I began playing tournament golf in the late 1950s, and very soon learned a lesson that has stuck with me for almost 60 years – you cannot tell the ability of a golfer by his/her appearance!
World War II took Big Ralph’s left leg, but not his competitive spirit!
It was the summer before my senior year in high school and my golf game had really improved. I had been a factor in the State High School Tournament with a high finish. Like most young athletes who achieve some degree of success, I was getting a little cocky. My dad knew the only way I was going to really get better was to play a lot of tournament golf. He had made sure that I was playing in as many shortstop tournaments as possible to experience different courses and competition against the best players.
I had made a friend from the eastern Kansas while playing in the state tournament. He invited me to be his guest and play in their annual tournament. Like most small town courses, his home course was only 9-holes, but during the practice round I discovered that this cute little track was a really good test of golf.
Playing together, we two high school golf stars had a favorable tee time, and I expected a prime pairing. I was jolted when this big guy came walking up to the first tee….on crutches. Not the kind we have today, aluminum with soft padding, but wooden with no padding for the armpits. He stuck out his huge right hand, with the crutch clinched under his arm, and said, “Hi, my name is Big Ralph. I am glad to get to play with you boys today.”
“Nice to meet you sir,” I gulped as he crushed my hand.
The first thing I noticed was that the left pant leg, on his nicely pressed khaki pants, was folded-up to about mid-thigh level, and the fold was held in place by two large safety pins. When Ralph’s name was called, he glided to the teeing area with the grace of a ballerina; with his caddy close behind. With all eyes on him, he handed his crutches to his caddy and reached into his pocket and produced a ball and tee. Balanced perfectly on his right leg, he leaned over and teed-up his new ball. Then, his caddy handed him his driver and backed away. Big Ralph took a couple of small hops away from his ball to get the correct spacing at address. He took two gentle practice swings.
As he addressed the ball, my mined raced. I had no idea what to expect. I had never seen a one-legged man hit a golf ball. Big Ralph took a big smooth swing, remaining in perfect balance as the momentum of the swing spun him to what would have been his left leg. He just hopped… in a gentle semicircle to retain his balance on one leg facing down the fairway. There was a nice round of applause from the crowd, which I had assumed was there to see my friend and me tee off; they were there to watch Ralph. We all watched Big Ralph’s ball travel about 230 yards down the middle.
Then Big Ralph exchanged the driver for his crutches, and swung easily into a comfortable walking pace down the fairway. (These were the days before power golf cars – except at exclusive private clubs. The average golfer had never seen one.)
“Wow, did you see that,” I said to my buddy.
“Ralph lost his leg in the war,” he told me. “He was a great athlete, still shoots pool, plays horseshoes and nobody can beat him arm wrestling. He is a great guy, never mentions his leg, and just lives his life.
Ralph turned in 38, one behind me, and two behind my buddy, but as far as I was concerned he had already won!