Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Meet Tom McAuliffe, the 'World Champion Armless Golfer'

A golfer with no arms? Sounds like the beginning to a very bad joke. But Tom McAuliffe - Tommy to his friends - was not a punch line, he made sure of that, even though he lived in a time when the physically disabled were subjected to much less respectful treatment than today.

McAuliffe was born in 1893 in Buffalo, New York, and in 1902, after he fell across train tracks in front of an oncoming train, he lost both his arms at the shoulders. But he went on to lead a remarkable life, during which he interacted with many of the greats of golf history. He was, as he came to be known, the "World Champion Armless Golfer."

Here is a newsreel report about Tommy McAuliffe, titled "The Golfer with No Arms," produced by British Pathe in 1932:

As you can see, McAuliffe's technique was to press the grip of a golf club between his neck, shoulder and face. Imagine the practice time that must have gone into perfecting this technique. Because, as you saw in the video, McAuliffe could manipulate the golf club very well. He couldn't produce any power in this way - his shots were very short - but he hit the ball straight and was particularly good on short shots around the green. McAuliffe is said to have averaged in the low 90s for 18 holes of golf, with a personal best of 85.

The title of "World Champion Armless Golfer" was self-bestowed; there were no golf tournaments or organizations or support groups for handicapped golfers in the early part of the 20th century the way there are today.

No, McAuliffe had an attention-getting story and skill, and he turned that into a career for a time. He barnstormed the United States and even the world - there's a photo of him in Australia in 1929 that shows him hitting golf balls off the face of his very trusting brother - performing trick-shot shows and exhibitions. He did this on golf courses but also on the stage, where he appeared as part of vaudeville acts and other traveling shows.

In the 1950s there was a television series on ABC titled You Asked For It, and McAuliffe appeared on that show. In a film clip for that show, McAuliffe is shown performing a few shots and also explaining his skill. The Langley Golf Museum in Kissimmee, Florida, includes an exhibit about McAuliffe, and part of that exhibit is a video with footage from McAuliffe's You Asked For It appearance, as well as McAuliffe talking about the accident that cost him his arms:

At the time of his ABC appearance, McAuliffe was living in Detroit. "I know life is what you make it," McAuliffe says, "and I've tried to make the best of mine." McAuliffe explains to the show's host, Art Baker, that he "quit show business 20 years ago" (which would have been in the mid- to late 1930s) and has been running his own insurance business since then. He's shown at his desk writing, typing and answering phones, among other office chores.

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