NCGA Golf

Spring 2019

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Q uick, who is the most dominant golfer ever to come out of Northern California? Johnny Miller is a strong choice. Juli Inkster might have a better case. On the amateur level, Randy Haag also has a compelling argument. But the right answer is probably M.J. McColgan. For a solid decade, beginning at the turn of the cen- tury, M.J. was simply unbeatable, racking up 48 gold medals and three national championships through the Special Olympics. M.J. also won nine straight North- ern California Special Olympic State Championships held at Haggin Oaks in Sacramento. He stepped away from competition at age 27, his favorite line being, "I heard Bobby Jones retired at 28 and I wanted to beat him." Though he has had success playing across the United States, the 36-year-old M.J., who has cerebral palsy, has always taken pride in his Northern California roots. "This is where he learned the game and learned to compete," says M.J.'s father Mike. The effects of cerebral palsy always made walking difficult but M.J. simply found a way – in Little League baseball he was a reliable catcher. As he got more seri- ous about golf in his teens, M.J. was forced to play out of a cart, but in his family physical limitations are treated as only a mild inconvenience. Linda McColgan always told her son, "Focus on your ability, not your disability." M.J. built a reliable swing by haunting the range at Blackhawk Country Club. "If you want to be good you have to work at it," he says. But what set him apart from the competition was his fierce determination. "He just has that thing you can't teach," Mike says. "You can't teach heart. There were so many times that M.J. made an 8- or 10- or 12-footer on the last hole to win. I can hardly recall him ever missing a putt that mattered. He was like Tiger in that he could find a different gear when he had to do it." The game took M.J. all over the world, competing in places such as China, Greece and Ireland. Gregari- ous and well-spoken, he naturally became an advocate for athletes with mobility issues, leading to an official relationship with the non-profit Wheelchair Founda- tion, which recently gave away its one millionth wheel- chair, having outfitted people in need around the world. In fact, in retirement M.J. is busier than ever. He has written (along with his dad) five books, including Walking 18 Holes with Tiger, about a pilgrimage to the 2006 Masters. He volunteers with the Dublin police department and is heavily involved with the local Rotary chapter. Every January, M.J. organizes a blood drive through the Red Cross that has become so pop- ular this year the organizers had to turn people away. The difficulty of navigating the uneven terrain of a golf course ultimately forced M.J. to walk away from competition but he still likes to be around the game. He is a fixture at various pro-ams and has become friendly with many of the accomplished jocks who frequent them. "It's a neat deal," Mike says, "because by now all of these guys know M.J.'s story. They know what he accomplished as a competitor and so there is a mutual respect. They see him as one of them." That is the essence of M.J.'s life: excellence and inclusion. He once told his dad, "I just want people to think of me as a golfer." They surely do, but with a life well lived, M.J. is so much more than that. Alan Shipnuck is a senior writer for Golf Magazine and columnist at Golf.com. He lives in Carmel. 22 SPRING 2019 | NCGA.ORG O N T H E B E A T A Golfer As Good As Gold BY ALAN SHIPNUCK "Once, we were competing in alternate shot and I asked M.J. if I should lay up on a hole that required a shot over water. He looked at me and said, 'Dad, we didn't come here to lay up.'" —Mike McColgan on M.J.'s fighting spirit

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