If I had to name all the things I’d rather do than golf, I’d never get around to anything else. Don’t have the body for it, don’t have the patience, didn’t learn it when I was young.
Scott Rohrer marks his ball for play. He’s not interested in excuses.
Rohrer, 23, took up the game at age 7 when experts told his parents, Jeff and Elizabeth, that individual sports best suit autistic children. All he’s done since is play with Tiger Woods, battle major championship courses, rewrite record books and card a lifelong bond with dad to leave us all longing for a mulligan.
“From the first time he picked up a golf club, that was it,” Elizabeth says. “He was just a natural.”
The only handicap out here is mine, and it’s balloon-ish. I play golf as often as I do the oboe or pro field hockey. Rohrer might drive a ball 280 or 300 yards. I might drive one into 300 yards.
Blowers finished clearing dew-drenched tees for our daybreak flight. Songbirds serenade. Dawn atop River Hills Country Club fairways is a gorgeous use of two hours, if ever I’ll find them. Scott and Jeff vanish drives into the morning mist. I barely carry the tee box I should be using from the back one.
“We’ll just pick yours up,” Jeff says.
We’re inventing an entirely new format. Nine holes of a match play/best ball hybrid where I play from my shots until I can’t find or justify them, and Scott’s otherwise. He pars the first. I’ve yet to land the green. He’s up.
We both earn merit badges for all the time spent in the woods on the second. I take a drop. He doesn’t. It’s an empty point given the resolve I’m witnessing. He’d pinball every inbounds oak before settling for an easy out. He isn’t into easy.
“I’m pretty used to it by now,” Scott says.
What he’s most used to is having his picture taken with a new trophy. Special Olympics events aren’t shy for handing out awards, but Rohrer gives them reason. Since 2005 he’s won six solo or team gold medals. That’s without playing one year, and being disqualified for dad’s rule infraction another.
In 2010, he shot the first ever subpar round, 71, and set a new 54-hole record by 15 shots. This year brought more than 200 players. Rohrer won by 24 shots. He once led an event by 18 strokes after two rounds, so tournament suits went ahead and created another division just for him.
Yet here we are all square. On the par three third I iron one crazy short, but unimaginably straight. I’m good for a couple such shots a decade. Three hacks later I’ll sink a four-footer to halve the hole.
Suddenly golf isn’t seeming so bad. A flickering gold floor beneath black walnut branches, sunrise haze on a down slope drive, heavens opening to a cotton-candy, dogleg sky – it’s darn near poetic.
“I love the drive, that first shot,” Scott says. “I can be so mad and hit that good shot and it doesn’t matter.”
His good feeling lasts longer than mine. Tied after three, Rohrer never worse than bogeys heading into the clubhouse. I spend the rest of my day like the rookie bait hand on a deep sea boat – slice and hook, slice and hook. Some people play hooky from work to golf. I’m filing for hardship pay.
The holdout is seven, where we match bogeys. Then on nine I’m playing my own shot again, my second straight drive of the round. I butcher several approaches before Scott chips in from off the green to end it.
There’s no doubt Rohrer has game, but it’s the way this family goes about it. While mom caddies those Special Olympics events, dad coaches less experienced players or those with more severe limitations. Both dad and son work the family tree business four days a week – often at the country club – to play the other three.
The Rohrers are more than their low rounds and, whether they realize it, people are watching.
Taylorsville, N.C., judge Kimberly Taylor began her journey with autism as a mom, then as advocate for a host of awareness groups including the Autism Research Institute, where she sits on the national board. The most common misconception she sees is an idea that any one autistic person is just like all the rest.
Some barely function in public. Some are doctors. Almost half aren’t verbal. There are musical or artistic savants and, yes, even top notch golfers.
“There are people all across the spectrum,” Taylor said.
Standouts like Rohrer bring more attention to that spectrum than boxes full of puzzle ribbons. He’s a spokesperson for Special Olympics and autism awareness. Which is how he met and played with Woods, how he booked nine holes at Congressional Country Club.
Rohrer isn’t just a set of red and black digits on a scorecard. He doesn’t love crowds after church, but can’t stop drawing. He won’t say much to strangers, but enjoys fishing and wants to try hunting. He’s a Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and weeknight wrestling fan who loves proving that it isn’t just “special” events he’s intent on winning. He’s already just a playoff loss shy of winning a club championship – for all members.
And that 71 in Special Olympics play? It’s hardly a perfect comparison, but consider: 21 of the past 24 PGA Tour major championship winners shot at least one round of 71 or higher en route to their titles. And 71 isn’t even Rohrer’s career best round. That’s a 69.
I’m earning the Rohrer boys another day off by pruning several hardwoods on the last hole. It’s a wonder my cart didn’t come with a complementary claims adjustor. I can’t complain. It’s a spectacular morning of several sunrises – over the course, the trees, bunkers, hills, homes.
It’s light shed on far more than good golf and bad, by a more than capable young man and a family who’ll never be defined, entirely, by either.
On Your Marks Scoreboard
Competition: Special Olympics golf champion Scott Rohrer of York
Contest: Nine holes of match play golf at River Hills Country Club
Score: Rohrer won six holes to my one, and we split two more. Final score: Rohrer 7, Marks 2.