In the company of golfers

Published 10:59 pm Friday, May 25, 2012

Frank Zielinski directs his son Tim, a Special Olympics golfer, before a putt during the tournament on Saturday.

By Titus Mohler

Correspondent

The Special Olympics local chapter gave an opportunity for some talented athletes to shine in the area’s second annual golf tournament last Saturday at the Nansemond River Golf Club.

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One of the architects of the tournament was Frank Zielinski, who took over golf coaching duties for Area 29 (Suffolk) last year. Zielinski has a 31-year-old son, Tim, who has Down syndrome and is an impressive golfer.

Frank said the event was added to the pre-existing Special Olympics weightlifting competition.

“We used to call it the ‘Suffolk Bar Bender,’” he said. “So, we decided to incorporate it into the ‘Bar-Bender’ weightlifting last year.”

The tournament has garnered interest and experienced significant growth since its inception.

In this competition, the most experienced golfers play 18-holes, alternating shots. Each athlete has a partner, often their father, and the two of them alternate back and forth, taking shots one after the other, advancing the same ball together until the round is complete.

Later on, a second flight of athletes who are not quite ready for the full course begin playing a nine-hole version of the tournament.

The contestants have a variety of different disabilities, including Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and autism, and they cover a significant age span, as well.

“We have a lot of athletes, anywhere from, say, 15, 16, all the way up,” Frank said. “I have an athlete this year who’s just started with me that is 61.”

These athletes are remarkably good, even by non-disabled standards. Professional golfers, like Tiger Woods, put up average scores in the 60s and 70s. Weekend players, like most of the athletes’ partners, are more likely to hit in the 90s or 100s.

Frank’s son, Tim, hits from a tee slightly closer to the green when he’s playing 18 holes solo, but still he scores in the 90s.

“Two of our athletes — Tim is one of them and Chris Clark — went to the National Invitational Tournament in Port St. Lucie, Fla., last year, and Tim won gold and Chris won silver out of, I think it’s like, 160-some athletes,” Frank said.

In Saturday’s tournament, Frank and Tim Zielinski finished with a score of 89 to win the gold medal. Harris Fischer won silver with the help of his father through a 94 score, while Chris Clark and his father, Rick, finished at 106 for bronze.

In Special Olympics, “We really don’t give too much (emphasis) on winning and losing,” Frank said. “(The athletes) really don’t care. We care sometimes more than they care, but they really don’t care whether or not they win or they lose.”

Chris Clark, 30s, explained one of his favorite things about golf.

“The experience with being out with friends and family,” he said. “It’s a family-oriented thing.”

Chris has cerebral palsy. This has not daunted him, however, as was obvious when he explained his progression as a golfer.

“Two years ago,” he said. “My dad got me, actually, involved with it and I found my way. I was actually (a) right-handed golfer, and I switched to a left.”

Nineteen-year-old Harris Fischer, who has Down syndrome, told how his relationship with golf began and what it means to him.

“It started when I was a kid,” he said. “With my dad George Fischer. And he was a coach from Suffolk, Va., and he’s a good coach and I just started playing golf because it’s my life, my passion….”

George mentioned something that Harris loves most about golf, which his son quickly confirmed — the company of the other athletes.

“Matter of fact, we went to Chesapeake, and we’ve come back down to Suffolk,” George said. “(We) came back, because he’s made so many friends here that he wanted to come back, and I said, ‘Well, it’s for you, so let’s do that.’ So, he really enjoys the camaraderie with the other athletes. I mean, especially because it’s the Special Olympics — that’s the whole idea.”