Leo Millar: Drive at the Heart of All He Does

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11-year-old Leo Millar aims to be a future golf champion.

Photographs courtesy of Ian Millar.

Leo Millar was born without a right hand, but that hasn't stopped the 11-year-old from becoming a brown belt in karate or becoming a masterful skateboarder. It also didn't stop the young man from Poole, Hampshire, United Kingdom, from learning how to play golf at nine years old.

Leo had been mainly interested in skateboarding and working his way toward a black belt, says his father Ian Millar, until a long weekend stay with his family a few years ago at a golf and country club. It was there that Leo and his dad watched members play, Millar recalls. After observing, Leo asked his father if he could learn to play golf, a sport he knew Millar had played well from an early age.

"As a family, we have never allowed [Leo's lack of a hand] to be an excuse not to succeed at anything." Millar says. "He is very individually minded and does not let the fact that he has only one hand hinder him."

Millar says he will be the first to tell anyone that his family is "very lucky" to have the prosthetic services of Bob Watts and his team at Dorset Orthopaedic, Ringwood Hants, Hampshire, to help their son. Watts, a prosthetist who studied production engineering before going into the O&P profession in 1976, established Dorset Orthopaedic in 1989. He has been the owner and managing director since the business opened 23 years ago.

Leo’s congenital transradial amputation has never stopped him from pursuing his dream of becoming a professional golfer.

Watts helps Leo adjust his silicone partial-hand golf prosthesis.

Leo adjusts his grip as he prepares to take a practice swing.

Leo’s new technique with his prosthesis allows him to drive the ball more than 225 yards.

Watts says he knew Leo and his father before the boy's desire to play golf emerged. Millar originally came to Dorset Orthopaedic in November 2010 for Watts' help in designing a device that would allow Leo to hold a stick while performing a karate kata, a detailed pattern of movements practiced either solo or in pairs. Millar sought Dorset's assistance because Leo's local National Health Service (NHS) Disablement Services Centre said it could not help because it feared Leo might hurt other children while performing his kata, according to Watts.

"[The device] we made worked well for Leo," Watts says. "So his dad wanted to know if we could help Leo by designing a golfing appliance."

Watts says and he and his Dorset team "love a challenge, so the golfing appliance was duly designed."

In order to tee off and drive the ball far, Leo would need a good, strong grip that would allow him to swing his club with both hands. The first step in designing a device for Leo was to determine how much movement was needed, Watts explains. He adds that this was the Dorset team's greatest challenge, as a great range of motion on multiple planes with resistance is needed when swinging a golf club. The initial prototype designs were working in about three weeks. Some of the initial challenges included keeping the device from sliding off when Leo would swing his club, he says.

"Problems designing the right device were overcome by thinking outside the box and putting together an inventive development team," Watts says.

Dorset ultimately provided Leo with a fully customized prosthesis—a silicone sleeve with a partial-hand golfing appliance that was designed to fit easily onto his wrist with the aid of a Velcro strap, Watts says. When Leo selects a specific club as he makes his way along the links, he slides his right hand into a handle holder on the silicone sleeve, which rotates 90 degrees as he swings. Leo's prosthesis was designed to last until he grows out of it, which will be about a year or so by Watts' estimate.

Leo played golf for about three months without anything on his hand before receiving the tailored prosthesis from Dorset, his father says. Because he showed such proficiency for the sport, his family decided that golf lessons would also help him progress to the next level. David Miles, the head golf professional at Knighton Heath Golf Club, just north of Poole, met Leo and his father for Leo's first lesson in May 2011. Miles says his first impression of Leo was how enthusiastic he was to learn to play golf. Miles says he was aware Leo had a "disability" before meeting him, but what he did not expect to see was such a "sound-looking golf swing at his early age."

"[His swing] had been adapted to work using one hand," says Miles, who has been a professional golfer since 1999. "His swing would appear from a distance to work using both hands and to anyone who watched, it would appear to be a normal swing."

Miles says that when they first met, Leo's technique was to grip with his left hand and support the club with his right arm. "It was apparent from the start that Leo had created this action all on his own," he says.

Once Leo started using his new prosthesis, his golf swing improved immediately, and he was able to square up to the clubface, Miles says. "Then we worked hard on the swing plane and his swing improved quickly," he says. According to Millar, with his new prosthesis, Leo has already taken his golf game to the next level. He is now able to complete a full swing with two arms and is consistently able to drive the ball more than 225 yards.

Miles says that he and Leo's father decided that given Leo's potential, he would benefit more if he could train with the club's junior players. "It took several months of one-on-one lessons to give Leo the confidence to hold his own among the juniors," Miles says.

Leo not only held his own with the juniors, he also held his own in August when he played in the Junior Disabled British Open at East Sussex National and was the runner up. It was only the second time Leo had played the tournament, Millar says. Leo finished the competition seven points behind the winner of the annual event, a young man three years his senior who has cerebral palsy.

Watts says the device has served Leo's golf game well. "Leo would have never been able to play at a competitive level without this device," he says. "It completely changes his life."

For now, Leo has set his goal of getting his black belt in karate aside so he can concentrate on continuing to improve his golf game and someday become a professional golfer, Millar says.

Miles is confident Leo can reach that elite level, as well as make it to the summer Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, South America, in less than four years. "If Leo continues to work hard on his game and maintain the level of enthusiasm he currently shows, then I am very hopeful," Miles says. "We keep forgetting that Leo is only 11 and his current progress finishing runner up in the Junior Disabled British Open is only the first of many fine results that Leo will achieve. Our next goal is to make Rio in 2016."

Betta Ferrendelli is a freelance writer based in Denver, Colorado.

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