Images courtesy of European Disabled Golfers Association. www.edgagolf.com
Gareth McNeilly, a member of Massereene golf club is part of the inclusion workgroup set up by the Confederation of Golf in Ireland. This group are working towards the creation and implementation of an 18-month plan that leads into Golf Ireland, with the aim to create a more inclusive environment for golfers with disabilities, through education, awareness, participation opportunities, partnerships and a stronger visibility.
We spent some time with Gareth to find out about his golfing journey and what his dreams for inclusive golf in Ireland are.
Gareth Mc Neilly is a golfer from Massereene golf club in Co. Antrim. Back in 2004, at the age of 28, Gareth was involved in a motorbike accident where he instantly lost his leg at the scene.
Prior to his accident, Gareth was a keen sports player. He enjoyed playing gaelic football and was a member of Massereene golf club during his junior years. As a passionate and hard worker, Gareth was working for Enterprise Rent a Car on a management/ trainee programme.
After the initial shock, as the driven person that Gareth is, he pushed through his recovery and it went really well. After staying in hospital for a month, he spent three weeks at home. Following this Gareth had to learn to walk again with a prosthetic limb. This was no easy task to begin with but with the huge support from his friends and family, he continued to see improvements daily. Gareth remains grateful for all the support he received and mentions his Uncle Eamon ‘’who drove me to physio every day for almost three months and ensured my spirits were always kept high’’.
Gareth found out about the European Disabled Golf Association (EDGA) by chance, while scrolling online. After seeing this he was eager to play in and EDGA event and as a result the love of golf as a junior made him re-join Massereene golf club 10 years after his accident, where he would have to get his handicap and get use to playing 18 holes again.
At the beginning it wasn’t easy, mentally it was challenging as it differed from the action used in his junior years, however with coaching through Johnny Foster and his new computerized knee creating more stability while playing, Gareth began to believe in himself more and more as a golfer.
Over time, the initial anxiety about returning to golf was overcome and Gareth described what a positive experience getting back into the game has been both physically and mentally.
European Disabled Golf Association
Keen to keep his competitive side going, Gareth decided to play in some of the (EDGA) international events. The travelling element of competing in these events was a real eye opener. Most airports have a lot of slopes and stairs which makes it difficult to navigate through, and ‘’the lifts aren’t always in the most convenient of places’’ explained Gareth. ‘’Depending on the airport sometimes there are very few seats available among hundreds of passengers before boarding the plane’’. Another difficulty is the steps up the plane, things so many of us take for granted. Often the travel is tiring, therefore as Gareth
acknowledges you need to be good at giving yourself a break and there is a real degree of flexibility involved. Although travelling to events is tiring and takes a lot physically, Gareth remains positive and refers to it being the ‘’price to pay for following your dreams’’.
After playing in some EDGA events, Gareth caught the attention of selectors after leading the Scottish Disabled Open in 2017, where he later finished ninth. This success helped Gareth’s selection to represent Europe at the Phoenix Cup in October 2018. The panel of 14 was made up of golfers from England, Scotland and Germany. Gareth was also accompanied by fellow Irish man Trevor Hillen from Donaghadee golf club who also
made the team. The team travelled to Florida to compete against the United States who were hoping to win on home soil.
While Team Europe were having their first round of practice, fellow team member Billy Cairns sadly passed away in his hotel room. This left the team detailing whether to play or not, but Billy’s daughter was determined for the team to go ahead. This sad event gave the team extra motivation to give it their all and do it for Billy.
The format of the event was 12 players played each day over three days. Europe had a successful first day, beating the US team 5-1 in foursomes. The US team fought back on day two in the fourball pairings and won 5-1. All tied on six points each, it was all to play for going into the final day. Europe dug deep and came out on top beating the US in singles matches 7.5-4, with an overall finishing score of Europe 13.5 – USA 10.5. Gareth successfully contributed two points to his winning side, and I am sure it’s an experience he will never forget.
Gareth’s has many hopes for inclusive golf in Ireland and would love to see a range of events for golfers dealing with any health challenge, either physical or mental, where each event could count towards an Irish Order of Merit. ‘’the icing on the cake would be an Irish Open in conjunction with EDGA which would award World Ranking Points’’ explains Gareth. ‘’I would also like to see an all abilities Ireland Team competing at International Events and more coaching opportunities being made available to current disabled players and potential new players’’.
Gareth hopes to see more amputees to take up sport and offers his advice: ‘’My first piece of advice would be to speak to the professionals who look after your limb to ensure that your current limb is suitable for the activity. Speak to other amputees who already do the activity and search online for as many tips and advice as you can find. Finally, do not hesitate to try new things and give them a real go because not only will a new activity have many health benefits, you will also meet many new people and might even get to travel around the world competing just as I have’’.
Despite many challenges along the way, Gareth expresses how ‘’There is a life after an accident, there is life after an amputation, and so go for it’’.
His love for the game is certainly back and he continues to strive for improvements. With a current Nett World Ranking of 81, Gareth aspires to get to a handicap of 12 and to win an EDGA championship. ‘’If the opportunity arose, I would love to play for Ireland’’.