A FORMER soldier who was blown up in Afghanistan has become a Golf Development Wales ambassador, spreading the message that golf is a sport for life for all abilities.
Stewart Harris, from Rhyl, has become a GDW Inclusive Ambassador, after using the sport to help his own recovery both physically and mentally following the trauma of injuries suffered in the explosion.
Harris has agreed to assist GDW in promoting inclusiveness in the sport and to attend events and meetings to promote the schemes and initiatives such as the Disability Sport Wales Club Accreditation Scheme ‘in sport’ and the New2Golf Disability Coaching hub scheme available to Golf Clubs.
He is sharing his own experiences at a time when new research from Edinburgh University has shown the positive impact of golf on physical and mental health, including reducing the risk of more than 40 major chronic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, heart attacks, colon and breast cancer.
Harris has quite a story to tell, which is best left to his own words. “I was brought up over the road from the golf course, I caddied for my father and brother sometimes, but never picked it up myself,” explained the 32-year-old.
“I joined the Welsh Guards and served in Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan our vehicle was attacked and an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) went off under the vehicle.
“A few days later I woke up in a Birmingham hospital. The doctor told me I had damaged the frontal lobe of the brain, it felt like I had no eyes, I was deaf from the blast and my legs were crushed. I will be honest, I have had better days.
“Luckily for me modern medicine meant I could get some sight back after a time to the extent I could retake my driving test and passed.
“However as my physical health got better, my mental health took a turn for the worse, as the brain repaired itself I started to have nightmares.
“We lost three men because an Afghan policemen who was Taliban turned on us and shot us, so that went over in my mind a lot and I had bad times with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“It was absolutely horrible. I live near the sea and one day I just walked down to the water and out. I can still feel the water round my feet, but luckily for me my wife got help and it was OK.
“I went to Hedley Court (the military hospital) and one day a guy came back in really buzzing. I asked him why and he said he had just been to play golf for the first time and I wondered how he had done that with no legs.
“However all the help you need and equipment to help with our injuries was there and he said I should come next time.
“I wondered how I could do that when I could not see, but I went down, hit about 50 balls and had one which went straight and far and that was it – since then I have never looked back.
“I went to some events, had some professional help and joined Rhyl golf club over the road, now my handicap has come down from 28 to 21, though I was losing a few balls playing on my own for practice so I try to play with other people all the time now.
“I love the game, it is amazing it is a sport you can play whether you are six or 96, with dementia, or with injuries, that ticks all the boxes in terms of fresh air and sociability.
“I cannot put my rugby shirt back on, I can’t go back into the boxing ring, I don’t have to play with other disabled guys, I can play against people who are fully able-bodied and be a bit of a bandit!
“Then I was introduced to Golf Development Wales and Dilwyn Griffiths. I love hanging around with people like him helping to grow the game.
“When I was asked to be an ambassador there was only going to be one answer and it begins with a Y and ends with an S.
“I look forward to going round the golf clubs with my chest stuck out in my Golf Development Wales shirt and assisting a great team in the delivery of development programmes, we have the Curtis Cup (Ladies amateur version of the Ryder Cup) coming to North Wales in 2020 and it would be great to have girls working towards that, for instance.
“In a way golf has saved me, I was at the lowest of the low places, did not want to be here and PTSD is incurable. But when I feel like that I just go and hit a few balls and as soon as I hit that little white ball then all my problems become that little white ball.
“At the moment I am going along the A55 and telling my story and playing some of the courses, helping to grow the game has given me another reason to push myself.
“I feel golf is changing, even courses like Lytham St Anne’s (an Open Championship venue) allow buggies, the fashion is changing being led from the top by the likes of Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler, people are playing nine holes or 18.
“There is a stigma of golf as a sport for men who tuck their shirts in, but it is changing.”
It is an inspiring story and shows the tremendous benefits of playing golf – for everyone.