Golf has been a progressive experience for Matt Lees, just as it is for most people who play the game. There was no ah-ha moment for Lees when his scores dropped dramatically. But the patience he has shown—and consistent improvement—since he was 11 years old has him now playing at a professional level.
This year, Lees spent spring and summer as the assistant golf pro at Pala Mesa Resort, just north of San Diego, CA. His daily job includes giving private golf lessons and working on his game. He is on staff with Cleveland Golf as well, so he uses the company’s clubs and attends demonstrations to other golfers.
Bottom line: Lees plays a lot of golf, and gets paid to do it. He’s living his dream, but it hasn’t always been par for the course.
“It’s definitely been a very big test of patience,” Lees said. “It’s hard for me to explain to people how straining it is on the mind sometimes, just with controlling my emotions in times of patience and having the mental fortitude to keep going. But at the same time, I have plenty of drive to want to do it.”
Lees was drawn to golf because of the sport’s difficulty. It’s an individual game, and Lees knew that if he could succeed at golf people would have less reason to question his physical abilities. Lees was born without a left hand and faced his share of difficult times as a kid growing up in Philadelphia, where his peers often poked fun. Golf, however, allowed him to seclude himself, away from the questions, stares and remarks.
“The reason I got into golf is still kind of the reason I keep doing it right now,” said Lees, who also played Little League baseball and soccer but always went back to golf. “When I was a young kid growing up, sometimes people would give me a hard time about it. I was a pretty good athlete. Golf caught my interest because it was the hardest sport. I thought if I can beat somebody in golf, then that was satisfaction in itself, and that was one of the things that drove me to it.”
Lees swung a club with his right hand only and mastered the technique. As he grew older, he began trying to create a sleeve and prosthetic hand to add greater power to his swing. After about seven different setups, he partnered with Dudas Diving Duds, a scuba-diving shop in West Chester, PA, near his home. The final product was created with fabric similar to a scuba-diving wetsuit. The hand area was a round metal slot below the wrist where the golf club grip was inserted. Velcro strips held the sleeve in place.
Once Lees got adjusted to the new sleeve, he began booming the golf ball. He increased his drives from 120 yards to 185 yards. Frustration, however, set in.
“Actually, it made me a little angry because when I finally got a device that worked and started playing with it, when I hit the ball it upset me more,” Lees said. “I could hit it well and see how I could hit the ball with that prosthetic, but I would think about what I would have been able to do with two hands.”
Lees’ father, Jim Lees, said he can see that his son still wrestles with his disability at times.
Performing has been a natural talent for Lees. He used to deliver inspirational talks as a teenager, and one even spoke to the PGA. Golf also gave him confidence in his abilities. He said he didn’t mind it when people stared at his prosthetic hand because it gave him a platform to promote what he could do rather than what he couldn’t.
Lees decided his platform needed to be larger, so he packed his bags and moved west to attend the Professional Golfers Career College near San Diego. The program serves a dual role by helping students improve their game to a professional level while also educating them on working in all areas of golf course management. The finished product is a degree in professional golf course management, which gives students the credentials to work in all positions at a golf course from course maintenance to lessons to the business side of running the pro shop.
During his time at the school, Lees decided to abandon his prosthetic and go back to swinging a club with one arm.
“One, the prosthetic never felt like a natural part of my body. Two, it was a lot of hassle when I was playing,” Lees said. “The materials would make me sweat a lot and putting it on and off all the time was a hassle for me. I put it aside and worked at the driving range.”
“With that device, I can bomb it with anybody out there, probably 300 yards,” Lees said. “The way I’m golfing now, I swing one-handed and it’s a little bit easier for me. I feel like I can play just as good or better one-handed as I did when I had the device.
“When I first started without it, my scoring average playing with the device and playing without it was a difference of four of five strokes. The device definitely helped me hit the ball further, but it didn’t necessarily help me get the ball in the hole with less strokes, which is the name of the game.”
Lees shoots in the mid-70s now with a 4-handicap.
“I play as a right-handed golfer, so it’s like a forehand if you’re playing tennis,” Lees explained. “Actually, just the dynamics of the swing and the technique that I use, really what brings the club down to the ball is centrifugal force. I swing really slow. My swing comes down to the smoothness and the tempo and the timing of getting the club into position at the right time. You’d be amazed to see how easy you can swing with the right technique and how far you can hit the ball.”
Lees aims to play golf for an audience, whether that’s on a national or regional tour or hosting exhibitions while representing a golf company.
“People are amazed he can hit the ball close to 300 yards and consistently,” Jim Lees said of his son. “He has a lot to offer, and hopefully he’ll get his satisfaction out of helping other people play the game of golf.”
Jim Lees said he and his wife, Laurie, will continue to support their youngest son’s dreams. They know he wants to play competitively. In fact, Matt Lees is in the beginning stages of the three-year process to obtain a PGA Tour Card.
“I want to have an audience that will watch me hit golf balls and get some kind of motivation or inspiration out of it,” Lees said. “I get a lot of satisfaction out of watching people’s reaction to what I can do. I also know that I am leaving something in those people’s minds—a little inspiration or something. They’re going to take something away from that day and see what is possible.”
Lees has come full circle from gravitating toward golf in order to get away from other people to now striving to play golf so others can watch him—and be inspired. His aim is that others will see him play and know their dreams are reachable, too.
by Josh Pate
Articles in the Joe Mantegna Issue; Senator Harkin — US Budget Must Reflect Our Values; Ashley Fiolek — A Concussion Tests Her Ability; Humor — All in the Family; Web Widget — Accessibility Works; Chinese Art — Raw Beauty of the Innocents; Geri’s — Survivor Guide; Golf Pro — One Arm, Limitless Possibilities; Road Trip — MS Changes a Biker’s Course; Charlie Kimball — Racing Against Diabetes; Joe Mantegna — When Life Flips the Script; Nancy Alspaugh-Jackson — Crusader For Autism; DRLC — Beware Genetic Discrimination; Betsy Valnes — Connect the Dots in Disability Circles; ABILITY’s Crossword Puzzle; CRPD — Information and Communication Technologies; Events and Conferences…