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To contribute to the Ranken Jordan junior golf program or to ask any questions please e-mail me at This blog is not affiliated with Ranken Jordan. The views expressed on this blog are those of the author and not those of Ranken Jordan. Thank you for reading!

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Swinging Away With Dakota

Determination and perseverance are two very important qualities to have for anyone who wants to improve their golf game.  Golfers everywhere who have taken a lesson or tried to make a swing change completely understand this.  Trying to incorporate something learned from your local PGA Professional or from one of the many great instructional shows on the Golf Channel is indeed a daunting task.  Initially many changes to your set up, grip, or swing will feel very uncomfortable and likely have you mumbling under your breath (or loudly depending on how uncomfortable).  Looking back on my own game I remember grip changes and swing plane changes that had me feeling like I had never before held a golf club.  I recall thinking there is no way I am going to be able to make these changes and feel good making a swing.  This type of thought is common on driving ranges and golf courses across the United States and around the globe.  Once we get a golf club in the hands of our junior golfers at Ranken Jordan Pediatric Bridge Hospital in St. Louis those thoughts never enter the minds of the kids.

Those of you who read this blog regularly might recall a young man I have spoken of often and fondly named Dakota.  Since getting over his initial reluctance to play golf he has become one of our most dedicated players.  To Dakota Saturdays are golf days.  Of course every other day of the week is also a golf day in his mind!  I know every week when I get to the hospital I will hear his stories of how many golf balls he hit during the week or what he's working on in his golf swing.  I cannot tell you how happy it makes me to hear from the kids that they enjoy golf so much that they want to play more than just one day a week!  During his time at Ranken Jordan we have had to make several changes and modifications to Dakota's swing.  In his case I say "we" because it truly is a team effort.  He seems to make as many suggestions about improvements as any of the golf professionals who work with him.  At a recent clinic those suggestions were freely flowing but they were not related to swing changes.  Dakota was directing Janine Roe, Community Programs Director at Ranken Jordan, on how to properly position his hospital bed so he could make the biggest swing possible.

This type of thing is not uncommon at Ranken Jordan.  As the kids progress through their rehabilitation and their bodies heal we naturally have to make changes to how we teach them.  Sometimes the changes include casts on their left arm one week and right arm the next week, improvements in strength, flexibility, and stamina, or getting out of their wheelchair to take their first steps and playing golf standing up.  And then there are the times that the kids go back and forth from their hospital bed to their wheelchair with some time in a golf cart mixed in.  That was exactly the case this past week with Dakota.  He came to golf in his hospital bed and refused to let it slow him down.  Due to being in the bed he was unable to make the same long, smooth swing that he typically does from his wheelchair, but he quickly realized he could still work on the swing changes we have been focusing on the past couple of weeks.  To get in the best position to swing he certainly kept Janine on her toes until she had his bed situated just right.  After that the volunteers picking up golf balls quickly became human targets!

Dakota is easily one of the most inspirational people I have been fortunate enough to meet through the game of golf.  After initially resisting the game he soon learned he loved to play and has worked hard to see continuous improvement.  In his own words he has told me that "golf turns a bad day into a good day."  Many of us (I am at the top of the list) will use a stiff shoulder or sore back as a reason not to play golf or practice.  Dakota doesn't let being in his hospital bed or anything else keep him from his practice.  He perseveres through the difficulties put in front of him and is determined to keep playing.  In fact, there is a good chance he is working on his golf game as you read this.  Which reminds me, I better get in some putting practice on the carpet so Dakota doesn't beat me next week!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Giving Kids Their Lives Back

Last night Ranken Jordan held its annual Gala at the Ritz-Carlton in St. Louis, Missouri.  To say the night was incredible would be a gross understatement.  I feel very fortunate to have been able to attend this event for the first of I hope many times.  Throughout the night hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised for the hospital that excels at producing miracles for kids and their families on a regular basis.  Along with the money raised, one of the highlights was the unveiling of a new video explaining exactly what Ranken Jordan does for the kids and their families (you may click the link below to view it).  Ranken Jordan's Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Nick Holekamp, said it best during his speech when he commented that "the acute care hospitals save kids lives.  It's our job to give them their lives back."  This thought was a common theme throughout the night.

As the night progressed Dr. Holekamp's quote really resonated with me as I kept thinking about it in regards to our junior golf program.  Every week I see more examples of exactly how golf is giving the kids their lives back.  When most people see a child laying in a hospital bed, sitting in their wheelchair, or walking with the aid of a walker as well as a therapist, they do not think of putting a golf club in their hands.  I do.  Giving these kids the opportunity to learn how to play golf regardless of their physical condition is one piece of the puzzle to giving them their lives back.

That was evidenced once again during our most recent clinic.  Typically our golf clinics are scheduled for one hour each Saturday morning.  However this last week wound up going for almost 2 full hours as the kids did not want to stop hitting!  There were very few breaks to rest and were certainly no complaints that hitting shot after shot was boring.  All of the kids involved had huge smiles pasted on their faces and had a great time.  They putted, chipped, and ripped drivers off the windows.  Any of the volunteers who dared to walk out and gather golf balls were quickly labeled "human targets."  Because we use Almost Golf Balls the kids can get away with hitting the windows and volunteers without fear of damage or harm.  To go along with all of the smiles and laughs we had, there was one little boy who had flat out refused to play the prior week.

While I was helping one of the other kids smooth out their putting stroke I felt a tap on my shoulder.  The young man who didn't want to play last week had rolled his wheelchair up to me and asked which putter he could use.  We quickly got him set up with the right U.S. Kids putter and had him stroking putts in no time.  It didn't take long before he asked if he could take some full swings.  Just as quickly as the putting mat appeared, it was replaced with an astroturf hitting mat and the putter was replaced with an 8-iron.  The first swing sent the ball in the air and it landed right in the middle of the target net!  He was hooked!  His next comment left me stumbling for a response when he said "now I want to do this standing up."  The young man who last week didn't want to even try golf and refused to get out of his wheelchair now wants to hit golf balls standing up?!?  Still wondering how golf factors into giving these kids their lives back?

Stories like this are occurring every week at Ranken Jordan - Pediatric Bridge Hospital.  Sometimes they involve the golf program and I am thrilled when they do.  Looking back on that incredible golf clinic and also thinking of a comment from the Gala during the speech from St. Louis Cardinals Manager & Ranken Jordan Board Member Mike Matheny brings an instant smile to my face.  During his speech, Mike said that "you can't have success without serving others."  While I perfectly understand what he means by that, I can only hope that my small amount of service to these kids will contribute in some way to their success in life.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Reaching A Milestone

In order to progress and move forward in any aspect of life goals need to be set and milestones will be reached in the successful completion of those goals.  Anyone who has ever played golf knows that this is especially true as a beginner tries to learn the game or an experienced player works to lower their handicap.  It does not matter if you're learning the game at an exclusive country club or working on your swing while you are a patient in a pediatric hospital.  Goal setting is vital to measuring your progress and watching your game improve.

The kids who participate in our junior golf program at Ranken Jordan are no different than any other golfer around the world.  Many of them establish goals and work very hard to meet those goals.  Each week I hear comments like "I've never hit a golf ball that far" or "this is the most putts in a row that I've ever made!"  Earlier this week I had one of the junior golfers comment to me that he had gotten much better at controlling the trajectory of his golf ball.  He could now hit it high, normal, and low on command.  Did I mention he is doing this while swinging from a wheelchair?

Today at Ranken Jordan we had one of our most loyal junior golfers reach an incredible milestone.  This milestone had very little to do with her golf game.  Rather, it showed the progress she has made with her physical recovery and the hard work she has been putting in with her therapy.  If you ask her, she will tell you that golf has become an important part of her therapy program.  She has grown to love playing the game and gets excited by seeing the flight of a well-struck shot.  You may think that this milestone she reached was a longest drive or lowest score on the mini golf course we occasionally set up in Warner's Corner.  If those types of thoughts entered your mind you would be incorrect.  The milestone she reached that left me in total awe was reaching over with her golf club and raking the next golf ball into position to hit.

In past posts I have written about this incredible young lady.  When she first began playing golf she could not sit up in her wheelchair and hit balls for more than a couple of minutes without needing a break.  Due to a lack of physical strength we had to go hand-over-hand for her to hit the ball.  Through hard work and sheer determination she has progressed to being able to hit golf balls on her own for an hour at a time.  Today, for the first time, she showed the hand-eye coordination and steadiness to be able to rake the next golf ball onto the mat to hit.

From a golf standpoint you may think that this is relatively insignificant.  Compared to establishing a career low score maybe it is.  Then again maybe it isn't.  In this particular case I am not overly concerned about what it means for her golf game.  What makes me the happiest is watching her recovery from the day she started playing golf until now.  This is where the game of golf illustrates the important role it can play in the lives of children in pediatric healing facilities around the globe.  Because this junior golfer wants to improve her golf game and get better she has worked harder in therapy and received additional therapy, albeit unknowingly, while playing golf.  The next time you are at the driving range and absentmindedly rake the next ball from the tray, maybe you will think of one of my favorite golfers and the progress she has made in her recovery because of golf.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Springtime in December

Last weekend at Ranken Jordan there was a camp similar to the ones held in the summer.  You may recall me writing about the camp in which we had a large group of kids and a great mix of patients, day treatment patients, and community participants.  Looking up and down the line of kids hitting golf balls you saw kids in wheelchairs, kids requiring help to stand, and able-bodied kids, all of whom were swinging away.  The two days we had golf during those summer camps were a wonderful example of how golf can be a completely inclusive sport.  Last Saturday's camp provided the same type of example.

An unseasonably warm December day actually allowed us to get the kids outside and enjoy some mid-winter sunshine.  Not only did we have a great turnout of kids, but there was a great involvement from the local golf community.  Oak Brook Golf Course's Mike Suhre, PGA, Ann Briar Golf Course's Kevin Schaeffer, PGA, and Metropolitan Golf Association Executive Director Curt Rohe all came out to lend a hand.  Walking up and down the line helping the kids, I saw nothing but smiles on the faces of everybody that sunny morning.  As always, those of us helping took away as much or more from that day than the kids!

While all of the kids had a great time, improved their golf swing, and left smiling, there were two kids who really stood out to me.  The first one, Dakota, I have talked about several times in the past.  He is the young man who we took to the golf course earlier this summer and has not stopped smiling since!  Last Saturday showed exactly how far his golf game has come since he stopped thinking the game is "stupid and boring" and picked up a club.  Anyone who has played golf knows that "click" you hear when you strike a golf ball just perfectly.  This past week Dakota heard that on virtually every shot he hit.  I was absolutely amazed at how consistently he hit the ball.  Shot after shot was sent high and straight across the field. Talking with Dakota after the golf clinic we both agreed that this was the best he has hit the ball since he started playing.

Dakota at The Quarry at Crystal Springs Golf Course
The second junior golfer who stood out to me was a young patient with limited use of one side of their body who took a few swings then walked away with a frown.  I went over and asked why I didn't see a smile.  The conversation went something like this:

Junior golfer:  "I stink at golf.  I can't do this.  My hand won't let me hold the club, my arm won't let me swing the club, and my leg makes it tough to stand up to the ball.  I just stink at golf."

Me:  "Why don't you give it one more try and let me watch you hit a few balls?  I'll help you and we will get you hitting the ball better than ever."

Junior golfer:  "OK, I guess I'll try one more time.  But I'm only hitting 3 balls.  I stink and don't want to do it."

With that the youngster picked up a club, went back to the pile of golf balls, and got ready to hit the 3 balls as promised.  I made a slight adjustment to the junior golfer's grip to allow the left hand to better hold the club, slightly modified the stance, and then it was time to swing away.  Ball #1 was sent flying through the air towards the target . . . and there was almost a smile.  Soon after ball #2 was airborne and had the same result . . . but with a little smile.  Then came ball #3 which wound up being the best shot yet . . . and got a huge smile!  I told our new golfer thank you for hitting the golf balls for me and how great the new golf swing looked.  The next thing I knew another ball was being teed up and sent flying.  After about 20 more swings it was time for a little break.  So much for only hitting 3 golf balls!  When the practice session was over I got a huge smile and was informed that this special junior golfer had decided, "I don't stink at golf."

I always enjoy the camps at Ranken Jordan as they allow for all of the participants to interact and simply be kids.  This is one of the great things golf is doing for them.  The game allows for everybody to interact equally and shows that they are all just kids.  Everybody uses the same equipment and hits from the same spot.  One of the best parts of days like this are watching the able-bodied kids look on in awe as Dakota launches shot after shot past their best drive!  But of course nothing is better than seeing the smiles and hearing the laughter from kids playing a game.