By Vartan Kupelian
For Rhett Roberts, the love of golf comes naturally. His father, Jeff, is an avid golfer, and the opportunities for father and son to play together are precious.
Rhett suffers from cerebral palsy, but that didn’t prevent him from competing in the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship local qualifier in June at Carmel Country Club, just south of Charlotte. He wasn’t successful in the attempt to advance from the field of 21 in the Boys’ 10-11 age group, but what his parents, Jeff and Telea, heard immediately after the competition was most encouraging.
“I can’t wait until next year,” Rhett told his parents.
That was the “thumbs up” moment.
It tells us this about young Rhett: He loves sports, he loves to participate, and he doesn’t discourage easily.
Rhett was diagnosed at age 3 with a mild case of cerebral palsy, which mainly affects his right leg, according to his father.
“He has a lot of trouble walking, balance is a big issue,” Jeff said. “It hasn’t discouraged him from trying a lot of different things. He plays adaptive sports.”
Those include flag football, water skiing and a kids’ triathlon, including swimming, biking and running a lap around a football field.
“He loves golf; I love golf,” Jeff said. “He just started going with me to a local course. At first it was just riding in the cart, this is probably two years ago when he was eight. Then he started putting around the greens, then playing from 100 yards in.”
Bob Baldassari is director of youth golf development for the PGA of America. He regularly visits some of the 256 Drive, Chip and Putt Championship local qualifiers around the country to support the operation when and where needed.
In his preparation for the qualifier at Carmel Country Club, Baldassari received an email from Jeff Roberts saying that his son might need a little bit of help teeing the ball. Baldasarri figured there might be a story involved, and he was right – it was a story of dedication and inspiration.
“He was grinding,” Baldassari said of Rhett’s approach to the competition. “It was not ceremonial. Absolutely not. Rhett was trying very hard, and he was an inspiration to others, both the competitors and the adults.”
Rhett has two sets of leg braces – a sturdier set for driving, another for the chipping and putting competition.
“We were watching one of the golf tournaments on TV – I watch a lot of golf, Rhett just a little bit, the TV doesn’t hold his attention,” Jeff said. “He’d rather be out there playing, but he’ll watch some with me. I can watch it all day. We heard them talking about the [Drive, Chip and Putt]. Rhett was really excited about that. He likes to participate in something other kids are doing, without any special attention.”
Jeff built a tee box in the front yard so Rhett could practice driving with limited distance balls. They also practiced at a nearby course a couple of times a week.
“Having the competition to look forward to really motivated him to practice and try to improve, and he definitely did,” Jeff said.
In his final attempt, Rhett “drove it 75 yards or so, which is pretty good for him,” Jeff said.
“We were unsure what to expect first time out,” he said. “Part of the concern was how much walking he has to do from place-to-place. It was great that we were helped. Rhett had a great time … being able to be with other kids and being part of an event like that.
“The thing I’m most proud of is hearing him say he wants to do it again. We didn’t want him to get discouraged if he wasn’t successful. He isn’t easily discouraged.”
Rhett’s mother, Telea, admitted the competition was “nerve-wracking” for her.
“I could tell he was nervous,” she said. “The first time, he swung and missed. He swung and missed again. Then he gathered himself. I got tears in my eyes. ‘Oh, dear, hold on.’ Then he got into it, and he had a good time.
“He loved it so much. He’s very much into sports, likes to be out there doing things. He’s done a couple of things, but nothing quite as competitive as this. He competed in a children’s triathlon with able-bodied kids, but this is the first time he has ever done anything with solely able-bodied. He’s very much a go-getter. It makes me feel crazy sometimes. The Drive Chip and Putt was a challenge for him.”
It was a challenge young Rhett Roberts embraced, and he’s looking forward to doing it again next year.