The annual Dunhill Links Championship is one of the highlights of the European Tour season. It takes place on three great golf courses in and around St Andrews (the home of golf) and it features not only the finest players on tour, but also movie stars, comedians, musicians and sportsmen (plus a handful of businessmen no-one has heard of).
But back in 2009 a very different amateur took part in the event and immediately caught the attention of the watching fans, both on the courses and on television. His name was Manuel de los Santos, he hails from the Dominican Republic and he plays golf with only one leg.
Despite his disability Manuel plays to a handicap of four, thanks to powerful hitting and a delicate touch around the greens.
This week in the run up to the MCB Tour Championship, Manuel has played in both the Air Mauritius Trophy and the Constance Hotels Pro-am, after qualifying via an event in Reunion which he won with his playing partner George Necs.
The prize for that win included transport from Reunion, but Manuel lives in Paris. When MCB and Constance Hotels & Resorts discovered this, they upgraded the prize, a generous offer which has proved popular, not only with the hotel staff – who have followed his group around the course all week – but with locals too.
“It is amazing,” Manuel told me. “I was playing on the Links course and a girl came up to me. She told me that people in the local towns were saying a man plays golf on one leg and so she had to come to see it with her own eyes. I was very pleased to show her!”
It’s pretty clear that Manuel not only inspires other people, but is inspired himself by their interest. And the young girl is not alone: Manuel has many fans across the world, including Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, who has given Manuel a 20-minute long-game lesson.
These remarkable encounters were far beyond his imagination ten years ago when, as a promising baseball player, he was hit by a car whilst on his motorbike. Waking from a coma four days later he discovered his left leg had been amputated.
He relocated to Paris with his wife Elena and one night watched the golf movie ‘The Legend of Bagger Vance’. Next day he visited a driving range and was hooked: he had found something he could throw his heart into; which offered the prospect of improvement, competition and achievement.
“It also gives me a release,” he said after the first round of the pro-am. “Out on the course, when I am playing golf, I feel peace.”
In addition to travelling the world he competes on the European Disabled Golf Association Tour and hopes one day, like all other disabled golfers, that the sport is included in the Paralympics (there is currently a divergence between disabled golf categories and those of the Paralympic organisation).
He also loves the effect his story has on others. His wife Elena said: “Manuel is very competitive on the golf course, but it is also very important to him to let people know that we can all have our problems and yet all is not lost.”
His latest trip has offered yet more proof of what golf has given him. He and Elena are grateful to MCB and Constance Hotels for the chance to play, but also the opportunity to meet fellow golfers in the tournaments, the staff who have supported him and that young girl who wanted to witness his talent first-hand. “I love golf and I like these courses,” he said, “but those experiences are special.”
Manuel says he has a simple philosophy: “Out on the golf course I have two legs, off it I have one.”
He smiles, shakes my hand and says in farewell: “Remember, my friend – golf is my second leg.”