Down syndrome and golf
Victor J Bishop
Around age 10, if not hopefully way before, parents with a child with Down syndrome
make the transition from therapy to sports and recreation; from aquatic therapy to
swimming; from hippotherapy to horseback riding. It was readily apparent from
Emmanuel’s first golf range practice that he had an innate ability to swing a golf club. It is in his genes. He is at a disadvantage with his typically developing peers that his father has never wielded a golf club in his life.
take him to the driving range and Emmanuel is
so happy putting a couple of dollar bills in the
golf ball machine, “all by myself, I can do that
papá” and carries his little basket to the tee and
flings away. Have I mentioned that my wife wants
Emmanuel to play tennis and she throws a fit
when she sees my son, well, our son, proudly carrying
his golf bag strapped to his back? I am sure
our paediatrician was bemused, here is a couple
with a child with a disability with a ‘problem,’
asking if a golf bag full of clubs would break my
son’s back and the Doctor rules in my favour, the
triumph of modern medicine.
How did he learn? For the first outings I printed a
golf swing sequence and laid it on the ground, you
know, break down the task into discrete manageable
chunks, yada, yada, but it was almost superfluous,
he did not need to be taught the shoulder
turn, hip rotation, the backswing, he came
In our house there is a major philosophical
schism: my wife, Gloria, bless her soul, thinks
that Emmanuel can be good at tennis. He has
been to four tennis camps and still cannot hit a
tennis ball for the life of him, but he never misses
a golf swing. Furthermore, Emmanuel cannot
bounce a basketball or catch a baseball. The
moral of the story is to follow your child’s sports’
strengths, ability and interests. This is diametrically
opposed to the therapeutic model of
remediating weaknesses we were drilled at during
Early Intervention, which I consider myself
now cured of. The purpose of physical therapy is
not to accelerate the acquisition of gross motor
skills in Down syndrome, but rather to prevent
compensatory movement patterns, but we do
have two recent evidence-based therapies, 1) Dr.
Ulrich’s treadmill research to help babies walk
earlier by several months; and 2) Dr. Klein’s Lose
the Training Wheels™ bicycle camps to teach
children how to ride a two wheeler in five sessions.
For my wife, it is a matter of finding that
elusive adapted teaching method for Emmanuel
to learn how to hit that pesky tennis ball; for me,
after Emmanuel hits two large baskets at the golf
range and asks for a third bucket, why bother
with tennis or basketball or baseball?
We did flashcards and Emmanuel was an early
sight-reader – sight-reading is the single most
significant intervention for pre-school age children
with Down syndrome – my son had a set
of sports flash cards, images of bowling balls
and softballs and volleyballs, etc., but the one
he always gravitated to as a toddler was the golf
ball flash card. Hmm…light bulb. I buy my son a
plastic set of golf clubs at Wal-Mart and my wife
goes bonkers because Emmanuel is redecorating
the house, but check out his swing, and my wife
looks at the pocket holes in the wall and maybe a
casualty lamp. Must be a guy thing. So then I buy
him some real Nike youth golf clubs at Target and
Clinton Hills Country Club. Age 10: Ceremonial First Drive: Five consecutive balls.
Photo: Tim Nienhaus.
Riverbend Down Syndrome
Parent Support Group, 528
Grafton Hills Drive, Grafton, IL
62037, USA http://www.riverbendds.
© 2008 The Author. Journal
Compilation © 2009 Down
Syndrome Education International.
Down Syndrome Research and Practice • Volume 12 • Issue 3 • February 2009
Decatur, Illinois: Emmanuel Bishop, age 10.
Photo: Michele Henson, Special Olympics Illinois.
equipped with it. It was only after he won a gold
medal at the Special Olympics district qualifiers
to go on to State that we found Dan Polites,
the golf pro at Clinton Hill Country Club in
O’Fallon, to teach my son. Dan has an excellent
golf video, which Emmanuel promptly memorised.
Scaffolding upon my son’s relative visual
strengths, he learned from the Golf for Kids
video the grip: “hotdog-in-a-bun” and how to
chip or pitch: “over-the-bench”.
Likewise, I had to make sure that Emmanuel
practised at the golf range with good role model
golfers; else he would try to imitate a hacker’s
swing, including all the hilarious hitches.
Another pro, Mark Morfey, at the Belk Park Golf
Course in Wood River, helped my son groove
his putt with a 2 x 4 with markings and a centre
point for proper stance and direction. Tim
Emmanuel Bishop, age 8. Three months after starting to play golf.
Photo: Tim Nienhaus.
Nienhaus gave Emmanuel the opportunity to hit
the ceremonial first drive at the Puttin’ for Down
Syndrome charity event.
At the golf range I would place the ball on the
rubber tee, so once Emmanuel figured out the
distance from the golf ball, he only had to concentrate
on the swing, putting him in a win-win
situation. If my son’s backswing became too
unwieldy, we would simplify by abbreviating his
swing. There are moulded golf grips to encourage
a correct grip during practice and for Special
Olympics we used a step-down tee so the golf
ball would always be at the right height. Proper
equipment is paramount: use only Junior golf
clubs with the correct shaft length to the child’s
height and just like sight-reading, the first step is
to ensure that your child has good (or corrected)
Given the option my son will choose golf over
McDonald’s. Before I bought him a golf glove,
he would hide his blisters behind his back, so he
could keep on practising until dusk: that is how
much he loves the life long game of golf.
The golf community has embraced him; golfers
stop to admire his swing at the Spencer T. Olin
Golf Course in Alton or challenge him at the
putting greens and give my son their favourite
embossed golf ball, so it can be my son’s special
golf ball too – I do need to buy one of those racks.
There is no pity, he is one of them, they all share
Victor J. Bishop is founder of the Riverbend Down Syndrome
Support Group and presented at the 9th World
Down Syndrome Congress on Early Literacy and Down
Syndrome. Emmanuel J. Bishop is homeschooled, studies
Suzuki violin, is tutored in French and Latin, and plays
golf, swims and bikes. He is a self-advocate speaker, starting
at age six by reading a welcoming statement in three
languages at the NDSS Annual Congress Plenary Session in
front of 650 people.
Submitted: 9 April 2008, resubmitted 22 October 2008;
Accepted 29 October 2008; Published online: March 2009
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for children with Down syndrome. Down Syndrome
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5. Polites D, from Improve your Golf Swing [cited 2008 June
4]. Available from: http://dpgolf.com/video.htm
6. Junior Golf Productions, producer, Osgood J, director.
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Made Simple. [DVD]. DeSoto, TX: Junior