Janelle Beswick, NDVGC Media Team
Hand in hand, Chris Paulsen walked Terri Clark to the driving range mat like they were old friends. Chris wore an American flag shirt and American flag shorts, and his left leg prosthesis was covered in a collage of stickers. Terri wore a yellow lanyard indicating that she is visually impaired.
It was day one of the National Disabled Veterans Golf Clinic and after finishing the 18th hole at Pleasant Valley Golf Course, it was Terri’s turn for instruction at the driving range.
“I know you hate the driver, but we’re going to work on it today,” Chris spoke to Terri as they walked. This wasn’t his first time giving her golf instruction. At the 2022 National Disabled Veterans Golf Clinic he had joined her foursome for several holes and knew about her aversion to the driver.
“What if I told you that you could swing the driver just like the 7 iron, but the ball would go much further?” he coaxed.
Terri smiled as she considered it. “I do love the 7 iron.”
She took her stance and positioned her hands on the club, then he guided her arms slowly through the swing so that she could feel the correct technique. She took several practice swings, and then he put a ball down.
“Okay, go ahead.” With a graceful swing, she sent the ball sailing 100 yards straight down the range. Her golf buddy Cheryl DL Roberts cheered.
“She hasn’t done that before, has she?” Chris laughed, and turning to Cheryl, he said, “Look at what club the other players are using and give her that. No more using the 7 iron for every stroke.”
With a wide smile, Terri hugged and thanked Chris, and Cheryl led her back to the cart to start their next round.
On Tuesday, a neon clad Chris greeted Veterans on the putting green to help with their short game. He adjusted a stance here and a grip there, and each time Veterans cheerfully applied his recommendations with remarkable results. Chris was then beckoned back to the driving range, where Jeffery Houston Sr. wanted help with his driver. Chris introduced himself and they walked to the mat.
“Okay, show me your swing,” Chris instructed. Jeffery took a practice swing, and Chris instantly saw an issue. “Don’t tuck your back elbow in here. Keep your arms long like this in the back swing.”
He adjusted Jeffery’s arms and guided the club slowly through the swing, explaining the why and how of the changes he was recommending. After a few practice swings, he put down a ball. Jeffery shot it straight and long out into the range. His golf buddy Rebecca Espey gasped.
“Have you seen that yet this week?” Chris asked her.
“No, but it was worth the wait,” Becky responded.
Chris isn’t a golf pro, he’s a former participant of the National Disabled Veterans Golf Clinic. He participated in 2018 and 2019 on the black team at Blue Top Ridge, where he became well-known for his flashy outfits and his impressive golf game.
In 2022, facing a long applicant list of hopeful golfers, NDVGC Director Nick Beelner reached out to Chris with a proposal. Rather than attend the event as a Veteran participant, would Chris come and be a volunteer golf instructor?
“We noticed in 2019 that he was giving advice to other amputees on the driving range, and they were doing really well with his suggestions,” said Nick. “And we saw the opportunity in that – a Veteran who has been to the program before, who was a highly skilled golfer, and had the personal experience of playing the game of golf with limb-loss. What better way to utilize that experience than by having Chris here as an instructor.”
Chris was eager at the prospect of sharing his experience with other disabled Veterans.
“I’ve been golfing as an amputee since 1995. I lost my leg when I was run over by a jet on an aircraft carrier. I was a 23-year-old kid and my life changed instantly, but just prior to losing my leg I had bought a set of golf clubs to try it out. My first four or five years I was self-taught, figuring out the game as well as what to do with the prosthetic leg.”
Chris was a Navy Aviation Ordinanceman on the U.S.S. Constellation based in Whidby Island, Washington when he lost his left leg. He was checking the stability of a missile on a jet, in the wrong place at the wrong time, when his heel got stuck and his leg was run over. After gangrene set into his leg it had to be amputated.
Back in the early days, Chris wasn’t the powerhouse golfer he is now. He was just worried about walking the course and making contact with the ball. He eventually became a part of PGA HOPE (Helping Our Patriots Everywhere), a program that provides six weeks of golf instruction to Veterans, eventually becoming a leader and ambassador with that program.
Chris is a Program Analyst for Procurement at the VA Northern California Health Care System, which is how he learned about the VA’s national adaptive sports programs. He knew the National Disabled Veterans Golf Clinic was the event for him, but as much as he loved participating, he loves instructing at the clinic even more.
“Golf is a complex sport and the approach I take in helping others is trial and error. You have to deal with what you have and adapt with what you have,” Chris reflected. “That’s what I’ve had to do. With my previous prosthetics I couldn’t turn my hips, and so my ball would slice. I spoke with the prosthetist who made my leg, and he said I should have a rotator. The rotator at my knee lets me turn and eliminated my slice.”
Chris understands that a disability shouldn’t hold you back, and he adjusts his advice and method of instruction for each golfer’s individual circumstances.
“Help like this wasn’t there for me early on. Learning to golf, I never had someone come up to me and say I understand what you’re going through, been there, done that, let me teach you to overcome it.”
When the week is over, he hopes that Veterans can take their memories and experience from the golf clinic with them, and they will want to come back to NDVGC in the future. And just maybe, his advice will help them enjoy the game more.
“I’m not a PGA professional, I’m just a disabled Veteran just like my brothers and sisters that are here. For me to be able to turn around and give them the ‘aha’ moment because of something I suggested is the ultimate experience of happiness for me.”