to play golf?” he asked.

“Don’t worry, Larry,” his father replied. “You’ll play again, and you’ll do fine.”

Young Alford did not remain depressed for long. “Mom, I did it to myself,” he said one day to his mother, “so I’m to blame. And God saved my life, so I’m lucky.”

A few weeks later, while talking about golf, Larry turned to his father and asked, “Dad, do you have my clubs with you?”

“Yeah, I’ve got them in the trunk of the car, Larry.”

“Good,” Larry said excitedly. “Can you get my pitching wedge? Maybe we can chip some balls outside.”

Within minutes Larry and his father were on the lawn outside the Del Oro Institute in Houston where Larry was recuperating. Although he had lost forty pounds and was weak, young Larry began to chip with his right arm. Ball after ball went soaring in beautiful arcs as both father and son looked on in delight.

“Dad, will you look at those shots,” Larry said, ecstatic at swinging a golf club again.

“You’re doing great, Son, just great,” his father, replied heartened by Larry’s joy.

A week later, at young Larry’s suggestion, he and his father went out to play a round of golf at one of the four courses at The Woodlands Country Club. Understandably, Larry’s father was both happy and apprehensive.

“God, I hope he does all right,” Mr. Alford said to himself. “Don’t let him be upset.”

Larry Alford Sr. needn’t have worried. Though still weak and lacking in stamina, his son hit his shots cleanly and accurately during his first outing as a one-handed golfer. His chipping and putting in particular were superb. “Boy, Dad this is great,” he said at one point as he and his father walked down a fairway.

At the end of eighteen holes, Larry had shot an 86, about ten strokes above his average before his accident, but an extraordinary score for a one-handed golfer. As they headed for the clubhouse, Larry, obviously elated at how he had played, turned to his father and said, “Dad, do you think that I can still make the PGA Tour?”

Larry Sr. was prepared for the question. “Yes, I do,” he replied. “But I think we’re going to have to take this one day at a time.”

After that, and unbeknownst to Larry, Jay Hall began calling prosthetic manufacturers to find out if there was such a thing as an artificial golf hand on the market that would enable Larry to play competitive golf. Finding none, Hall decided that he, himself, would try to design a golf hand for Larry on his own. “First, I had to ask myself just what does the left hand do on a golf swing for a right-handed golfer,” said Hall, a professional psychologist and a good golfer himself. “And the answer is quite simple. It holds the club with three fingers and it hinges or cocks the club. Essentially, it provides those two functions, and that’s about all.”

Of paramount importance, Hall knew, was that the hand had to grip the club firmly enough so that the handle wouldn’t be twisted by the force of the swing. To ensure that, Hall designed the palm of the hand with pumped-up air cells. For the wrist, he came up with a ball and socket mechanism which, Hall felt, could perform the function of a human joint.

Hall then took his design to Ted Muilenburg, the owner of a prosthetics company in Houston. “Jay knew nothing about prosthetics, and I knew nothing about golf,” Muilenburg said.

“But I must say I was impressed with his design—so much so that we went ahead and made ‘The Halford Grip,’” as it came to be known, blending Larry and Jay’s last names. Muilenburg used an aluminum child’s knee prosthesis for the wrist and some air cells, which when inflated, fit tightly around the grip on the golfing hand like human fingers. Then a silicone suction sleeve, which slides over the elbow to hold the hand in place, was attached.

Seeing the mold the first time, Missy’s eyes brimmed with tears, as she envisioned her son’s reaction to the hand, which she was going to give to him on Christmas morning. “It’ll work,” Hall said, after looking over what Muilenburg had wrought. “I know it’s going to work.”

Unwrapping the last Christmas gift of the day, Larry peeked inside the box and, a look of amazement on his face, cried out. “It’s a hand—my golf hand.”

“It was Jay’s idea,” Missy said to her son. “He even designed it.” Overwhelmed with emotion, Larry threw his arms around Jay. “Thanks so much.”

The Halford Grip has been a rousing success, although a number of adjustments have been made over the years. “Some golfers, seeing how well my golf hand works, have said they’d like to trade arms with me, but I tell them, ‘No way.’”

Since receiving his golf hand, Alford has shot his lowest score ever—a 69. He also recorded his first hole-in-one and played three years of varsity golf at Sam Houston University. Since his graduation in 1997, Alford has worked as an assistant golf pro at his home course, The Woodlands Country Club, and has helped raise money for a number of charities by challenging golfers to try to get closer to the pin than he has on par-3 holes. “Not many people have,” said Alford, who shoots in the 70s and booms his tee-shots more than 250 yards.

“My accident has been a blessing for me,” said Alford who delivers inspirational talks to young people in schools and churches in the Houston area. “It happened for a reason. I thank God for saving my life, for giving me such a positive attitude and then giving me a second chance as a golfer. As for having to play with only one real arm, I tell people that golf is hard enough with two hands, so it can’t be that much harder with one.”

~Jack Cavanaugh
Chicken Soup for the Golfer’s Soul

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