Special athletes take to links - East Valley Tribune: Sports

Special athletes take to links

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Posted: Thursday, October 4, 2007 11:41 pm | Updated: 6:54 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

The Arizona Special Olympics will take place at Vistal Golf Club in Phoenix on Saturday, and that’s a great source of pride for a guy who works there.

“The tournament will have a double tee (start), just like the PGA Championship,’’ said Greg Leicht, the director of golf at Vistal who serves as the statewide director of golf for the Arizona Special Olympics.

“We’ll have caddies for the athletes and just about everything else that a tour player gets. And we’ll give them nothing less than our very best because they give us nothing less than their very best.’’

About 180 Special Olympians ranging in age from 8 to 60 will participate, with another 180 volunteers on hand to assist them.

“Because we have both juniors and seniors and people in between, we always refer to the participants as athletes,’’ Leicht explained. “And we feature five different levels of participation, so there is something for everyone.’’

Level 1 features six stations that involve different golf skills. The second level, which the majority of athletes compete in, is team play between an athlete and a partner that features nine holes of alternate shot.

“Usually the athlete’s partner is a family member, or maybe a club pro, or just a golfer who has volunteered,’’ Leicht said. “And the alternate-shot format seems to work out very well.’’

There also is a third level for athletes paired with athletes. Level 4 features individuals playing nine holes on their own — “the toughest format but they enjoy it’’ — with Level 5 going the full 18 holes.

“The athletes in the Level 5 category can really play,’’ Leicht reported. “At that level, they’ll shoot a score somewhere between 80 and 100.’’

The Arizona Special Olympics added golf nine years ago, but only in the past four years, when the Southwest Section of the PGA got involved, has the golf portion really flourished, Leicht said.

“The (SWPGA) picks up the entire tab so there are no costs for the athletes,’’ he said. “And in the end, the (SWPGA) is the big winner because we get all those smiles and hugs.’’

As for teaching golfers with a different kind of handicap, Leicht said that’s all good, too.

“Is it easy to teach these Special Olympians the game? It is and it isn’t,’’ Leicht explained. “We simplify things, and that makes it easier for them to learn. Just things like showing them the proper grip and stance — basic stuff — can make a big difference in their ability to hit the golf ball.

“But when we see the results, and they actually hit the ball and hit good shots, well, it’s not overly different from teaching anyone else.’’

Saturday’s activities start at 7 a.m. with an opening ceremony followed by breakfast. After a morning of competition and awards ceremonies, there is a lunch, followed by yet more awards ceremonies. In addition, trick-shot artist Craig Hocknull of Mesa will conduct his Outback Golf Show sometime during the festivities.

“We have 16 teams from all over the state — from Mesa, Tempe and Chandler all the way to Yuma and Window Rock,’’ Leicht said. “The best part is everybody gets an award, so those awards ceremonies go on for three hours. I tell you, by the end of the day you’ve got the Olympic theme song memorized, and we love every minute of it.’’

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