RIDGEFIELD, Conn. – The swing is relatively quiet and remarkably efficient.
The golf balls circled skyward in succession last week, finally disappearing above a towering line of trees at the back of the Golf Performance Center range about 250 yards away.
On the surface, it was an effortless performance.
The physical limitations Doug Shirakura instinctively circumvents every time he gets over the ball are easily overlooked when the Somers resident is in throwing mode.
Nothing about the swing is bothersome or mechanical.
“I think most people watch in disbelief, honestly,” said Roger Knick, a longtime PGA professional and owner and founder of the Golf Performance Center. “They watch the way he controls the golf ball and quickly stop feeling sorry for him.”
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Envy takes over when sympathy fades.
Shirakura played it as is all his life. He is currently ranked No. 1 among players with a single impairment below the knee by the American Adaptive Golf Alliance. Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s junior aerospace engineering major carries an index of 1.2 and finished tied for ninth last month in the first US Adaptive Open at the historic Pinehurst Resort and Country Club.
He has an infectious enthusiasm for the game and is highly motivated to improve.
“If I’m being completely honest, playing with my restrictions isn’t difficult at all,” the 20-year-old said as he prepared for this week’s game. Eastern Regional Championship for Amputees at Penn State. “I mean, that’s all I’ve ever known. In that sense, I definitely have an edge over some of the older guys who may have lost their limbs later in life.
Shirakura was a baby when his right leg was amputated below the knee, due to amniotic syndrome.
“It mainly affects the outer extremities,” he said. “My right hand was kind of fused together. My fingers weren’t forming well, so I had to have several surgeries as a baby to rebuild my hand. My right foot was almost to a point where it was unusable. It was either I keep the foot and make a bet or I amputate it and use the prosthesis.
“It’s what my parents chose, and it worked out really well.”
Aki and Miyuki Shirakura both played golf and introduced their son at an early age. He also played a number of sports growing up, but none of these competitive outlets sparked his imagination.
Mom interrupted a thriving karate career when the prostheses started breaking.
So that left golf, and Shirakura was in middle school.
“I attended Centennial Junior Camp every summer until I was too old,” he said. “I would be dropped off around 7am. When you’re young, it doesn’t feel like a long day. You practice in the morning, get out and play nine holes, play games on the green with friends, and get out and play again. Next thing you know, it’s getting dark and your mother is there.
Staying in touch with his peers has never been a problem.
“I never felt at a disadvantage against the court, I was just trying to go out there and play,” added Shirakura, whose drives are usually over 270 yards.
Eventually, he graduated from the Met PGA Junior Tour and Hurricane Junior Golf Tour events. He was also captain of the Somers golf team and played in several national adaptive golf tournaments. The results at that time were mixed.
“I wasn’t a very good golfer – not because of my handicap,” Shirakura said. “It was only with COVID that I started to improve. That’s when I started coming here. I realized that I lacked distance, partly because of my disability, I didn’t have the strength on the right side, but also because I was a skinny kid in high school. I knew that if I wanted to be competitive, I had to gain more distance, I had to play smarter, and I had to constantly practice what I can control instead of what I can’t.
Access to year-round practice at the high-end facility has been transformative.
“Overall, we haven’t done much in terms of instruction or training,” Knick said. “It’s really about providing an environment where he can thrive by coming and working diligently. He went through our assessment to understand where his skills are and where he is physically, and he didn’t shy away from any challenge.
Winning adaptive tournaments is not the end of the game.
Shirakura aims to keep up with golf buddies like Ardsley resident Brent Ito, who played collegiate in Michigan and now has status on the PGA Tour Canada.
“In my opinion, he’s just an amazing young man who has taken on the challenge of his situation with the absolute belief that he can overcome anything, so it’s pretty easy to train him,” Knick added.
His golf idols are people like Carlos Brown and Ken Green.
“Carlos is a professional teacher in Dallas who unfortunately lost his left leg below the knee after an accident,” Shirakura said. “He was key in keeping me on track to play better golf and keeping me mentally on track in life. Ken Green was the first really good adaptive golfer I met and I thought to myself: “Holy Cow, he played on the PGA Tour.”
They first crossed paths when the Danbury, Connecticut native, who lost part of his leg in an RV accident, was back in the area to play an event at Richter Park. They reconnected at Pinehurst.
“A lot of people in adaptive golf are my role models,” added Shirakura. “They all have such amazing stories. I always think, ‘These guys have a much worse life than you, so get together…’.”
After following Brown on social media, Shirakura reached out to the highly regarded PGA teaching professional four years ago. They are golf enthusiasts. Brown provided some needed focus and was able to make the necessary swing adjustments virtually.
The results were almost immediate.
Shirkura deals with the inevitable uneven lies with careful thought and committed execution. And knowing that its margin of error is low, everything is well established.
“Douglas is someone I use as an example for my college players,” Brown said. “It’s a late bloomer. A few years ago he was still figuring out what he wanted to do with golf. I said to Douglas, ‘It has to be function and form rather than fashion. ‘ You have to figure out how you’re supposed to move based on what’s being handed out to us. You can’t fit into a mold that doesn’t look like you and he starts to trust that. … Because he had so much information from people, he had trouble putting them together and had a kind of Frankenstein-like swing. He was good at it, but had a lot of parts that didn’t fit who he was.
“And the other thing is he’ll outperform anybody.”
The opportunity to play the US Adaptive Open changed my life.
Shirakura put up rounds of 75, 77 and 79 on the No. 6 course at Pinehurst, which played some 6,500 yards. He finished 15-over for the championship.
“The conditions were fantastic and they made the course really tough,” he said. “They did it that way because it’s supposed to be a US Open. It’s supposed to test all of our skills and I think they did a fantastic job of achieving that.”
Shirakura walked through the first two laps, noting that his use of a cart would be disrespectful to contestants with more serious mobility issues. He took a cart on the last lap after his mother worried about the unrelenting heat.
“Going into the event, I had pretty high expectations, knowing the history of the USGA,” he said. “And when I got there, I was completely blown away. … It was amazing to be there and to be able to reach a lot of people. … My goal, especially in golf, is to inspire people. Having a big stage set up by the USGA was just a huge deal. All the players were kind of given a platform to share their inspirational stories and how they were able to overcome their situations through the golf.
There are many more elevated greens to climb.
“I have no idea where this is going,” Shirakura said. “Over the next three years I’m going to try and improve and see how far I can take my game and see if I can reach my full potential. I’m lucky to have this opportunity to be able to play and training at a facility like this and I have time to really invest myself in this game, it would be a waste not to see how far I could go.
Regardless of the outcome, he inspires with every swing.
“It’s about learning to adapt, literally,” added Brown, who was quick to add Shirakura to the Nike Adaptive Team he oversees. “The cool thing is that it’s something we do for a living. It’s all golf, whatever the difference, you have to adapt to the situations that come up. We just have to adapt a bit more.”
Mike Dougherty covers golf for The Journal News and lohud.com. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @lohudgolf.