Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Teen golfer with Asperger's wins scorekeeper accommodation

From The Tampa, Fla., Tribune:

TARPON SPRINGS, Fla. - Matt Ross is standing taller these days, taking his spot on a driving range with confidence, striking every golf ball with conviction and staring down every shot in a familiar pose, with his club straight up and down.

Seeing him hitting balls next to Mitchell's version of the Big Three - Kenny Cavender, Dan Fleisher and Chaz Heinz - it would be impossible to detect how far the 16-year-old senior has come in this game.

A few years ago, his form of autism, Asperger's Syndrome, threatened to take away his dream of playing competitive golf because he couldn't keep his own score. Now, having fought to have a scorekeeper as a junior player and improving the rights of disabled golfers, his only problem is keeping his size-16 shoes under him during each swing. It's a familiar problem for many golfers.

"Matt, keep your feet still," yells his mother, Sue, as he begins his walk to the first tee at Crescent Oaks for Wednesday's second round of qualifying for the Mustangs boys golf team.

He looks up and gives her a quick nod before heading to the 400-yard, par-4 hole. He watches Cavender hit a high, right-to-left shot into the wind, easily in the fairway. Then Fleisher crushes his drive up the left side, followed by Heinz, who rips a low draw that finds the left rough but is still in good shape.

It's Ross's turn, in an unenviable position for any golfer - hitting last after three good drives from three strong players. But after saying a few days earlier that he wouldn't be nervous, he aimed a little left and hit a low, stinging cut shot that sliced through the wind, bounced in the fairway and rolled to the 150-yard marker, beyond Cavender and Heinz's drives but short of Fleisher's. The game was on.

He went on to bogey the first, and it was probably his best hole of the day. Unlike in years past, when Tuesday's wind gusts and gloomy skies would have affected his concentration, he stayed patient and focused. Those skills don't come easily for someone with Asperger's, doctors say.

By the time he finished with a nine-hole score of 56, he was unhappy, expecting more from himself in his final attempt to qualify.

"Awful," he said immediately after the round, still disappointed about his only disastrous hole, the par-5 sixth, where he reached the stroke limit. "The sixth hole ... I was trying to use an iron to get over the water ... the ball was deep, buried."

He didn't think he was going to make it, but he failed to realize how tough it was for the other players in those conditions. About 90 minutes later, the scores were totaled, and Ross made the 16-player cut for the first time in four years. Eight others weren't so fortunate.

"He's so happy, he was jumping up and down in the parking lot," Sue Ross said Wednesday night. "Now he's watching his golf videos. He can't stop thinking about it. He just wants to play in one match."