Commentary

Making history in an inspirational way

Tennessee golfer becomes first in wheelchair to play round at the Old Course

Updated: July 20, 2011, 4:12 AM ET
By Ben Houser | ESPN.com

Mike Reeder is a 63-year-old Vietnam War veteran who lost his legs in an explosion during combat, yet he excels at golf. In the past 20 years, he has shot par and made a hole-in-one, and he has a golf handicap of less than 10. His swing -- from his self-designed wheelchair -- leaves an impression on almost all who have seen it.

But he left his true mark in golf on the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland, where he became the first wheelchair golfer to complete a round at the birthplace of golf. His score of 79 in August 2010 earned him admiration from Jack Nicklaus, two-time winner of the Open Championship at St. Andrews.

"To go to St. Andrews, prop yourself up and hold your wheelchair stable and hit it solid enough to get around the golf course … that's pretty astounding," Nicklaus said. "I mean, he broke 80 at St. Andrews from a wheelchair. That's pretty amazing."

Reeder, who admired "The Golden Bear" for his talent, class and career, thought about Nicklaus and many of the legendary golfers as he stared at the Swilcan Bridge on the 18th fairway of the Old Course.

"I am surrounded by the history, not only of the game but of the players that have all walked through this fairway and over the bridge, and the ghosts are close," he said while recalling the thoughts he had while crossing the bridge.

About nine months after his round, Reeder had another dream fulfilled.

Nicklaus was invited to play in a charity golf tournament hosted by musician Vince Gill in Nashville, Tenn., near Reeder's Franklin home. After "E:60" interviewed Nicklaus for Reeder's story, Scott Tolley, vice president of corporate communications for Nicklaus Corp., made "The Vinny" tournament organizers aware of Reeder's story. They arranged for a meeting.

[+] EnlargeMike Reeder
ESPN.comMike Reeder on the Old Course at St. Andrews.

After a few moments and cordial introductions, Nicklaus grabbed Reeder's short clubs.

"Those are my short wedges I hit from my knees," he told Nicklaus. Then Nicklaus noticed that Reeder was left-handed, and Reeder couldn't resist a quip: "God didn't think I had enough handicaps." The crowd burst into laughter.

"I can cross that off my bucket list now, meeting Jack Nicklaus," Reeder said.

Reeder took up golf in 1988, and shortly after he took his first swing from his wheelchair, he started thinking about the home of golf, he said.

More than 20 years later, playing St. Andrews became a reality after he connected with the Challenged Athletes Foundation, an organization that supports people with permanent physical disabilities who lead active lifestyles. Nico Marcolongo, a former Marine, is the program manager of Operation Rebound, a division of CAF.

"It was the opportunity of a lifetime for him, and I realized that through the sport that he loved he was able to really heal and really have an experience that went beyond just the golf," Marcolongo said. "It was something that he always dreamed of doing. Our motto is 'front line to finish line'; it was his finish line."

Nicklaus said Reeder's achievement is even more remarkable given the stodginess of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, golf's governing body outside the U.S. and Mexico.

"I would say that 50 years ago, that probably wouldn't have happened," Nicklaus said of Reeder being allowed to play on the course. "I think the R&A used to be the most unapproachable organization. Today, I think they are the most approachable. … They need progressive thoughts to do that, so today I can understand where the R&A and St. Andrews want to be a part of what is mainstream, and some of the old traditions need to be broken."

A crowd of several hundred curious onlookers watched as Reeder completed his round of 79.

"My goal was to break 80 on the Old Course, and by golly, I did it," Reeder said. "May only have been by one stroke, but I did it!"

[+] EnlargeMike Reeder, Jack Nicklaus
Scott Tolley, Nicklaus Corp. Reeder meets Jack Nicklaus.

Nicklaus' admiration for Reeder is just a part of his appreciation for all veterans.

"I think anybody who can overcome a handicap is inspirational to me. … There are a lot of things that are very special that we have in this country, and a lot of people are very inspirational. I think you look back and say, 'Hey, that guy really wanted that.'"

No doubt, Mike Reeder wanted to leave his mark.

"You can do anything you can set your mind to, and I think that is one example that I will claim. I have shown what a person can do if he puts his mind to it, whether disabled or not. If you have a goal and you strive toward that goal, just the fact of doing it, striving toward it, makes you a better person."

Ben Houser is a senior producer for "E:60."

Ben Houser is a Senior Producer for ESPN's E:60.