Autis­tic golfer Lee dreams of Green Jacket

Kuwait Times - - SPORTS -

Golf is among the most soli­tary of sports, its play­ers en­gaged in a con­stant strug­gle with them­selves as they com­pete against the im­pla­ca­ble op­po­nent of par.

But for autis­tic newly qual­i­fied pro­fes­sional Si­mon Se­ung­min Lee, it is a way to es­cape from his en­closed self and en­gage with the world. The 20-year-old South Korean, who grew up in the US, has been med­i­cally as­sessed as hav­ing the com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills of a child half his age-and the so­cial­i­sa­tion abil­i­ties of a 10-month-old baby.

But six years af­ter tak­ing up the clubs, and fol­low­ing five failed at­tempts, he se­cured pro­fes­sional sta­tus at a Korea PGA trial in May-one of the few autis­tic peo­ple to do so any­where in the world. His next goal is a tour card at the Korea PGA qual­i­fy­ing school in Novem­ber. “I love golf,” said Lee, who has dif­fi­culty speak­ing and whose mother helped him com­mu­ni­cate through­out the in­ter­view. “I want to win the Mas­ters,” he added.

‘GOOD NIGHT, MOTHER’

Lee started show­ing symp­toms in his early child­hood in the United States where his fa­ther, a South Korean diplo­mat, was sta­tioned. “He started avoid­ing eye con­tact and re­ply­ing with what the other per­son had just said. My heart sank one day when I said, ‘Good night Se­ung­min’, and he replied ‘Good night Se­ung­min’, in­stead of ‘Good night mother’,” she said of the phe­nom­e­non known as echolalia.

He tends to show at­tach­ments to cer­tain ob­jects - an­other com­mon symp­tom - most notably a Patrick the Starfish char­ac­ter doll he was given when the fam­ily went to the Univer­sal Stu­dios theme park in Or­lando, Florida 10 years ago.

Asked by his mother who he would res­cue first from a sink­ing ship, her or the doll, Lee gri­maced and groaned, un­able to make up his mind. At age eight, he was placed in a spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem in the US, where he started play­ing ice hockey as a sports therapy. Six years later, he turned to golf, which he had been prac­tis­ing dur­ing sum­mer va­ca­tions.

MUS­CLE MOVE­MENT

Autis­tic golfers are not com­pletely un­prece­dented. Moe Nor­man, who won 55 Cana­dian Tour and other Cana­dian events from the 1950s to the 1970s, is be­lieved to have suf­fered from the dis­or­der. A metro­nom­i­cally re­li­able hit­ter of the ball, he has been de­scribed as “a su­per­nat­u­rally gifted yet cru­elly mis­un­der­stood ath­lete”.

Lee is cog­ni­tively im­paired, but has a re­mark­able rote mem­ory and his mo­tor skills ap­pear to be highly de­vel­oped, ac­cord­ing to his golf coach Kim Jong-Pil. “I think he was born as a golfer,” he said.

When they started work­ing to­gether, teach­ing him was harder than in­struct­ing 20 nor­mal ath­letes at the same time, Kim said. “As he has trou­ble com­mu­ni­cat­ing, I had to teach him with ac­tions and poses, not by words, show­ing him every right pose and proper mus­cle move­ment and fix­ing his own by touch­ing him,” he said.

Eti­quette was an­other chal­lenge, with Lee not un­der­stand­ing why he should stay quiet when other play­ers were tee­ing off. But once he learned the ropes, he never looked back. “All I worry now is he is prac­tis­ing too hard,” said the coach. But Lee’s autism may act as an ad­van­tage in com­pe­ti­tion, he said, when pres­sure can ad­versely af­fect per­for­mance. “Un­like or­di­nary ath­letes, he is not so tense in matches and his con­cen­tra­tion re­mains high through­out a round,” Kim said. Lee’s caddy Kim Bong-Sub, also a pro­fes­sional golfer, said Lee is es­pe­cially strong in ap­proach shots and put­ting, but has trou­ble mak­ing de­ci­sions-of­ten the case with autis­tic­ssuch as whether to lob the ball or roll it to­wards the hole.

MAK­ING THE CUT

Golf is hugely pop­u­lar in South Korea, whose women play­ers dom­i­nate the global game, tak­ing five of the top seven places on the cur­rent LPGA money list. Lee made his de­but on the coun­try’s pro­fes­sional golf tour at the KPGA Caido Golden V1 Open in June by in­vi­ta­tion. He failed to make the cut, but has se­cured spon­sor­ship from South Korea’s Hana Fi­nan­cial Group - a rar­ity for some­one at his level. “As a pa­tient suf­fer­ing from de­vel­op­men­tal dis­or­der, what he has achieved is re­mark­able in­deed,” said com­pany spokesman Paul Park. Lee’s mother Bahk Jiae said she hoped to see her son set an ex­am­ple as a suc­cess­ful ath­lete with a dis­abil­ity.

“We all hugged with each other and cried” when he qual­i­fied for the pro­fes­sional ranks, she said. “I was so moved when he said: ‘Mom, thank you. I am sorry for hav­ing caused you so much trou­ble’, she said. “I never thought he was able to put his feel­ings into such phrases.” —AFP

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