Don’t Tell Them What They Can’t Accomplish
Thanks to players like Kurtis Barkley and Conor Stone, the inaugural U.S. Adaptive Open is doing exactly what it was designed to do
By Jordan Perez
July 18, 2022
This week one of the most progressive tournaments in the history of competitive golf is taking place at Pinehurst No. 6.
In an event that started on Monday and runs through Wednesday, 96 disabled golfers will play for a USGA championship. The very existence of the U.S. Adaptive Open is a massive step in reducing ableist rhetoric in golf and challenging numerous notions about the perceptions surrounding various disabilities — visible or not.
The tournament provides a tremendous learning opportunity for those who are willing to listen. But most importantly, it shows these competitors that their skill, however it may come, is valued.
The representation across the board is astounding, falling under eight categories: arm impairment, leg impairment, multiple limb amputee, vision impairment, intellectual impairment, neurological impairment, seated players, and short stature. The categories are not all-encompassing, and one label does not define each player’s unique story. (For example, one of the players I’m writing about is listed under “arm impairment.” Although he and I share the same impairment, I wouldn’t say that has been our experience. More on that in a second.)
In learning more about the field, two names stuck out to me: Kurtis Barkley and Conor Stone. Barkley is competing under the short stature category, while Stone is listed under the arm impairment category.
The three of us have something in common. We all were diagnosed with severe scoliosis at some point in our lives, with multiple curves in each of our spines. (Like Stone, I had a spinal fusion to correct my curves.)
According to the Mayo Clinic website, “Scoliosis is a sideways curvature of the spine that most often is diagnosed in adolescents. While scoliosis can occur in people with conditions such as cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy, the cause of most childhood scoliosis is unknown. Most cases of scoliosis are mild, but some curves worsen as children grow. Severe scoliosis can be disabling. An especially severe spinal curve can reduce the amount of space within the chest, making it difficult for the lungs to function properly.”
For years, I’ve kept mum about my experience, only confiding in those closest to me on the off-chance the topic comes up. I was moved by the bios I read about Barkley and Stone, so I reached out to them. It was a healing exercise to relate to all-too-familiar pain. Most of all, I felt an overwhelming sense of pride listening to their stories and learning about their accomplishments. I hope you do too.
Kurtis Barkley: “Live your life while you can”
Kurtis Barkley was still in his mother’s womb when doctors noticed something was amiss. At birth, Barkley had already developed three curves in his spine.
While he doesn’t know the degree of every inversion (the greatest is 50 degrees, considered the second highest level of severity), it’s enough to impact both his heart and lungs. His left rib overlaps his hip, he is missing ribs on his right side and an extra bone in his neck restricts his flexibility.
His first 19 years were spent in and out of the hospital in treatment. “I was like a lab rat growing up,” says Barkley, who was administered one painkiller after the other. Barkley wrestled with constant pain and exhaustion, but it wasn’t enough to keep him away from the course. (Golf, in fact, was prescribed). Barkley’s father, a teaching pro, helped him develop a swing he was comfortable with, accommodating “virtually no movement in my torso, except I can bend a little backward.”
Surgery wasn’t an option, because the risk of being permanently in a wheelchair far outweighed any benefit a procedure could provide. Barkley grew to 5 feet, and he says if he was “straightened out,” he’d stand about 6 to 7 inches taller. Now 34, he says doctors advised him to stop working at a young age and to “live your life while you can.” He spends most of his time playing golf, with some fishing and hunting on the side.
He emerged above the rest in Ottawa Valley, Canada, and for two years starting in 2016 he was the No. 1 ranked amateur among all golfers in the region. His endurance has slipped with age, so his capacity for practice has dwindled. Barkley likes to work on his game in nine-hole rounds; he’ll drop a few extra balls from 100 yards out or on the green to get in extra reps.
“After a round, I’m pretty much kaput,” Barkley says. “Since this tournament is three days, I’m sure I’ll sleep for three days after.”
Barkley is a proven ball-striker with a 0.6 handicap index. He’s now a regular on the G4D Tour (the Golfers for Disabilities Tour), a seven-event series sponsored by the DP World Tour in which competitors play parallel to DP World Tour stops. His biggest goal, he says, is to win one of those — or at Pinehurst this week.
“We have some of the top disabled players in the world competing,” he says. “To win this event would be pretty big.”
Conor Stone: “It’s just being yourself”
Conor Stone’s scoliosis diagnosis came well into his teens, but its impact was no less debilitating on his life.
The 13-year-old Irish boy also took up golf a little bit late, but he found it “extremely addictive.” He lived on the golf course day in and day out. By 16, he was a scratch golfer who had ambitions of playing the European and PGA tours.
That same year, while reaping all the rewards of his performance, a quiet threat emerged. A family friend he regularly played with suggested he straighten his crooked posture. When he realized that wasn’t possible, he recommended to Stone’s parents that they seek medical attention. A scoliosis diagnosis followed, but the teen powered through, earning the Paddy Harrington scholarship to play golf at Maynooth University.
The wrath of scoliosis spares no one, however. Everything deteriorated when Stone began playing college golf. He developed kyphosis, a variant of scoliosis that forms into an S or C shape. In Stone’s case, his S shape inverted his body to the point it mirrored a hunchback. It was difficult to hide the pain. Stone says he struggled to make a proper swing.
His college career was riddled with a series of withdrawals. He lost his scholarship. As if the course of his young life had not been altered enough, Stone’s father developed severe meningitis, forcing Stone to work full-time in finance for the next few years while he waited two years to receive a spinal fusion. He could barely function.
“I couldn’t sit on the couch,” Stone says. “In five minutes, I’d be crippled over in pain.” His most aggressive curve was a staggering 75 degrees. Stone had little choice but surgery if he wanted to achieve any quality of life, much less play golf again. At nearly 22, he underwent a 15-hour operation, with 60 screws bolting two titanium rods to each side of his spine. For a week, Stone couldn’t walk. For nearly a month, he was bedbound. And for two years, he didn’t play golf. Early into his recovery, he spent hours on YouTube, engaging in what he called a “tease” as he watched PGA and European tour events. With limited rotation and mobility, he knew he’d not only have to tweak his swing but alter his boyhood dream.
His late 20s have been devoted to that fulfillment. In the past eight months, Stone has been a force in the adaptive golf world, having won three times (including a European Team Championship for Golfers with a Disability title). He relies on a unique takeaway in which he hinges out his wrists and guides his rotation within his legs to complete a full swing.
“It’s a strange sensation going from having a free-flowing spine to having no rotation,” he says. “You can’t bend forward or backward, but it works, so I can’t complain.” It works well enough that precise ball-striking has become the strongest part of his game.
Beyond the swing, Stone has adopted plenty of coping mechanisms in life with his new back. (Cold weather brings greater aches, and practice is far more limited.) But the greatest lesson of all was his accepting the new him.
“I think it’s just being yourself, just trying to accept the fact that you do in fact have a disability,” Stone says. “I used to be ashamed of standing on the 1st tee because of what people would think of my swing. But you don’t need to have a swing like Rory McIlroy to be good at golf.”
It’s just the beginning
When I awoke from my five-hour spinal fusion surgery, the first thing I asked was, “Is it over?” It was, but the start of my new life had just begun. I was only 12, tasked with learning how to navigate a fully fused spine in a newly restrictive body, evidenced by an enormous scar. Complications followed, and it took about a year before I felt somewhat normal again.
I apprehensively picked up golf about 10 years after surgery. The first thing I wondered was whether I was capable of making a full swing. I decided if Tiger could do it (I later came to learn Tiger had a lumbar fusion, but a fusion nonetheless), why couldn’t I?
Rotational limits in my torso restrict my swing, and on any given day I might walk off the range in much worse shape than when I arrived. Pinched nerves are not uncommon. I probably don’t sound like I’m in my 20s, but I am. As the years go by, I recall less and less what my back felt like without the hardware, but I haven’t forgotten the days and nights I spent in agonizing pain. Surgery doesn’t take all of the pain away, but it certainly helps. Complications and all, I constantly remind myself how grateful I am to have had the procedure.
I didn’t feel that way at the time, but surgery symbolized a new life for me. Similarly, a week such as the one at Pinehurst signals a new era in golf. Barkley and Stone are relatable to me. They prove that most of the mornings we wake up in pain are inconsequential to the things we can achieve in our daily life. Whether it’s playing in one of the most prestigious championships in the world (or for me, writing about the heroes who are doing so), there’s little our impairments can do to stop us. This week all 96 competitors are set to inspire a generation.
Cheers to the U.S. Adaptive Open.