Golfer Brendan Lawlor quips he’s “one in a million.”
It’s a light-hearted reference to the rare genetic condition – Ellis-van Creveld syndrome – that he was born with. The condition is characterized by short limb dwarfism, and in Lawlor’s case, an absence of any knuckles on the top of his fingers.
Not that the condition is holding Lawlor back in any way – quite the opposite. Three years ago, the Irishman was finishing college and contemplating what the future might hold for him. Now, he is a professional golfer who is passionate about breaking down barriers for disabled athletes.
At the end of August, Lawlor became the first golfer with disabilities to compete in a European Tour event, taking part in the ISPS Handa UK Championship at The Belfry in England.
Having competed against major winners Danny Willett and Martin Kaymer, as well as former world No. 1 Lee Westwood, Lawlor is now hoping to pave the way for more disabled golfers to try their hand against the world’s best.
“I’m constantly setting myself goals literally every year, every tournament,” Lawlor told CNN Sport. “And I’m really proud to promote disability golf and I have visions of how far I can go, and it’s amazing that things are going on at the minute.
“But I just want to keep that ball rolling for myself but for other people coming forward to trying to make that trail line to give other people chances and hopefully get the game to a high level where maybe people can earn a living out of it. That’ll be a true goal for me.”
Growing up in Ireland, it was Lawlor’s grandfather Bill who first put a golf club in his hand and instilled in him a love for the game.
“My granddad, Bill, is a huge, huge advocate for golf. He absolutely loves it,” Lawlor explains. “And none of his other grandchildren played so some people say I was his favorite because I played.
“My granddad had a golf club in my hand since I was four. I’ve always had his garden sort of like fairways and put the flag at the bottom of it. He flat out [keeps] sending emails to people. He’s a proud grandad and he definitely found a love for the golf for me.”
Like many kids his age, Lawlor graduated to playing pitch and putt – a shorter format of the game which typically takes place solely on par-three holes.
Fellow Irishmen Pádraig Harrington and Shane Lowry – both major winners – also cut their teeth at pitch and putt before moving onto full-length golf, and Lawlor is hoping that the skills he learned in the shorter format of the game will stand him in good stead in the future.
“In Ireland, pitch and putt is nearly a culture and a start for golf. And it really does stand you because you have quite a good short game starting off and you really need to rely on it when you’re not hitting as many greens and your style and all that sort of stuff.”
Finding his feet
After graduating to a full-length golf course, Lawlor spent hours playing with friends, to the point where he was competing at a high level in Ireland.
“I played in local teams and local clubs in Ireland and got myself down to single figures pretty quick. And then I was playing guys off plus two, I was off one or two myself.”
The concept of playing disability golf never occurred to Lawlor. Whilst he realized that he was shorter in stature than most other players, Lawlor says that he never considered himself “as any different” to any of his peers.
“When I turned 19, I came out of college and my auntie approached my mom and asked, ‘Would Brendan ever consider disability golf?’” he explained.
“And my mom never really said it to me because she might have thought I would have got insulted because I never saw myself as any different. I lived quite a normal life; I’ve done everything really normally. Then mom asked me one day and I said: ‘That’d be fantastic. It’d be such a great road to go down and experience different things.’”
Ever since, Lawlor has flourished.
Having won the inaugural European Disability Golf Association (EDGA) Scottish Open in July 2019 – a 36-hole tournament played alongside the Scottish Open and featuring the 10 best disabled players in the world – he turned professional two months later.
Lawlor is currently the world No. 4 for disabled golfers. He’s also competed in the ISPS HANDA Disabled Golf Cup, a tournament played alongside the 2019 Presidents Cup in Melbourne, where 12 of the world’s leading golfers with a disability played the same course and conditions as the pros.
But Lawlor’s big breakthrough came when he became the first golfer with disabilities to compete in a full European Tour event earlier this year.
Battling tough conditions and nerves, Lawlor posted a creditable opening round 84 and readily acknowledges the continuous encouragement provided by his playing partners, European Tour regulars Jeff Winther and Richard McEvoy, throughout his debut appearance.
“They were truly an honor to play with. They were so supportive even when things weren’t going too well; they were picking me up saying: ‘Right let’s birdie the next.’ And I thought that was great that they were so encouraging.”
Increasing the profile
Whilst Dustin Johnson pocketed $15 million for winning the FedEx Cup, prize money in disability golf is a different ball game, with no purse at all on offer for some events.
Playing on the European Tour is a “great platform to promote” disability golf, according to Lawlor, and represents an excellent opportunity to hopefully secure the future of prospective disabled golfers.
“I think that’s going to entice more disability golfers and maybe turn it into a full-time job and get more professionals into it,” he noted.
No surprisingly, after his appearance at The Belfry, Lawlor received lots of interest from other prospective disability golfers.
“I think about 30 disability golfers actually got in touch with me through Instagram looking to get into the game and looking to join the European Disabled Golf Association,” he said.
“And not just for the high level but for the mental side as well. It’s very important for people to get out with friends, play golf for three to four hours and take them away from the house or away from the video games or whatever they’re doing.”
Although golf made a successful return to the Olympic Games in 2016, disability golf has yet to make the cut in any Paralympics games, something that until recently remained just a dream for Lawlor.
“To play in the Paralympics will be absolutely incredible and it wasn’t looking too good until last week, actually. I actually got a message from them under my Twitter saying: ‘Congratulations, Brandon’ and they’ve liked some of my stuff as well,” he said.
“So hopefully that’s the foot in the door for disability golf getting into the Paralympics, because that would be absolutely incredible. There’s so many players out there, like amputees in America, there’s so many golfers out there with a disability that we could have a really, really competitive tour.”
And while he still has his own ambitions and goals in his career to fulfill – he wants to become the best disability golfer in the world – Lawlor is also eager to share his own experiences with others.
“I’m just telling them to be themselves and enjoy it. I think most importantly, enjoy golf because there’s so many years we are focusing on trying to get to a level, sometimes you forget to enjoy the game. And I think enjoying the starting off is a huge, huge important factor.”