In the game of golf, it helps to eliminate distractions, focus on the ball and execute brilliant hand-eye coordination.
To bring all of those together can be difficult for anybody, but for those with cognitive or physical disabilities, the challenge can be even greater.
Such was the case for Andy Asmuth, 35, of Durango, who at age 6 was involved in a car crash that left him with a traumatic brain injury and physical impairment, including the permanent loss of sight in his right eye. His 9-year-old brother died in the crash.
“My left side was paralyzed; I was in a coma for a while,” he said. “They didn’t know if I would walk again, talk again – do any of that kind of stuff.”
After 10-15 years in special education classes and various forms of physical therapy, Asmuth has made a remarkable recovery.
He now spends more than 40 hours a week volunteering to help people with cognitive and physical disabilities, mostly through Adaptive Sports Association, but also through a weekly golf clinic he started four years ago at Hillcrest Golf Club.
The program meets from 9 a.m. to noon every Thursday, from July to mid-October, on the far end of the driving range. It started with a few adults but has grown to about 20 individuals.
Participants have a variety of impairments: Some were born with physical birth defects, others suffer from Asperger’s or Down syndrome. Most are involved with other community programs that offer disability services, including Community Connections, Pathways to Independence, Special Olympics and Adaptive Sports.
Asmuth said he has a unique ability to connect with his students, which he attributes directly to his brain injury as a child.
“I’m kind of able to read into them,” he said. “I take different approaches with different people. The big deal is try to keep it fun, safe and keep it upbeat – make them feel good, keep them on a high level.”
Asmuth, who grew up around Boulder, started skiing and playing golf at age 9 or 10. Like most kids, he enjoyed the outdoors and being active. For him, sports were a form of rehabilitation.
Despite his differences, he’s always wanted to integrate with the greater community.
Golf tends to be an individual sport, he said, but it also has social elements. Between strokes, players interact, build bonds and horse around. (On Thursday, one golfer was more enamored by a live worm crawling in the grass than the tournament being played.)
The game can be dissected and played according to people’s different skill levels. Not everyone has the power to drive a ball down the fairway, Asmuth said, but they may have the right touch on the putting green.
In Adaptive Sports, Asmuth can help anyone get down the ski mountain. But with golf, all he can do is show them what to do; the rest is up to them. He loves that they have to do it by themselves.
“You can put tethers on someone and ski them down the mountain,” he said. “I don’t put a tether on a golf club. They have to swing it. They have to do their thing.”
Asmuth has about 15 sets of clubs in his garage. Much of the equipment was donated by local thrift stores or from friends who know what he is doing. He has no budget and is not compensated for his time.
“It feels like something I’m meant to do,” he said.
He has about four volunteers who help coach players and carry equipment. He relies on Hillcrest Golf Club for carts, range balls and a place to shoot balls.
“It’s really, really cool when you go down there and watch these people, because they’re just having a blast,” said club pro John Vickers. “It really doesn’t matter how well you play or what your abilities are. You’re outside and you can play by the rules or have no rules.”
One participant, Greg Maxey, 56, of Durango, said Asmuth has made him a better player, offering tips on how to address the ball.
Alexandra Rodriquez, 25, called Asmuth a “good person.” She said he has taught her to “aim and hit the ball right; make sure I keep an eye on the ball when I’m hitting.”
Molly Mabie, who was born with Holt-Oram syndrome, which is characterized by short arms, said she never considered playing golf until visiting Durango and being introduced to Asmuth’s golf clinic. She won a chipping and putting challenge on Thursday. It was her fifth time picking up a golf club.
“It’s been way better than I thought it would be,” she said. “Everybody is so excited for everybody. It’s a really nice thing.”
Connie Zollinger, mother of Ryan Zollinger, 31, said Asmuth is one of the most underrated volunteers helping people with developmental disabilities in Durango.
“That’s his whole life,” she said. “It’s so apparent.”
Golf has taught Brian Shafer, 33, how to focus, listen to instruction and apply that instruction, said his mother, Mary Jane Schafer. It also has given him social skills he didn’t have before, she said.
“He really looks forward to the socialization and camaraderie up here,” she said. “He’ll be able to take this sport and age with it.”
Brian Shafer, who has Down syndrome, can’t drive a car, but he can drive the golf cart.
“Let me tell you, that is the highlight,” his mother said. “He just lights up. He looks for the opportunity to get behind the wheel. ... That’s his opportunity to feel like the rest of the population with licenses.”