One piece of advice that every tournament player is given is to play your own game. Don’t get intimidated by where another player’s drive lands or what club he might be using.
For many, that wisdom is forgotten by the second green. For Joel Murray, it remains as important as any one of his clubs.
On Aug. 3, Murray, 28, of West Monroe, La., won his second Special Olympics Golf National Invitational Tournament after posting a career-best 73 in his final round at Highlands Golf Course in Lincoln, Neb. Murray’s final-round score broke the Special Olympics 18-hole scoring record by two shots.
Murray entered the final round three shots behind local favorite Kyle Bugge, 22, of Bellevue, Neb., but the deficit was the furthest thing from Murray’s mind.
“He’s where most of us would love to be,” said Steve Murray, Joel’s father and caddie. “When he goes out and plays, he’s only playing against the course and what anybody else shoots makes no difference.”
Murray finished with a 54-hole total of 236 and beat Bugge in a scorecard playoff to win the event. The playoff was decided by the lower final-nine score, which favored Murray. He had made birdies on Nos. 10, 11 and 12 and shot 37 on the back side, compared with Bugge’s 40.
“I think that mindset kept Joel very competitive the whole tournament,” Steve Murray said. “If he would have been worried about (Bugge) driving it 20 yards farther than him and hitting two less clubs on approach shots, he would have been telling himself, ‘If he’s hitting a 6, then I’m going to hit a 6.’ That thought never even approached him.”
Joel’s trip to Nebraska got off to a rough start with an opening-round 87. As a Louisianan, he wasn’t used to the speed of bentgrass greens and had seven 3-putts in the first round.
Both Murrays conceded that putting is one of the weakest points in Joel’s game, but the two-time champion keeps his sense of humor about it. His e-mail address is [email protected]
After spending some time on the putting green after Round 1, the Murrays smoothed out Joel’s stroke. Joel posted a then-career-best 76 before improving further in the final round.
Joel said his favorite playing partner is his father, but when his golf game needs a tweak, he usually goes to another family member: uncle Craig Murray, a former head professional at Canterbury Golf Club in Beachwood, Ohio, site of this year’s Senior PGA Championship.
“Craig and Joel have a real special relationship,” Steve said. “They joke and pick at each other the whole time they are together and both really have a great time. Plus, with Craig being a PGA professional, there are a lot of things in Joel’s swing he is able to see that I can’t.”
Steve Murray said he plays to about a 6-handicap, but any golf advice given to Joel when Craig is around seems to go unheard.
“Joel will hear me, but he just won’t pay any attention,” he said with a laugh. “But when Uncle Craig talks, that really sinks in.”
Joel explained that his uncle has plenty of golf pointers and that his advice also goes far beyond swing mechanics.
“He’s taught me driving, irons and putting, but also to not give up when you play and not get frustrated,” Joel said. “A lot of people get frustrated and aggravated, and they get so mad they just want to quit. He taught me to always try hard.”
Golf has been a part of Special Olympics since the 1991 National Games in Minneapolis. The competition is divided into five levels based on ability and experience, with Level I being an individual skills contest and Level V being the full 54-hole championship.
According to Sherry Major, a publicist with the PGA of America, the different levels allow for players to grow with the program.
“Most athletes start as Level I players,” she said. “But the help they receive and the skills they build allow an opportunity to grow into the Level V, 18-hole competition.”
Levels II and III are played in alternate-shot format, pairing a Special Olympics athlete with a non-Special Olympics partner for nine holes.
“Alternate shot is a perfect way to help these players learn about the game – what the etiquette is, what order to hit in, when to be quiet,” said Greg Leicht, a PGA professional who has been involved with Special Olympics for nine years. “It’s tough to teach those types of things to a group of 10, but this gives each athlete a chance to almost have a one-on-one coach for nine holes.”
Special Olympics is almost entirely a volunteer-run organization, with many of the helping hands coming from the athletes’ families. Take the Murrays, for example: Joel and father Steve formed a team, with coaching help from Uncle Craig, and Joel’s mother, Diane, served as a playing partner for a Level III golfer.
Leicht, the director of golf at Vistal Golf Club in Phoenix, said in his years of helping with Special Olympics, the sportsmanship continues to amaze him.
“The best part about these athletes is that they are always focused only on the positives, which makes them the best players I’ve instructed in 20 years,” he said.
Steve Murray, like many of those involved with Special Olympics, echoes that sentiment.
“In the seven years I’ve gone to this, I have yet to see one Special Olympics golfer not root for the other player he or she is playing with,” he said. “They will get mad at themselves, just like any other golfer, but just as quickly they will be the first to congratulate their playing partner on a great shot. And they mean it. It’s not just coming out of their mouths because that’s what they’ve been taught to say.
“It is a great example of what sportsmanship should be like.”