Grants Pass Golfer Plays Through Handicap

Don Balsiger of Grants Pass, Ore., truly understands the word handicap when it comes to golf. The 49-year-old plays as a double amputee.

Balsiger lost both arms from the elbow down in a terrible accident in 1987. While working as a commercial painter in Klamath Falls, he was on a roof painting a bank when an aluminum pole he was holding brushed against a 12,000-volt power line. Besides causing severe electrical burns, the shock caused him to fall four stories.

He was taken to Legacy Emanuel Hospital in Portland where he spent five-and-a-half weeks in the burn unit. Doctors took his left arm two days after the accident and removed the right arm 27 days later. Both arms were amputated nine inches below the elbow. Making matters worse, Balsiger suffered severe burns to both legs. He lost all of the skin from his knee to his groin on his left leg and 5 percent of the thigh muscle in the same leg. Seven skin grafts were needed to repair the damage. Six months after being admitted into Legacy Emanuel, Balsiger was fitted with prosthetics for his arms.

In a March 24, 2007 interview with reporter Deena Manning of the Grants Pass Daily Courier, Balsiger said, "Being in a hospital, I wanted to make the stay as short as possible. It still is a hard transition because you never get over losing your hands."

But Balsiger feels he's lucky. "I guess God wasn't done with me . . . I'm here to spend time with my family and the people around me. They make the whole difference in the world."

After losing the use of his hands, Balsiger, who'd played golf for 20 years before the accident, thought his days on the links were over. However, a friend and welder, Tad Ringulet, came up with a way to get Balsiger back on the course. He created a device by welding a piece of pipe through Balsiger's prosthetic on his left arm. The device was measured to fit all the shafts on Balsiger's clubs.

Though unable to drive the ball as far as he could before the accident, Balsiger has developed an outstanding short game. His best nine-hole score is a 42 and his worst a 56. Like all the rest of us weekend hackers, he struggles with consistency.

"I'm not a scratch golfer. Hands and wrists play a huge part in the swing and I don't have any of that," he told Manning. "Consequently, I don't have as much club-head speed. Golf's a tough game and that's part of the reason I enjoy it so much."

Fellow golfers are impressed with Balsiger's fortitude, which was also tested by a serious break in his right leg in another accident. "He's absolutely incredible and has the greatest attitude. It's amazing how he's adapted," said John Beck, who plays with Balsiger in the men's league at Applegate River Golf Club. "I was in awe when I first saw him play. He just loves golf."

As with any other group of golfing friends, Balsiger receives his fair share of digs. Many Applegate regulars call him "Hook" or "Hooks," but he doesn't mind the ribbing. "They can call me whatever they like, but I will definitely call them a few things. I don't have a problem expressing myself on a golf course," he said.

In addition to golf, Balsiger, who's unable to return to work and is on a fixed income of disability and Social Security, has other sporting interests. He regularly fishes for steelhead and salmon, and tackles the lower Rogue River every summer in his 18-foot paddle raft.

"I'm okay with who I am and what I look like, but it didn't happen overnight," Balsiger admitted to Manning. "I've never given up and I am proud of myself for that."