Sitting in a wheelchair in a hospital conference room in August 2002, Jared Brentz listened as his doctors laid out his three options.
He could be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
He could undergo yet another surgery that would let him walk with his own feet, but, as Jared’s father put it, he would walk like Frankenstein’s monster because of the bone fusion.
Or, the third option: The doctors could amputate both of his feet.
Brentz, a twin, thought over the options to deal with his arthrogryposis, a joint condition he was born with which impacted the positioning of his feet at delivery. An initial surgery brought his feet into a normal position, but had to be adjusted twice more. Brentz did things a lot of kids do, including playing sports. However, seemingly out of the blue at 9 years old, Brentz started losing function in his feet and the muscles around his lower limbs weakened.
“I went from being able to run around and play with brother to, almost overnight, being wheelchair-bound and unable to move anymore,” Brentz said in a telephone interview.
A wheelchair didn’t sound all that great, and it would force his family to remodel much of their house to make it accessible for him.
He said, “I was just not going to live like that.”
The surgery didn’t sound all that appealing either, especially considering that he would still have trouble getting around, and he’d have a hard time being active.
That left amputation. By process of elimination, that seemed like the best choice. He just had one question: Could he do what he wanted to do? The doctors said yes and that they could supply him with prostheses that could help him live life most like someone with two fully functioning legs.
Brentz was sold. He was 12.
Jared’s parents weren’t so quick to agree. They reiterated several times to their son that, if he went ahead with the amputation, the legs weren’t coming back. Brentz understood he wasn’t a starfish.
After receiving his first pair of prostheses in December of that year, he was back playing golf in the Spring of 2003. Not only was Brentz on his middle school golf team, he was the No. 1 player. He went on to be a four-year letter winner in golf and wrestling in high school.
Brentz is now 26, and his golf game is better than ever. Not only is he on the edge of becoming a scratch player, Brentz is the best amputee long driver in the world. The Tennessee native, who now lives in the Nashville area with his wife, has won six ParaLong Drive titles since he started in the sport three years ago.
He found out about long-drive from his dad, who was playing golf in Knoxville in 2012 with a guy named Dean Jarvis. Jarvis, an area insurances salesman, is an amputee like Brentz. After he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma as a teenager, he had a steel rod inserted in his body that ran from his hip down to his ankle. He continued to play sports, even with the rod. When he was 19, Jarvis was running when the rod snapped. Amputation was his only choice.
Fast forward to 2012, and Jarvis was looking for a way to reconnect with sports in a personal way. He found it through golf. That August, he played a round of golf with Wounded Warrior Chad Pfeifer, who this summer became the first amputee veteran to play on the Web.com Tour. It was inspirational, driving Jarvis to look into more ways to get amputees and those born without limbs involved in the sport. What set him off was learning that golf would be in the 2016 Olympic program but not in the Paralympics. His mission became clear: find a way to get golf in the 2020 Paralympics. Ultimately, Jarvis felt long-drive was the best way to accommodate the most disability types and make golf a feasible Paralympic sport. Jarvis founded what’s called the Amputee Long Drive Championship, hosting the first event in Tennessee in July 2013.
In that chance meeting with Jarvis on the golf course, Brentz’s dad learned of the idea as he was talking about Jared with Jarvis. When Jared’s dad brought the idea to him, he was sold. So, he took the range, mostly unaware of his mechanics but fully aware that he could mash a golf ball. In fact, he mashed it too far.
“I’d been kicked off just about every driving range in the Nashville area,” Brentz said with a laugh.
Ultimately, Brentz found a home at Nashboro Golf Club and a teacher in PGA of America instructor Jeff Page.
“Jeff was the last one who asked me to stop hitting driver on the range because it was too short,” Brentz explained.
He told Page what he was doing, and it piqued Page’s interest. So Page pulled Brentz off the range and onto the first tee, asking Brentz to take a few rips. Page was impressed. The two agreed to work together to improve Brentz’s mechanics. Brentz had to show patience, with Page breaking down his swing to build it back up again.
“I went from being able to hit the ball 320 to shanking it 150,” Brentz said.
Over time, the changes started to click. Even better, Brentz understood the details of the golf swing and learned how to golf his ball, including off the tee.
“I’ve probably picked up 30 yards off the tee,” Brentz said.
Since then, Brentz has dominated the budding sport. He’s won six competitions, including the first two inaugural events, the World ParaLong Drive Championship in October 2014 in Mesquite, Nev., and the ParaLong Drive Cup last month in Orlando, Fla. He has won competitions with drives well north of 400 yards, and, with a measured ball speed of 205 mph, he’s fast enough to keep up with some of the longest hitters in the world.
ParaLong Drive isn’t a lucrative sport. In fact, it’s almost all paid out-of-pocket for competitors. Brentz has a day job, working for a security firm near Nashville. That grind leaves him some days just looking to plant his butt on the couch, but Brentz said his wife drives him to improve. And Brentz has to tweak his game every now and then, too. With each new set of prosthetics, Brentz has to change his swing a little.
“I pretty much have to learn a new swing with every set,” he said. “It’s not the full swing, but fundamentals. Footing, how you’re going to swing with your lower body.”
The competition means a lot to Brentz, but he says the most important part is the camaraderie with his fellow players.
“There are guys there that can hit a golf ball 220 with one arm. I couldn’t hit it 60 yards that way if I had to,” he said. “I love what ParaLong Drive offers. In your everyday world, you don’t run across too many amputees. And you don’t run into too many amputees that love golf and can hit a golf ball like these guys can. It’s been a blessing to be a part of it.”
That doesn’t mean long drive is simply a social affair, however. Brentz has aspirations of qualifying for the 2016 World Long Drive Championship. He wants to take on Tim Burke, Jamie Sadlowski and the other beasts of the grid.
“That’s the goal for the year,” Brentz said. “I think with my numbers, I can be competitive.”