(TheSpectrum.com) – Sixteen-year-old R.J. Wren was all smiles this week at Wolf Creek Golf Club when the Shriners fraternal organization helped fulfill his life’s dream — play golf with PGA pros.
On a picture perfect Mesquite day, Tuesday, R.J. and his father, Russ, courtesy of Wolf Creek, played a round of golf with professional golfers Padraig Harrington and Trevor Immelman, who were in Las Vegas this week to compete in the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.
Immelman, a South African golfer, has played on the PGA Tour, European Tour and Sunshine Tour. He won his only major championship at the 2008 Masters Tournament when he beat Tiger Woods by three strokes.
Harrington, Dublin, Ireland, plays on the European Tour and PGA Tour. He won the Open Championship back-to-back in 2007 and 2008, and won the PGA Championship in 2008.
Playing with the two was something R.J. of Morgantown, Pennsylvania, never could have dreamed.
He was born with a brachial plexus injury, birth defect that limits the mobility in Wren’s left shoulder and arm. After an unsuccessful surgery at Boston’s Children’s Hospital, his parents, Russ and Mary, found a surgeon who specializes in upper extremities at Shriners Hospitals for Children in Philadelphia.
The surgeon, Scott Kozin, M.D., performed a procedure known as an arthroscopic shoulder release, which allowed R.J. to regain movement in his shoulder and arm.
When he was 8, R.J. got a set of golf clubs for Christmas.
“It was one of those last minute gift things,” said Mary. “Russ just picked it up on his way home.”
Little did mom and dad know what that last minute gift would lead to.
“It was one of those little rinky-dink sets,” R.J said. “Then I started tearing up the back yard with it and dad thought I better go somewhere else to try playing.”
It wasn’t long before R.J.’s talent became evident despite his limitations swinging a real golf club. Those limitations prevent the young golfer from hitting a draw.
R.J. today has overcome many challenges under the tutelage of his swing coach, Bob Kramer.
Nevertheless, R.J. said the problems with his arm made life difficult with others his age, but his ability on the golf course soon evened things out.
“I always felt like I was kind of an outcast,” he said. “Everybody else could do things I couldn’t. Then I started playing golf.”
Russ, a high school athletic director, said that R.J. hit his only hole-in-one when he was 9 years old, just a year after he got his “rinky-dink” golf set and started playing for real.
“A year later, almost to the day, I got hole in one and then a year later Mary got one,” Russ laughed. “Kind of amazing.”
The parents started golfing only when their son found out how much he liked it, Mary said.
After the procedure to repair his shoulder and once R.J. began to excel at golf he has been giving back to Shriners by using his skills to raise money for the hospital, acting as a Shriners’ hospital ambassador.
”They’ve done so much for my family and I,” R.J. said. “So I just want to give back because there’s people with worse conditions than me that deserve better.”
Shriners hospital’s Gary Dunwoody, trustee emeritus and Shriner responsible for the golf tournament in Las Vegas, and Dale Stauss, imperial potentate, also attended R.J’s special day Tuesday to show their support.
“R.J. is representing Shriners and children everywhere and we’re just thankful for everything he’s done for us,” Dunwoody said. “This is good for the kid, good the pros, good for everyone.”
Dunwoody said 2014 is the second year the Shriners have participated in a FedEx Cup event.
“Shriners has changed over millions of kids’ lives, and we’re pleased that R.J. is giving back to Shriners to help kids succeed in life,” Stauss said.
When Harrington and Immelman appeared at Wolf Creek, R.J. and his family couldn’t stop grinning.
It was a first for all of them, even Harrington and Immelman, who had never before played at Wolf Creek, which according to some publications, it’s one the most popular courses to golf at in the United States.
R.J. said he had the choice of any golf course on which to play and he chose Wolf Creek because he saw it in a video game called Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09.
“I thought it was something out of those fantasy worlds, so I didn’t think it was real,” he said.
“It’s nice to be able to showcase this for these guys,” said Darren Stanek, general manager of Wolf Creek Golf Club.
During a quick breakfast in the Terrace Restaurant at Wolf Creek, the two pro golfers gave R.J. some advice.
“You can look at YouTube and and see how to hit the ball,” Harrington said. “The best thing I tell you is to learn from watching good players. See how they drive. Then go on out on the range and figure it out for yourself. Learn how to apply what you’ve seen to yourself. Learn to strike the ball well.”
“You always need to be careful, mindful,” Immelman said. “Focus on getting the ball into the hole.”
“What defines an athlete is his mind,” Harrington added. “Eventually you learn how to do it or you have to leave the company.”
When asked what his handicap was, R.J. proudly said, “.4.”
“In Ireland that’s scratch,” Harrington said. “Anything under .5 is scratch.”
R.J. beamed and took in the advice the professionals provided.
“It was really helpful,” he said. “I can’t wait to put it in my game, my life,” he said.
Both pros expressed pleasure at the opportunity to participate in the Shriners’ event in Mesquite.
“We’re just glad to be here and play some golf at a place that we’ve never played before and have a fun time with R.J. and his family and make it memorable for them,” Harrington said.
“The weather is perfect,” Immelman agreed. “This is going to be fun. We’ll have some fun hitting some different shots.”
After breakfast, the group went out and played 18 holes of golf.
R.J. has made some impressive achievements of his own.
He was one of only two sophomores in Pennsylvania to qualify for the 2013 high school state championship. He has won 35 Junior PGA tournaments and was named Philadelphia PGA Junior Player of the Year twice.
But probably one of his proudest achievements was when he made 64 birdies in tournament play and raised more than $4,700 for Shriners hospital. Shriners used the money to buy a new special X-ray machine for the unit where R.J. was originally treated.
That’s not all his parents are proud of either.
“We’re more proud of his GPA than anything,” Russ said of R.J.’s 4.1 GPA.
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