SouthAfrica.info (Johannesburg)

27 February 2013

South Africa: Special Olympics Ace Makes Golf History

South Africa Special Olympics gold medallist Thomas Lugg set a new benchmark for Special Olympians worldwide when he made a historic debut at the 2013 Sanlam South African Amateur Golf Championship at Johannesburg's Country Club on the weekend.

The world's number one Special Olympian golfer moved one step closer to his long-term goal to compete in the pro ranks when he lined up alongside the country's top amateurs in the 36-hole Stroke Play Qualifier of the South African Golf Association's flagship event on Sunday and Monday.

Lugg's achievement was made more significant by the fact that he qualified for the championship on merit, having shot a 67 at Glenvista to claim one of 25 spots on offer to a 42-man field.

Although the 23-year-old Zwartkops golfer failed to qualify for the match play stage, he tied for 119th on 16-over-par 160, bettering the scores of 19 players with rounds of 82 and 78.

'A dream come true'

"I've dreamed of playing in a real golf tournament against normal golfers and this was a dream come true for me," Lugg said afterwards.

"We should never feel limited, just because we are intellectually challenged. Golf is for everyone, and this experience has made me even more determined to make it to the pro ranks one day."

Lugg added that although the two rounds were tough, he still had a lot of fun. "I enjoyed getting to know some of the amateurs and I had a lot of fun. But it was very tough. I think when Dale Hayes talks about keeping it in the fairways on his [television] programme, he has to be talking about the Rocklands course, because this course is very long.

"If you don't hit the fairway, you are in trouble. I could have been better, though. I played better in the second round because I was more accurate off the tee, but I missed seven or eight birdie putts."

Three-time gold medallist

Lugg is South Africa's only Special Olympian to have represented the country in golf and he has won gold three times. He took first place at the 2007 Special Olympic World Summer Games in Shanghai and again in 2011 in Athens. He also claimed gold at the 2009 Special Olympics Golf Tournament in Taipei.

He is currently enrolled on a partial bursary at the Gary Player School for Champions, where he practises alongside the country's number one amateur, Haydn Porteous, who won the Stroke Play Qualifier on Monday.

Danny Baleson from the Gary Player Golf Experience at the World of Golf says that since Lugg enrolled in September, he has made great strides.

"His handicap has dropped from three to scratch," Baleson said. "Tommy has a great short game and is very accurate into the green, but he didn't have much length. He has been working tirelessly with our head-coach, Adriaan van Pletzen, on moving through the swing and his swing and distance has also improved."

'Repetitive structure'

Baleson said Lugg's coaching programme was structured around his autistic tendencies. "Tommy thrives in a repetitive structure, so we work on one thing at a time, which helps him to properly assimilate the information," he said.

"Tom was taught to play fairway, green, two-putt golf, so we are working on bringing more depth into his game. But don't imagine that Tom is slow.

"He was playing a round with Sipho Bujela last year, just before Sipho turned professional. Sipho told Tom after the turn that it was time to start firing at the pins and proceeded to show him what that meant.

"Tom came off the course and told us that he needed to 'start firing at the pins' and we noticed, almost with immediate effect, that his score average started to improve. When something catches on with Tom, he is unstoppable. That's why his dream of playing in the pro ranks is very probable."

Opportunities

Lugg will be competing in the Northern Amateur Stroke Play and Match Play Championship at Randpark in March. "We definitely want to give Tom more opportunities to play on the local amateur circuit and the chance to get used to the different environment," Baleson said.

"Luckily, he doesn't go into a depression if he has a bad round; all he cares about is having fun and having the chance to play golf."

As well as representing South Africa at the next Special Olympics, Lugg has a long-term goal to become the first Special Olympics golfer to play in a professional tournament.

He also wants to play against a certain professional golfer. "I really want to play against Tiger Woods," he said. "My motto is 'Watch out Tiger, I am coming to get you'."

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