Lighting the Flame: Getting Started in Special Olympics Golf

By: Marcus King

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of articles written by Marcus King, a PGA professional who's now the general manager of Sand Point Country Club in Seattle. In this initial article, Marcus describes how he got involved with the Special Olympics program and eventually became the PGA Coach of the U.S. Special Olympics Golf Team. His role recently culminated when he took the American team to Shanghai, China to compete in the 2007 Special Olympics World Games.

I began my Special Olympics odyssey back in 1995 when fellow PGA golf professional Pete Guzzo, then the head pro at Jefferson Park Golf Course, asked if I would help out with an event at Fort Lewis. I did and ended up having a great time. I got to know some of the athletes heading to the Special Olympics World Games in Connecticut that year. I also attended a PGA seminar on golf instruction for special-needs populations, which was taught by the legendary Conrad Rehling, and from then on my Special Olympics flame was lit.

Fast forward to 2005. While serving as the general manager and director of golf at Fairwood Golf & Country Club, a member named Jackie Booth approached me and asked if the club would be willing to start, host and support a Special Olympics golf team. I was thrilled to be able to say "yes!" after our open-minded Golf Committee and enthusiastic Board of Trustees voted unanimously to undertake this special community outreach project. Fairwood has come a long way positioning itself as a progressive family-oriented golf club. Their annual community outreach efforts are the strongest of any club in the Puget Sound area and the members are a very kind, compassionate, generous lot. It was unprecedented for a private club to undertake an effort like this and I was so proud and grateful to be part of it.

To qualify to be in the Special Olympics program, an athlete must have an "intellectual disability" which is pegged to the intelligence-quotient scale. A doctor must certify the disability and then application must be made to the local Special Olympics organization. Once accepted, an athlete can choose from a wide range of sports such as aquatics, bocce, bowling, power-lifting, softball, cycling, athletics, gymnastics, and golf. The program has grown to include millions of athletes around the world, including some 550,000 in the United States, plus the thousands of coaches and caregivers and staff members and sponsors who support the Special Olympics cause.

Jackie Booth was the sparkplug and pilot light for our little golf team. She is a very special, warm-hearted person and full of positive energy. Although a pretty good golfer, she spent most of her Special Olympics efforts in coaching aquatics. She was able to recruit a few swimmers and some Fairwood members who also had some family members with intellectual disabilities. From that humble beginning, we were able to start our own golf team in May 2005. It was always a lot of fun being around her, as she commanded quite the presence with her diminutive frame, a distinctively penetrating voice, a home-honed golf swing that appeared to emanate from an unknown epicenter, and a passion for always doing the right thing. To this day, I love Jackie and respect her tremendously.

After way too many hot dogs and Cokes and Ding-Dongs, the athletes decided to christen our team the Fairwood Flyers. We would meet twice a week during the golf season and train for the regional and state games, which were coming up at the end of August. From that moment, the Fairwood Flyers were born.

So that's how I got started. Since then, it's been a very rewarding journey. I've always felt that I've taken much more than I have given. In meeting with other coaches and volunteers, this seems to be a common theme as we all are striving to make the athletes' experience in Special Olympics memorable and potentially life-changing.

PGA member Marcus King lives in North Bend, Wash., and is the proud father of two teenagers. He currently serves as the President of the Western Washington PGA and as a Director on the Pacific Northwest PGA Board. Marcus caddied throughout his childhood at Seattle Golf Club and earned an Evans Scholarship to the University of Washington, where he graduated in 1986 with a degree in Political Science. He has served as a golf professional at Inglewood Golf Club, West Seattle Golf Course, Jefferson Park Golf Course, Jackson Park Golf Course, the TPC at Snoqualmie Ridge, Wolf Creek Resort in Utah, Fairwood Golf & Country Club, and now serves the membership at Sand Point Country Club as the General Manager. Marcus has extensive community outreach experience including the American Cancer Society, Children's Hospital and Medical Center, Metro Citizen's Advisory Board, King County Superior Court Diversion Program, and the PGA's Golf in Schools and Inner City Youth programs. Marcus conducted a highly successful junior golf program at Jackson Park Golf Course and has been a junior golf advocate for over 20 years. His current passion is with the Special Olympics golf program and he recently completed service as the PGA Coach to the United States Special Olympics Golf Team that competed in Shanghai, China for the Special Olympics World Games. He trains the Washington State Special Olympics golf coaches and is currently re-writing the golf instruction manual using a new methodology. During the holidays, Marcus also serves as a volunteer Santa Claus.