Whitehurst highlights Special Olympics winners

Tyler Whitehurst of Florida at the 2011 Special Olympics Invitational Golf Tournament held at PGA Golf Club in Port St. Lucie, Florida, Friday, September 23, 2011.

When Tyler Whitehurst first started playing golf, he could barely finish four holes before having to stop.

On Sunday, the 20-year-old won a gold medal at the Special Olympics Golf Invitational at PGA Golf Club in Port St. Lucie, Fla., firing 18-hole rounds of 84-91-80 to win the men's top division.

A field of 177 Special Olympics golfers from the U.S., Bermuda and Canada participated in the event.

Whitehurst, who is autistic, couldn't have been prouder of himself.

"It feels awesome because at my first state championship I won a silver medal and this is my first national tournament and I won gold – it’s totally different – a whole new level of competition and accomplishment for me. I just want to keep getting better.”

His step-mom, Amy, joined Whitehurst for the event.

“When Tyler started playing golf, he only had endurance for about four holes,” Amy said. “When we signed him up for Special Olympics, he had to learn and build up the stamina to play nine holes. And he did that in three months' time – that’s how driven and focused he was. He won at regionals and went on to states (in golf), and he won the silver medal. When he came down off the podium and looked at Jim (his dad), he said, ‘I’m so proud of myself, I could cry.’

"What’s so amazing about that is that he’d never had an opportunity to set a goal, and get that sense of self and feeling of pride to reach it. Special Olympics has given that to him, and from that moment forward, it changed his life. He went from playing 9 to 18 holes. The manners he’s learned through golf, the etiquette, having a great attitude and being positive … all of it, Special Olympics totally change his life.”

Whitehurst was one of many winners at the PGA Golf Club, as Grace Braxton of Fredericksburg, Va., captured the women's top division (18-hole individual stroke play), shooting rounds of 83-92-94.

Here is a look at the other winners:

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9-hole individual stroke play

Fifteen-year-old Danny Peaslee of Souris, Manitoba, led all three rounds (41-42-46) to win the gold medal, outlasting Nicholas Urban, 23, of White Bear Lake, Minn. Urban fired rounds of 44-46-42 to finish three strokes back.

•••

18-hole unified sports team play

Another autistic athlete, Scott Rohrer, teamed with his father, Jeff, to lead all three rounds (80-78-79) and pick up the gold medal. Scott Rohrer holds the 18-hole individual stroke-play record with rounds of 71-75-75 at last year's Special Olympics Golf National Invitational Tournament.

“He’s always played with me,” said his dad, Jeff. “He started when he was 7. Soon after, we found out he had autism. We got him playing, and it’s something he really excelled at because it’s an individual sport. He’s never had a swing lesson; he has the same swing now he’s always had. I just love watching him hit good shots. He’s the better golfer of the two of us; he has the lower handicap. A couple weeks ago, we played at Myrtle Beach and he shot a 75 from the back tees at Myrtle Wood. I shot an 86.”

Scott Rohrer enjoyed playing with his dad this time around.

"He's not screwing up, and we're having a lot of fun."

•••

9-hole alternate-shot team play

The duo of Andrew Martinez and Michael Martinez of Kansas City, Mo., won the division by one stroke, holding off Joseph Park and Bob Boyle of Auburn, Ala.

•••

Individual skills competition

This division tests golfers in six different shot-making skills, with Phillip Shepard of Mount Airy, Md., picking up the victory with 233 points.

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