LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Just days after losing his right arm, Alan Gentry was lying in a hospital bed still in shock when the man who kick-started one-armed golf in the U.S. walked into his room.
Gentry, a former scratch player, had seen Don Fightmaster at tournaments and pro-ams over the years, conducting demonstrations and wowing crowds with his shotmaking.
Fightmaster's advice was simple: Get back on the course. Forget about the pain. Move on. Keep swinging.
Fifteen years after the pep talk that helped him through the most difficult challenge of his life, Gentry's mission to take Fightmaster's message to the masses is in the spotlight Friday through Sunday at the inaugural Fightmaster Cup at the Cardinal Club just outside of Louisville.
While not an official companion event to next weekend's Ryder Cup at nearby Valhalla, it pits a team of North Americans against Europeans and mimics the Ryder Cup format.
Gentry has come a long way since the day he dropped a ball at a driving range a month after his industrial accident and began the humbling process of re-learning the game that had come so easily.
Rather than flip over and learn how to play left-handed, Gentry decided to keep his clubs and began smacking balls around backhanded. Slowly, his passion for the game returned. Gentry won't say golf saved him. That's a little too dramatic. It did, however, let him know that his life wasn't over.
"I just got re-energized," he said. "It was a new goal. Something I knew I could do, something to shoot for. Something that you could succeed at and compete in. And once I experienced success it just carries over into everyday life and gives you more self-confidence to move on and compete against normal people, which is what we have to do every day in the real world."
Wanting to give similarly disabled players a sense of community, Gentry founded the North American One Armed Golf Association in 2000 and quickly watched it expand from 30 charter members to 160.
In the process, Gentry discovered a way to honor Fightmaster and get the word out at the same time. This weekend a dozen members of NAOAGA, captained by Fightmaster, will play 12 members of the European-based Society of One Armed Golfers.
"We thought it was an opportunity to jump on the big stage," Gentry said.
The Fightmaster borrows the Ryder Cup format — fourball and alternate-shot matches the first two days, match play on the third — and more than just a little of its attitude.
The fraternity of the world's best one-armed players is tightknit, but that doesn't mean Fightmaster won't spend three days motivating his team while trying to outwit Society captain Malcolm Guy.
"I don't think the Ryder Cuppers will be any more competitive than we are," Fightmaster said. "We know we're out there fighting for something important."
"We've all went through adversity, we all fight it every day," Gentry said. "We have a message we're trying to send out. But when we tee it up, it's going to be all about winning."
It always is for Gentry. Call it a gift from the aptly named Fightmaster, who didn't pick up the game until after losing his left arm while in the Air Force in 1954. A friend urged Fightmaster to join him on the course one day and even offered to give Fightmaster three strokes a hole to make it interesting.
By the end of the summer, Fightmaster was giving his friend two strokes a side and he hasn't slowed down since, winning countless amputee and one-armed tournaments over the years.
At 76 he still plays when he can, though his focus remains on talking to the disabled — veterans in particular — about the therapeutic nature of the game.
"To a lot of people, it's a trauma when you lose an arm or a leg," Fightmaster said. "You need some type of recreation, some habit you can fall back on and still participate. We want people to realize they can still do a lot of the things that regular people do."
Even if it takes a little convincing, particularly for able-bodied golfers, whom Gentry gently calls "normies."
When one-armed players like Gentry or NAOAGA teammate Scott Lusk walk onto the tee box during your average Sunday round, they can't help but see the skeptical looks from the other players.
A couple of grooved 250-yard drives later, the raised eyebrows are often replaced with gaping mouths.
"I'd say we turn a lot of heads," Lusk said with a laugh.
How can they not? In a game difficult to master with two arms on the club and years of practice, what Gentry and company can do with one is remarkable.
Gentry's swing is a delicate mix of timing, technique and grace. Standing over the ball with the driver in his left hand, his back swing is smooth and long. His follow through is crisp. The "thwack" of driver on ball sure to earn approval of most golf pros.
Ask him how a skinny guy with one arm can bomb it farther than most recreational players and all you get is a wry smile and a little gleam behind his sunglasses. He gets that question a lot, particularly from able-bodied guys after he's knocked the ball by them.
"I can almost recognize my opponents swinging harder because they don't want to be outdriven by a one-armed guy," Gentry said. "It often leads to some pretty poor golf on their side. So I think there is some intimidation there."
It isn't easy. Gentry's golf bag is filled with pain relievers and anti-inflammatories to battle the tendinitis that flares up from the physical stress of swinging with one arm instead of two.
The mental strain of playing with one arm can be just as torturous. Things Gentry could get away with when he had two arms — a slice here, a hook there — are magnified now. If he comes over the top of the ball with his left hand, there isn't a right one there to help him correct it. One bad swing can quickly lead to a dozen more.
"You make five or six swing mistakes, if you've got two hands, maybe you go from shooting 72 to 76," Gentry said. "For us, if we make five or six mistakes, you're talking about going from 71 to 81."
Not that there will be many 81s going around at the Fightmaster. Most of the elite one-armed players are single-digit handicaps, though Gentry stresses knocking it down the middle is not a requirement to join NAOAGA or the Society.
Most amputee and one-armed tournaments are divided into flights according to skill level, and while the Fightmaster will showcase some of the best one-armed players on the planet, the goal is to let disabled players know they're not alone.
"We know as soon as we get them in a tournament, we've got them," Gentry said. "They're going to be around a bunch of successful people that have went over their obstacles and moved forward. It's going to do tremendous things for their life."