TAMPA, Fla. — The two men had met for the first time only a handful of hours earlier on a warm December morning last year while standing in the clubhouse at TPC Tampa Bay before a Birdies for the Brave charity golf event.
Donny Alston and Brad Bryant. Brad and Donny.
Alston, an assistant club professional at a public course about 45 miles away, called the chance visit with the Champions Tour player “a hoot.” Making it even better, Andy Bean, another senior tour star, had been there, too.
The conversation was friendly and relaxed. Alston, a U.S. Army veteran who describes himself as “an excessively early person,” had arrived for the tournament’s scheduled noon start shortly after 8 a.m. When he walked into the clubhouse, the only two people already there were Bryant and Bean, both on hand as Champions Tour hosts for the PGA Tour-sponsored event.
“We ended up standing there 45 minutes or an hour, just having a conversation,” Alston said. “I’m a golf idol worshipper. So it was a neat, neat thing.”
That, Alston figured, was the extent of their exchange. Once the golf started he had seen the two tour pros again only in passing. Now, as darkness began to fall almost 10 hours later, Alston was packing up to head home, happy with the knowledge he had a story to tell the next morning when he returned to work behind the counter at Fox Hollow Golf Club in Trinity, Fla.
But all of a sudden, here was Bryant again, needing a minute to talk, pulling Alston to the side.
“Donny,” Bryant said. “I have a question for you. Have you ever thought about playing golf professionally?”
“Come on, Brad. I’m a five handicapper. I’m an assistant club pro. I’m left handed. And, you do know, I only have one leg.”
– Donny Alston Alston laughed. “Other than being a soldier, golf’s all that I ever wanted to do,” he said.
Bryant nodded his approval, and, to Alston’s bewilderment, began citing reasons he thought the military veteran should take a shot at playing the Champions Tour.
And now you may think you know where this story is headed. But you have no clue. Not until you read Alston’s response. Better still, read it several times until it sinks in.
“Come on, Brad,” Alston replied. “I’m a five handicapper. I’m an assistant club pro. I’m left handed.
“And, you do know, I only have one leg.”
There is nothing coincidental about Bryant’s crazy idea coming to life at a Birdies for the Brave event.
Birdies for the Brave is a PGA Tour-sponsored series of charity events that support injured U.S. military personnel, and Bryant, like pretty much the entire Champions Tour roster, is an old-school, proud American with bubbling passion for country and patriotism.
So, as the morning’s chance conversation with Alston moved from initial small talk to more serious subjects, Bryant began to realize he just might have found the guy he had long been imagining.
“Like a lot of players on our tour, I’ve been involved in a couple of different things with veterans,” Bryant said. “We’re really proud of those guys and want to give back to them.
“For a long time I had thought very seriously about what a great thing it would be if we could have a vet, someone who had distinguished them self in service for America, become a Champions Tour player.”
As they visited in the TPC Tampa Bay clubhouse, Bryant soon learned Alston, who turns 48 next month, grew up playing the game — family owned a golf shop — and went on to eventually play mini tours, give lessons and work as an assistant club professional.
In between he served in the U.S. Army.
And lost his left leg from the knee down during an incident he will not discuss.
“In 1983 I got hurt,” Alston says. “In ’85 finally lost the leg after 22 surgeries. Got an infection from dirty instruments used on me in the field, which is nobody’s fault. That’s just the way it is in the field.”
Pretty soon, Bryant had only one more question he needed answered: Can the guy on the prosthetic leg really play?
Bryant, unbeknownst to Alston, would later follow the military veteran to the practice range just to see. What were the odds? Ridiculous at best, right? Still, at this point, the far-fetched idea was gaining traction in Bryant’s head.
“I went out to watch him on the practice tee,” Bryant recalls. “And then, when I saw him swing, I said, ‘Holy cow!’ He makes this beautiful circle with the golf club. Yes, he has some flaws, but that was about as good as I’ve seen.
“You just don’t see many golf swings where the guy just naturally makes a circle.”
A month later, Bryant was back in touch, calling Alston at home with a slew of details.
ChampionsGate, the plush resort course outside Orlando that is home to the David Leadbetter Golf Academy, was offering its facilities for Alston to use for practice. That was particularly convenient since Alston now was enrolled as a new student at the Leadbetter Academy. Kevin Smeltz, ranked among the top 50 teaching pros in the country, a guy who works with a list of tour pros, specifically volunteered to work with Alston.
Callaway Golf would be helping with equipment. And another thing: With barely two years to go before Alston would become eligible for Champions Tour qualifying school, too much work needed to be done for this to be anything other than a full-force commitment. So Alston was just going to have to resign his assistant club pro job.
Bryant had talked to some of his buddies — nobody special, just guys like Gary Player and Fuzzy Zoeller and Peter Jacobsen and Brad’s little brother, Bart, the PGA Tour player, as well as Bean and some others — and everybody was on board.
They would be matching Alston’s old salary, meaning his new fulltime job would be working toward qualifying for the Champions Tour.
“Think about it,” Bryant advised. “Talk to your wife. No pressure. But we think you can do it.”
“This is to let all our service people know how much we appreciate them and how much we care about them. Even though the checks are made out to Donny, they are written to all our American vets.”
– Brad Bryant Retelling the story recently while taking a break during another long day on the practice range, Alston shook his head and laughed, still uncertain such a wild tale could actually be true.
“I talked to my wife,” he recalled. “I said, ‘What do you think? This guy is insane, right? Truly, he’s crazy.”
“Obviously, a super-nice man, but he’s nuts.’ ”
Bryant pleads guilty. He’s absolutely, certifiably crazy about this cause.
“If he could become a really good player, it would do so much for our veterans,” Bryant said. “Especially wounded vets. So the picture is much bigger than Donny.
“This is to let all our service people know how much we appreciate them and how much we care about them. Even though the checks are made out to Donny, they are written to all our American vets.
“If he never plays a golf tournament, we’ve already had a victory because we’ve given people an opportunity to say thank you to our veterans and try to fulfill one of their dreams. And maybe it will be a challenge to other groups to do things for our veterans.”
Bean agreed from the start. Now, after playing several practice rounds with Alston, he’s more certain that ever.
“Donny served our country and had the misfortune of not coming back quite the way he left,” said Bean, an 11-time winner on the PGA Tour. “He loves golf. Anything you can do to give him a chance at a dream, shoot, that’s the least I can do.
“Whether Donny makes it or not is not what this is about. It’s about being able to help him with a dream he had. If I can somehow help make that come true, hey man, God bless him for trying.”
Even before Bryant so surprisingly popped into his life, Alston counted himself among the lucky ones.
There was plenty of self-pity and anger to start, but eventually he adjusted to life with a prosthesis. Adapt and overcome. That’s what he learned in the army. It carried him in civilian life, too.
Growing up in his dad’s golf shop, Alston always imagined one day playing on tour, but even on two good legs, it would have been long odds. So, putting his life back together after the injury and getting back into golf on the club level had become the new goal.
Now, married for 20 years to wife Angie, Alston was living happy and content in the small town of Holiday, about 50 miles north of Tampa. His assistant pro position at Fox Hollow allowed time to play and teach.
“I was perfectly happy,” he said.
Then all of a sudden, here is Bryant talking about qualifying for the Champions Tour.
“If I was going to sponsor a player right now, it wouldn’t be me,” Alston said. “But I also know the uniqueness of it is the hook. I understand the chances. Brad likes to say it’s 40,000-to-one. I think it’s more like a million-to-one.
“Whatever, it’s a long shot. But a big part of me really wanting to give this a try is the opportunity for exposure for what the troops go through. Especially the amputees. It will give me a chance to touch people I could not get to otherwise.
“My big thing is with amputees. You may think your life is over, or your life will never be what it was again. It’s true only if you let it be true. I can’t hold a candle to some of the guys I have met. Guys with both legs off. A leg and an arm and half a face. And they’re getting it done, viable members of our society.
“Don’t let your disability make your life less. Your life can be more than. It does not have to be less than.”
Angie sees the fire Bryant’s proposal has lit. She notices the fresh passion injected into an old routine.
“He’s happy when he’s playing golf,” she says. “He’s very driven and wants to accomplish things. Whatever he happens to be doing at the time, he’s driven, but if it’s not golf there’s not a light in his eyes. When it’s golf related he’s just happy. Very, very happy.”
Angie stops. She doesn’t speak the words, but still says it: OMG! This is for real.
“I thought it was the coolest things I had ever heard when Donny first told me,” she finally says. “Donny was in shock. He felt like he was dreaming.
“It almost seemed like a too-good-to-be-true type of thing, but that has not been the case at all. It’s been exactly what Brad said it would be: Fantastic.”
So, will Alston actually defy all odds and logic? Can a blue-collar assistant club professional with a prosthetic leg actually transform himself into a world-class senior player?
You can argue stranger things have happened. In the early 1990s a small-town Texas farmer named Robert Landers, showed up for qualifying school in tennis shoes and swinging home-made clubs and beat the odds.
“Well, I am a pit bull,” Alston says. “I’m very into perseverance. I have a competitive spirit. And I can putt the eyes out of it.
“So Kevin is building me a swing that I can repeat time and time again. As long as I can hit some greens, I’m going to make some putts.”
Since the grand experiment officially began in March, there has been no shortage of effort. Five days a week, no less than eight hours a day, Alston works on his game.
“I believe in God. I believe there is such a thing as fate. There’s a plan for you whether you know it or not. Maybe all these guys helping me is because I can help someone else.”
– Donny Alston “As far as his swing, technically, his leg has not posed too much of a problem yet to be honest with you,” Smeltz said. “I think as far as playing tournament conditions, I think he still has pain daily, so it’s more of an endurance factor than it is a technique factor.
“Certainly there are factors that make it more challenging, but he’s got the work ethic.”
When Alston first reported to Leadbetter Academy eight months ago for instruction from Smeltz he carried a five handicap. Now he’s a two.
“We’re trying to get his ball to go a little straighter,” Smeltz said, “but more importantly a little higher, so he can hold some of the greens in the conditions that he is striving to play in.”
Striving to play in. That’s the key phrase.
“The whole thing does sound a little off the wall,” Smeltz said. “But I’m up for the challenge. Let’s give it a shot and see what happens.”
Whatever eventually transpires, Bryant is correct about at least one thing: This is not just about Donny.
“I wanted to be the first amputee to ever be a regular playing member of a professional golf tour,” Alston said.
Now, he realizes his job might be to see that someone else does it first.
In June, PGA Tour veteran Ken Green’s lower right leg was amputated following a recreational vehicle accident in which his brother and girlfriend died.
The 51-year-old golfer recently was fitted with a prosthetic limb and is in early rehabilitation. Returning to golf, Green has said, is the motivation that is keeping him going.
“I’ve been on the phone with him a lot, just talking,” Alston said. “Brad and Andy and Ken, all those guys are buddies. I let them know if I could get with Ken and try to help him, just let me know.
“We’re going to start meeting as soon as he’s really able to get up on his prosthetic. I’m going to help him find his balance, all the little things. So, chances are I may be helping someone else be first. He’s already a member of the Champions Tour.
“But if I help Ken Green go out first, that’s fine. I believe in God. I believe there is such a thing as fate. There’s a plan for you whether you know it or not. Maybe all these guys helping me is because I can help someone else.”
And that’s not such a crazy idea.