Paralysis doesn’t keep Overland Park golfer from game he loves
By RYAN YOUNG
The Kansas City Star 7/12/07
It’s nearing the end of yet another round for Phil Miller, but this is not his typical finish. He says it’s the worst hole he’s played since … well, since golf took on an entirely different meaning to him. Miller takes five shots getting over the creek on the par-5 16th hole at St. Andrews Golf Club in Overland Park, a sixth shot to reach the fringe and a seventh to put the ball on the green. He asks the marshal if he’s even allowed to mark down such a ghastly number — 4 over par — on his scorecard. “Well, what’s your handicap?” the marshal asks.
Here’s the thing about Miller, a 73-year-old Overland Park resident, though. Nothing dampens his attitude on the golf course. So he doesn’t hesitate with his deadpan response. “Paralysis up to here,” he says, pointing just below his chest and eliciting a smile from the marshal. That’s the other thing about Miller.
Life changed in 1978 when, at age 44, he lost the use of his lower body. He says the paralysis is the result of a medical error — a poorly administered spinal tap that severed the motor nerves (but not the sensory nerves). But he doesn’t complain. He doesn’t dwell on the past, at least not outwardly. He just enjoys the things he can do —like golf, which he does very well.
On the course, he finds at least some of that normalcy he lost nearly 30 years ago. With a specialized golf cart to accommodate his disability and a superlative short game to compensate for his lack of distance off the tee, Miller hits the links three or four times a week. His scoring average over the last few years is an 86, he says, and in April he recorded his second hole in one — on the par-3 third hole at Overland Park Golf Club’s Westlinks course.
“For a guy that had everything taken away from him, to be able to get out, compete and be on equal footing with guys that can walk is everything for him. Everything,” says Kendall Miller, who is 52 and Phil’s oldest son. “It’s a way for him to still compete, not just on the golf course but in life.” Miller is hesitant to give his final score that day at St. Andrews. But, then again, it doesn’t really matter. “Score is secondary,” he says. “I’m such a competitor, I don’t like it to be secondary, but realistically it is secondary.”
Miller’s handshake is as strong as ever, a reminder of his athletic past. He was a reserve quarterback at Missouri before transferring to play his last three years of college football at William Jewell. He became the head football coach at Liberty High School and later the head coach at Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kan. He was always active, Kendall remembers. In the summers Miller would paint houses and run cattle, anything to provide for his family. “There was just no quit in his motor,” Kendall says. “That guy was just a workaholic and I don’t mean maybe — 24-7, that guy just never stopped.”
Until he started feeling ill in April 1978. Kendall remembers being at his parents’ house for his dad’s birthday party. Miller, who was rarely sick, felt so weak he needed to be helped to his car. It was the first time he could recall being admitted to a hospital. He didn’t think it was a big deal, though. He just figured he had the flu. “I didn’t want to miss work, so I wanted to go in and get a shot to knock the fever,” he says. Instead, they kept him overnight for observation. The next day a doctor performed the spinal tap. And over the next four weeks the paralysis slowly spread. “It’s like killing the root of a tree,” Miller says. “It took a while for the rest of the nerves to die.” The paralysis stopped spreading once it got just below Miller’s chest. The doctor, Miller says, initially told him the nerves should regenerate within two years. But Miller now believes it was just a cover against legal action and a way to stall until the statute of limitations expired.
It was the first in a series of devastating events for the Millers. He had to leave his job as a banker because of the disability, and the medical bills put a financial strain on the family. Then in 1985, the youngest of their six children, Joe, died in a car accident shortly before finishing at Kansas State. “To have all that taken away from you is just devastating. Most guys would have given up, and he never did,” Kendall Miller says. “Not only did he not give up, he came back stronger. … You won’t find a bigger inspiration in human courage than my father.” Kendall, who plays with his father every Sunday, says, “Golf is just an expression for him to get out and conquer life.”
About a year into the paralysis, Miller was having dinner with his brother Frank, who had an idea.“I thought he was joking,” Miller says. “He said, ‘Let’s get you back on the golf course.’ I was in my wheelchair having dinner, and I’m thinking, ‘How’s that going to happen?’” Frank wasn’t joking. He spent $20,000 designing a specialized golf cart and seeing it through to creation. The next obstacle was convincing golf courses that this cart wouldn’t cause any damage. Initially, the only course that would permit Miller and his cart was Claycrest Golf Club in Liberty. He started out playing once a week. “It was just like somebody gave him wings, and he was free again,” says his wife, Maggie.
Miller doesn’t have any trouble getting onto courses now. He plays every Thursday morning in a men’s league at Overland Park Golf Club, every other Wednesday in a Senior Golf Association league and every Sunday with Kendall and whoever else can come along And he’s usually practicing “all points in between.” “A more dedicated golfer, you will never find. He is something else,” says Mike Houghton, who also plays in those Thursday morning outings and was in Miller’s group to witness his most recent hole in one. “If I had to go through all of that to play golf, I’m not sure I would — and I love to play golf.”
Miller had to retire his brother’s golf cart three years ago, but the new one works just fine. To hit a shot, he’ll drive the cart next to the ball, swivel the seat to the right so his legs are in front of him and then use a lever to tilt the chair until he’s in a standing position. A seatbelt across his waist holds him in place. His arms do the rest. While distance is not his strength, accuracy is. His tee shots almost always find the fairway, and his chipping is precise. Once the ball is on the green, he takes an automatic 2-putt. Sometimes, if he’s close to the pin, he’ll let another golfer putt for him.
And then there are those times when a putt isn’t necessary. Like the shot he hit with a 3-wood at Overland Park in April. It landed short of the pin, caught a nice roll left to right and ran into the cup for the hole in one. He hit his first hole in one in 2001 at Prairie Highlands in Olathe. “He’s an inspiration. It’s just that simple,” says Forest Hanna, a retired judge and one of Miller’s regular playing partners. “He inspires you because he gets out and does something he wants to do and nothing’s going to stand in the way. … You’ll see people standing on the other tees just looking with kind of that disbelief. You can tell how inspired they are by it.”
Miller was at Sycamore Ridge Golf Course in Spring Hill this week with his every-other-Wednesday group. His foursome was playing a two-man scramble, in which both golfers on a team hit from the spot of whoever had the best shot. On the par-4 fourth hole, Miller drops a nice chip shot onto the green and then watches from afar as his partner, Roland Schockweiler, sinks the par putt. “That’s my partner!” Miller says, clapping. Perhaps the only thing more consistent than his drives finding the fairway is Miller’s perpetual smile. I wish other guys would have half of the attitude that he’s got,” said Schockweiler, who had never played with Miller before Wednesday. “I’d play with him any time.”
The group is stopped on the way to the next hole by the cart girl, who asks Miller how they’re playing. “Oh, we’re red hot,” he responds. “The only problem is that sometimes we forget the objective of the game.” Moments later he hits a beautiful tee shot onto the green of the par-3 fifth hole. None of the other three players’ tee shots finds the green.
“I don’t even have to hit after that,” says Schockweiler, who plays Miller’s ball and two-putts for another par. The pair will card an 88 after a strong finish. But, then again, it’s never really been about the numbers on the scorecard.
To reach Ryan Young, sports reporter for The Star, call 816-234-7747 or send e-mail to email@example.com
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