2002: Golf, a versatile game, proves a lifesaver

Golf can be so many things. It sort of depends on who you are and what you are all about.

It can be a passion, an obsession, a diversion, a delusion, an enchantment, a vocation, a vacation, a mistress, a master and a tyrant. It also can be an addiction, a recreation, a rehabilitation, a religion or a fascination. It can even be a first love, a cruel joke or just a poor excuse.

Sometimes it can be all 18 of those things in the course of one 18-hole round.

On a particularly dangerous day in 1969, golf was an anesthetic for Corbin Cherry.

A deadly fire fight had erupted in the jungle. And it had surrounded him because he stubbornly had insisted on going back into harm’s way to drag out wounded fellow soldiers who had been hit on the wrong side of the hazard line.

Yes, this was Vietnam. And Cherry was serving God and the U.S. Army as a chaplain for the 101st Airborne Division. His primary job was to pray and help save souls. On this day, he decided his job also included saving lives.

Then he stepped on a land mine.

The explosion blew him down into a ravine.

Below the knee, his right leg was gone. Just like that.

Quickly, Cherry fashioned a tourniquet from a bootstrap to stanch the bleeding. Then he lay there. And waited. And thought about golf. It helped keep the pain away.

Soon a sergeant arrived. The sergeant took one look at the remains of Cherry’s mangled leg, fought back tears and asked the chaplain if he was all right.

“Sarge,” Cherry replied. “How am I going to be able to play golf on one leg?”

“What?” shouted the disbelieving sergeant.

Cherry repeated himself. And the sergeant said this:

“Excuse me chaplain, but you’re one crazy sumbitch.”

A quarter of a century went by before Cherry heard from the sergeant again. He had found out that Cherry, an amputee, had qualified to play in the 1994 U.S. Senior Open at Pinehurst. He wanted to pay respect.

Cherry just wished he had played better. Pinehurst No. 2 had beat on him like a rented mule, extracting scores of 90 and 95. But Cherry had walked every step of the way. He had figured out a way to play golf on one leg. And the Sarge had been there to see it on senior golf’s grandest stage. “Golf has been so good to me,” Cherry says now from his Northern California home. “It is impossible to talk about all of it.”

Cherry has won seven national amputee titles, and in addition to that U.S. Senior Open, has qualified for and played in the U.S. Senior Amateur and the British Senior Amateur. He has written a book, “Find a Way: The Inner Spirit of Golf.” Next year he plans to tour America with Curtis Baker, another Vietnam vet and single-digit handicapper, to raise money for something called “2003 Golf Awareness Odyssey.”

“We want to make people aware that disabilities are not a deterrence,” Cherry says.

Baker, too, is an amputee. His cut came above the knee. “He has one of those legs that looks like an erector set,” Cherry says.

Cherry thinks Casey Martin deserves to ride in a cart because, “he can’t walk 18 holes.” Cherry says Tiger Woods has so much talent “a lot of people are missing it.”

But he reserves his awe for a man he met one year at the amputee nationals. “Guy had no hands, no arms and an 11 handicap,” Cherry says. “I mean it blows your mind.”

Think about that the next time you miss a 3-foot putt. And consider yourself lucky just to have had the chance.

It blows your mind how many things golf can be.

It can be an opportunity, a perspective, a lesson, or a window into another man’s soul.

For everyone who plays the game – thanks to Corbin Cherry, the chaplain who spat in the eye of the devil and escaped from the hell of Vietnam – golf is an inspiration.

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