Amputee golf tourney gives players joy

John Prestwood of Berwyn, PA balances after teeing

John Prestwood of Berwyn, PA balances after teeing off during the Long Island Amputee Classic golf tournament at the Bethpage State Park Red Course in Farmingdale. (June 24, 2012) (Credit: Barry Sloan)

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Brian Maher's artificial leg once fell off at the tee.

John Devine hit a hole-in-one from 190 yards years ago that he still counts as one of the single most exhilarating moments of his life.

Just Sunday morning, Kenny Bontz strapped on his prosthetic leg at the driving range and basked in the shock of able-bodied golfers as he banged ball after ball after ball down the middle.

Such are the trials and joys of amputee golf. The field was 25 men Sunday at the 23rd Long Island Amputee Classic, and Bontz won it with a 2-over-par 72 on the Red Course at Bethpage State Park.

He is 42, a landscape company owner from Farmingdale, N.J., who decided six years ago to have his cancer-ridden left leg amputated above the knee.

"Best decision I ever made," he said Sunday.

He was an even-par golfer before the operation and he is again now; the difference is, he's free of pain and the painkillers on which he'd come to depend. The new, improved Bontz said he has learned to take nothing for granted. He has learned to enjoy the scenery and small-talk with the rest of his foursome on a good sunny day. But he hasn't gone New Age-y. "We don't come here to play for second," he said, in all seriousness, somewhere around the seventh hole and still on par.

There were men Sunday who'd lost legs to disease, war, helicopter crashes and car crashes. Monday a triple amputee who lost limbs to fire is expected to compete in the team event.

Golf on prosthetic legs is probably harder than golf on natural legs, the players agreed. The old models would buckle on a vigorous follow-through, which is what happened to Maher. Even the most sophisticated modern prostheses can hamper a swing's coil and snap, or play awkwardly on an incline.

They agreed on an important caveat: Golf is fiendishly frustrating any way you play it.

"There are shots I blow and I chalk it up to having one leg -- my spikes on that leg slipped or whatever," said Devine, 63, the tournament director. "I still blame myself and hate myself."

Devine is a retired insurance salesman from Massapequa who lost his right leg at the hip to mortar fire in Vietnam when he was 19.

He took up the game a few years after he returned at his mother's suggestion. "You don't have to run, you don't have to jump," she said. She was right in both regards, which didn't make learning the game any easier.

"I'd been a professional lifeguard," Devine said. "I was in the Marine Corps. Why can't I hit this little ball?"

He has played in the Amputee Classic since its start and it's been an education, he said. He's gotten advice from competitors on how to navigate the vast Veterans Affairs benefits system; how to hit out of a sand trap; which kind of gel pad to wear on his stump so as to play in comfort.

He picked up something else. "There's nobody out here saying 'Let me help you, let me help you,' " he said. "And I've never seen a guy in amputee golf say 'I can't do it.' "

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