Donaghadee sets up Ireland's first disabled friendly golf hub

By John HaugheyBBC Sport NI
Donaghadee Golf Club launches first Disability Golf Hub

Trevor Hillen's pride is palpable on this gloriously sunny autumn morning at his beloved Donaghadee Golf Club.

He looks across a crowded putting green as Ireland's World One-Arm Golf Champion Cian Arthurs is giving putting lessons to children from nearby Killard House Special School.

One doesn't know quite where to look amid the buzz of it all.

Dundalk man Brendan Lawlor, the world's fourth best disabled golf who signed a deal with Niall Horan's Modest Golf management agency to turn professional in September, is passing on his expertise to the enthralled youngsters as well.

Brendan, 22, has a bone growth condition called Ellis-Van Creveld Syndrome which leads to shorter limbs. But that didn't prevent the four foot 11 inch Louth man getting his handicap down to scratch and being invited to play in able-bodied professional events such as this year's World Invitational European Challenge Tour event at Galgorm Castle.

With wheelchair players and one-legged golfers such as another Donaghadee clubman Gareth McNeely milling around the putting green as well, the optics are incredible.

'He told her he wanted to die'

Trevor Hillen recalls the day when he and his mate McNeely came up with the idea of creating Ireland's first Inclusive Golf Hub which would be aimed primarily at disabled people.

The two of them were on a flight home from competing in the US Disabled Open in Florida where they had encountered a women whose brother-in-law had been left suicidal after losing both legs the previous year in a car accident.

"She came on to the course while we were playing and asked us what was going on," recalls Trevor, who was born with hands but no fingers.

"She saw people with one leg, some with one arm, some in wheelchairs, some on crutches and she couldn't understand what was happening.

"So we explained that the US Disabled Open was being played. She then went on to tell the story about her brother-in-law.

"He was in a very dark place. He wouldn't leave the house and in fact told her he wanted to die.

"We thought that we could help the guy. We said 'bring him down to the golf course. We'll talk to him. We'll take him out in a buggy and maybe even play a bit of golf with him'.

"But we were in Florida and he was in Wisconsin, thousands of miles away so couldn't come. However, we took her details and passed them on to some of our friends in America. They contacted him and I have a photograph of him now playing golf. He's in a wheelchair but he's playing golf."

An emotional Trevor struggles to get out the final sentence out as he recalls the story.

Trevor Hillen is the prime mover behind Donaghadee Golf Club's new Inclusive Golf Hub
Trevor Hillen is hoping to set up his next Inclusive Golf Hub at a Leinster club

Hillen sets about plan with missionary zeal

After arriving home, Trevor set about his plan with an almost missionary zeal.

"Our first thing was that we went to Golf Ireland and told them our story. They really wanted to be part of it and that's where it all started.

"What we really wanted to do was to open disabled friendly hubs all over Ireland and that plan was accepted.

"I said to them 'if they don't accept me in Donaghadee then they are not going to accept me in Mallow in Cork or in Salthill in Galway' so I came back to my own club, met the council and the ladies committee.

"I suppose I was a bit surprised that to a man and woman, they all said 'yeah…let's get on with this'."

The buy-in from the Donaghadee members has been truly extraordinary with 23 volunteers now having done Confederation of Golf in Ireland [CGI] run courses which enable them to coach kids such as those from Killard House.

"We have Donaghadee up and running now. My next step is where do I go next. That's going to be worked out in a meeting with Golf Ireland.

"Personally, I would like to go to Leinster and then we'll be back to Ulster to put another one here."

Donaghadee members coach children from Killard House Special School at the launch of the club's Inclusive Golf Hub
Donaghadee members have bought into Trevor Hillen's initiative in remarkable fashion

Killard House students brought to Open Championship

CGI development officer and Irish amateur international Rory Leonard helped bring the Killard House students to the Open Championship at Royal Portrush in July when they had the opportunity to see the likes of Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods up close.

"It's just letting some of the kids experience the game and if some of them stay with it, that will be fantastic," says Leonard, who won the West of Ireland Amateur title in 2010.

"Golf has the benefit of being a sport that people can play for their whole lives and that's got to be an inclusive as it possibly can be."

A stirring and indeed emotional Donaghadee day concluded with nine-hole matches between the disability stars and club members.

The sight of Dubliner and world one-armed champion Arthurs smashing a ball some 270 yards off the first tee was something to behold.

Arthurs wins world title in Scotland

Seven handicapper Cian, who plays out of the Roganstown club, clinched his world title at Portpatrick in Scotland during the summer after losing in two previous finals.

The 27-year-old's achievement continues a family golfing pedigree that included his brother Eoin's 2008 East of Ireland title Amateur triumph.

"Eoin was the apple of my mam and dad's eye and seeing them watching him go around play in the amateur events, I just thought I would give it a crack. Two years later, I was down to nearly single figures," recalls Cian.

"Since then I've pushed on. I had a great year this year. I entered four events this year and took home the trophy from all of them.

"Today really tops it off for me - playing a part in this disabled initiative.

"Something like this definitely needed to happen. It's a push forward and hopefully this can open up more avenues for other people who haven't heard or thought about the possibility of taking up the sport."

Brendan Lawlor and Bernd Wiesberger with their Scottish Open trophies
Brendan Lawlor won the concurrently run Disabled Scottish Open event when Bernd Wiesberger triumped at the Renaissance Club in July

'I beat the world's best disabled players'

Arthurs hopes to join Brendan Lawlor on a European Disabled Golf Association [EDGA] circuit being planned for 2021 which is aimed at running alongside regular European Tour events.

Lawlor got a flavour of the mooted initiative earlier this year when he won the EDGA Scottish Open played alongside the Rolex Series event won by Bernd Wiesberger at the Renaissance Club.

"The best eight disability golfers in the world in it and thankfully I won by a shot," recalls the Dundalk man.

"That was the highlight of my career so far. I shot 71 on the final day which was really good for myself."

A month later, Lawlor performed creditably despite missing the cut at the World Invitational at Galgorm Castle and his summer performance convinced pop star Niall Horan to sign him up to a Modest Golf stable that includes Ryder Cup star Tyrrell Hatton.

"It's massive for me and it's massive for disability golf. It gives people belief like nothing is impossible," says Lawlor.

"You can get signed by a big management company if you have a disability. It's about the ability which is fantastic," adds the college graduate.

"After college, I worked in the family business for a year and half but disability golf has just taken over now I am being sent all over the world to promote the game."

Lawlor lauds golf's mental health benefits

Despite his bone growth condition, Lawlor's astonishing talent saw him progress to Dundalk's Irish Senior Cup team along with Caolan Rafferty, who was part of Great Britain & Ireland's Walker Cup team in September.

"I played able-bodied golf at the start but they my auntie Anne found disability golf and asked me if I would like to give it a go.

"It's definitely changed my life for the better and it's tremendous to see what Trevor Hillen is starting up for disability golf in Donaghadee.

"It's up to us in Ireland to try and get as many people involved.

"If people are struggling with their mental health, get them out golfing.

"It doesn't matter what age they are. It's fantastic to see the kids here today and smiling."

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