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Kyle Miller, golfer with cerebral palsy, makes history

Kyle Miller, who is about to become the first golfer with cerebral palsy to compete at a PGA Tour-sanctioned event, practices at the Country Hill golf club in Calgary, Alta., on Aug. 9, 2017.

Jeff McIntosh/Jeff McIntosh

When he tees up Thursday with his eye on history, he won't be thinking of the rusty putter he found in the family garage, the childhood link to the game he believes saved his life. He won't be thinking either of the kindly teaching pro who took him in or the 14 surgeries he underwent to rebuild his left hand and rotate his left leg, operations that left him with permanent numbness along the left side of his body.

Instead, Kyle Miller's thoughts will be as honed as a scalpel's edge: head down, alignment set. Ready on the downswing for his body to shift to its numbed side. Finish in a position he describes as a matter "of trust and commitment to the shot."

It is how Miller has made himself into a defying force – the first golfer with cerebral palsy to compete at a PGA Tour-sanctioned event, the ATB Financial Classic at the Country Hills Golf Club in his hometown of Calgary. Yes, he is playing on a sponsors' exemption, the last of eight awarded by the tournament's director. And yes, he will be hard pressed to make the cut, let alone claim an event on a developmental tour that counts PGA pros Mike Grob and Graham DeLaet of Weyburn, Sask., as previous winners.

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But the true measure of the man is not how well Miller hits a golf ball but how far he has come. Suffering a stroke after being born a month early, he has struggled with muscle movement and co-ordination, tone and reflex. And yet he never let his curled left hand or the way he limped on his toes stifle his dreams, not when he was willing to put so much physical and mental effort into them.

"What kept me going was that I always reminded myself that if I ever achieved my dreams and goals, I was going to inspire however many thousands of people behind me," he says of his pursuit. "If I quit, I thought of that as me being selfish and giving up on all those people. I look nowadays at all the kids with disabilities who believe in themselves and look at me … they think I'm Tiger Woods. I've done my job. I've already won the game so many times over."

Miller, 26, passed the PGA Playing Ability Test four years ago, thereby earning his professional stripes. He's also a professional instructor at GOLFTEC, with 8,000 lessons under his belt, by his estimation. His presence on a fairway has become less a curiosity and more a tribute to the trust and commitment it took for him to overcome so many formidable obstacles in his life.

As he tells his story, he readily acknowledges, "You'd think I came from a very supportive family. I didn't." What he came from was a dysfunctional home, with a birth mother he felt was neglectful and a father who wasn't above beating his handicapped son.

Miller's surrogate dad is Calgary golf pro Marty Desmarais, a former minor-league hockey player who once roomed with John Brophy and is friends with Don Cherry. Miller had first taken to the idea of playing golf when he found an old putter in a garage and used it to hit plastic balls around the house. At the age of 11, he hobbled into the Inglewood Golf Club with a bag and three clubs and a question for Desmarais: Would he teach Miller how to play? When Desmarais said yes, Miller cried. He'd been told by two other pros he'd never amount to much in golf.

Charmed by the kid's commitment, Desmarais was angered when Miller showed up at Inglewood one day with a black eye.

"We got in the car and I drove over to his place. His father was a biker and a drinker," Desmarais says. "I told him, 'You do not treat this boy the way you treat him.' We packed up Kyle's clothes and he lived with me."

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Along the way, Miller underwent a series of surgeries designed to correct his left hand and leg, which was broken so that it could be rotated, reset and rehabilitated. Miller recalls how a doctor marvelled at his recovery and asked his mom what Kyle was doing. Told he was playing golf, the doctor replied, "Keep him playing. It's saving his life." (The lifespan of CP sufferers depends on such factors as the number and severity of impairments, mobility issues, seizures and cognitive functioning. People with CP can live from 30 to 70 years.) Still, there were doubters who saw a young man setting himself up for disappointment.

"They used to look at me with sympathy – 'It's good to have really big dreams and aspirations, Kyle.' But in the next breath they warned me not to dream too big in case it didn't happen. For some reason that was going to mentally break me," he says. "That's the unfortunate side to people's outlook on life. That's why the average person shoots 100. They're too scared to dream. Are you kidding me? There's no such thing as dreaming too big."

Colin Lavender wasn't sure of Miller's game, even though Miller has been playing everywhere possible for years. As the ATB Financial Classic tournament director, Lavender was contacted by Miller, who asked if he could receive a sponsors' exemption. Lavender listened to Miller's story and watched him play.

"He doesn't hit it long but he has an exceptional short game. It was good to see how he can handle a club. He has a really good swing. He can play," Lavender says. "Everyone from the PGA Tour, from the top on down, is watching."

Miller has all the right people in his corner now, from Desmarais to Sean Foley, a coach who once worked with Tiger Woods, to his partner, Momoko Hirata. Whatever happens in the first two days at his Mackenzie Tour debut, Miller has indeed already won. Trust and commitment have taken him to history's doorstep. He knows how remarkable that sounds.

"Twenty-plus years of chasing this, the odds of somebody becoming a golf professional is less than one per cent," he says. "And the odds of someone with CP becoming a golf professional? I'm still figuring out how many zeroes I'm supposed to add."

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Go inside day one of Master golf for amateurs, Jon Roy's summer program that uses sports psychology to help golfers address their ego and anxieties. The Globe and Mail
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