Saturday 18 November 2017

Joe refused to give up when his body wouldn't play ball

How one man overcame his physical setbacks through a passion for golf and an indomitable spirit

Joe King at his beloved Portmarnock Golf Club. Photo: David Conachy
Joe King at his beloved Portmarnock Golf Club. Photo: David Conachy

Dermot Gilleece

The idea of moving house so as to be closer to one's favourite golf course reflects undeniable passion for a chosen pursuit. But in the case of Joe King, the relocation from Donnybrook to Sutton 10 days ago could be viewed more as rich evidence of a truly unconquerable spirit.

When accompanied by a determination to lower his 17 handicap, the story acquires extraordinary dimensions, and it becomes nothing short of staggering in the context of a 78-year-old one-time dentist with potentially crushing physical limitations.

In every sense, King is an amazing man. That much was evident back in Millennium Year, when I learned that the traditional drive-in at Portmarnock GC would be postponed for two months from January 2, so as to allow the new captain recover from five hours of surgery on his back.

The 1999 captain, Gary McShane, was acutely aware of King's physical problems when choosing his successor. Yet his decision to go through with the nomination met with universal approval.

It was during the 1980s at Connemara GC that I first met this native of Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny. He played a very useful game off a handicap of three at that time, despite the loss of his right eye in a hurling accident when he was 11 - a time when protective helmets were still some way in the future.

In fact, King's golfing skill and general demeanour reminded me of the numerous stories surrounding the great Tommy Armour, who also lost the sight of an eye during World War I.

Far more forbidding problems beset the Kilkenny native, however, when he sustained a ruptured disc in his lower back in April 1995. After initial surgery, he spent six months in the National Rehabilitation Centre, where, among other things, he was told he would never walk again unaided. A specialist advised him that notions of a return to golf could only bring torment, mentally and emotionally. Future mobility lay with a wheelchair or crutches.

Such medical prognoses took no account, however, of the patient's indomitable spirit. After six months in a wheelchair, King was walking by April 1996 with the aid of crutches, which were soon replaced by sticks.

"By November of that year, I was thinking of playing golf again," he recalled.

We were talking last week in the Pickeman Room, overlooking the first tee at Portmarnock. "See those yellow markers down there?" he said. "They're the veterans' tees, but I've never played off them. I want to be able to compete with my contemporaries and that means playing off the medals."

When attempting to resume golf 20 years ago, he found he couldn't stand unaided. A specialist had suggested that he wear a harness with a rope attached, whereby a caddie could stand behind him holding the rope to stop him from toppling forward. Which King totally rejected.

By that stage, he had a 40 per cent paralysis from the waist to the knees and was 90 per cent paralysed from there down - and if he couldn't stand, he couldn't play golf. That was when he discovered that if he knelt, he could "walk" on his knees. As a former snow skier, he hit on the idea of devising something similar to a boot which would lock his knees and lower legs into a rigid position. A bit like the metal callipers used by polio sufferers.

The upshot was that he invented carbon sleeves which sat underneath the foot and inside a golf shoe and effectively encased each leg up to the groin. There would be no weight transfer in the swing, but crucially, he could remain upright. Mobility from hole to hole would be overcome by a buggy.

Thus equipped, King tentatively returned to golf in January 1997 and, ever supportive, Portmarnock arranged through the Leinster Branch to have his handicap extended to 20. By the following August, he was down to 15 as winner of the Portmarnock Gold Medal matchplay tournament. Incredibly, he was down to nine in 1998 and, in winning a Senior Open tournament in 1999, he covered the back nine in level-par gross. He had become a superb hands player.

I remember meeting him at Portmarnock in December 1998 and remarking on his new £75,000 Jaguar XK8 sports car. "It's as far away from a wheelchair as I could get," he laughed, with typical optimism.

Given his stilted, robotic walk, it was almost inevitable that people would compare him with RAF fighter pilot, Douglas Bader, who made a remarkable recovery from losing both legs. Interestingly, this angered King. "There was nothing physically wrong with Bader," he said. "He had no paralysis. He was fully fit down to his knees. In fact, he could walk 18 holes carrying a pencil bag.

"I cannot speak highly enough about the support and consideration of everybody at the club," he continued. "In my darkest moments, when I couldn't imagine what I was going to do for the remainder of my life, golf represented a lifeline - however remote - and my colleagues at Portmarnock gave me all the encouragement I needed.

"After Gary McShane offered me the captaincy, however, I had to think about it before reaching a decision. To come from a no-hope situation to such an elevated position in the golfing world was quite astonishing. But I had to consider the fact that at official receptions and various other functions, I wouldn't be able to stand for more than a few minutes. There were also implications for my wife."

Four days after being installed as captain in December 1999, he underwent a second major operation on his back, which proved to be successful.

Meanwhile, he had made a remarkable discovery. A by-product of using the long leg supports - orthotic appliances - he had devised himself was a re-generation of the muscles around his knees. "It was like a daily work-out," he said.

"By the millennium, I had progressed more or less to how I am now, with the knees able to support themselves, though there is no feeling in my lower legs and ankles. While playing golf, I must have broken 18 pairs of the original design. The stress on them is fantastic. Then I got these ones made in Germany at a cost of €1,500 each, and there hasn't been a crack in them in 12 years. Not a crack. The main component is graphite."

Six years ago, he underwent further surgery, this time on his neck. "They went through the front," he said, pulling down his collar to show me the scar. "It was very serious. I could have become a quadriplegic if it wasn't a success. When I came out of it, a nurse said to me 'show your wife you can move your hands'.

He laughs heartily as he recalls: "I threw my hands in the air and spread my fingers while shouting 'where's the piano?'"

A year later, his wife, Monica, died unexpectedly. "We met at college, in the medical library," he said. "She was a radiographer and during our marriage we became the best of friends. She was a wonderful support to me when things got difficult."

Through a mutual acquaintance 18 months ago, he met a childhood friend, Annette Conway, from Castlecomer, and they're now together in a new home.

"She has been tremendous for me," he said. "Sometimes if I have a bit of a fall in the shower or something like that, I need help. I feel blessed that she came into my life at this time."

As I prepared to leave, his eyes were drawn yet again to his iconic surroundings, bathed in soft autumn sunlight. Nodding in the direction of his new Sutton home, he said: "It's really very near and will allow me to spend more time here. I feel a huge emotional attachment to this place."

Then, almost as an afterthought, he added: "I'm not trying to prove anything, you know."

There would be no shortage of witnesses willing to vouch that he has already proved enough.

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