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Fowler: Lincoln Charter amputee golfer Eli Hager both ordinary, extraordinary

By Scott Fowler
sfowler@charlotteobserver.com
Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.

ALEXIS - Eli Hager is an ordinary golfer in many ways. He has trouble with his putting. The ball doesn’t always go where he wants it to off the tee. He has particular issues with a downhill lie.

One of the many extraordinary things about Eli, however, is that he is a double amputee who plays – and plays well – on an able-bodied middle school golf team in Lincoln County.

Eli, 14, is an eighth-grader at Lincoln Charter School. He is on his 20th set of prosthetic legs because he keeps outgrowing them. The downhill lies are a problem because of the limited number of ways in which the prosthetics can bend.

But Eli has shot as low as 42 for nine holes. And he can occasionally knock a drive close to 300 yards despite having to generate all the power with his upper body.

“Now whether it goes straight or not is another story,” Eli said.

This is a week in which many of the world’s best golfers will converge on Charlotte for the annual Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow. Eli plays the same game at a far lower level than those pros. But he dreams of one day playing in the Masters, just like young golfers do everywhere.

Eli would be the first to admit that dream is a long way off. While he was the MVP of his middle-school team as a seventh-grader, he said his game has regressed a little this year and that he is no longer among the team’s top three players.

Still, Eli is out there playing and sometimes starting – part of a team of otherwise able-bodied teenagers who long ago accepted him as one of them. The only concession made for his metallic legs is that he rides in a golf cart between shots, although he has occasionally walked the course when a cart wasn’t available.

Said Lincoln Charter middle school golf coach Steve Hall: “Eli has been a pleasure to coach – a ‘yes-sir, no-sir’ kind of kid who is just so focused. From where I stand, he’s one amazing individual.”

Amputation at nine months

Eli was born with a genetic defect that has shown up in some form every few generations on his father’s side of the family. He was missing the tibia bone in both legs. Walking on his own would not be an option, doctors told his parents, without a countless number of surgeries – and maybe not even then. Or his parents could choose to have his defective legs amputated just above the knees and then teach him how to use prosthetic legs.

They chose the latter route. The Hagers’ surgeon performed the amputation when Eli was 9 months old, before he had ever tried to walk.

“It wasn’t a hard decision after we did a lot of research on it,” said Bonny Hager, Eli’s mother. “He would have had to have hundreds of surgeries to keep his legs. Now he has no idea what it was like to have lower legs. But the only thing it has really stopped him from doing is dancing.”

Eli is a fine golfer but an even better trick water skier. He practices regularly on Lake Norman and is good enough that he will compete in Milan, Italy, for a disabled water skiing team representing the U.S. in late August. He has also twice completed the “Cycle to the Sea” at ages 11 and 12, riding 180 miles on a bicycle controlled with hand movements over a three-day period from the Charlotte area to Myrtle Beach.

“Eli is a confident kid,” said Daniel Schmitz, the athletic director at Lincoln Charter. “He’s got an air about him. He knows what he wants to do and he is very focused about doing it. He’s very smart, really good at math, very artistic – he’s got so many different talents.”

On a recent Sunday at his church, Eli was asked to give the sermon. Curious about what he would say, I attended.

If you’ve ever been to a Youth Sunday, you know that the messages brought by the kids are usually shorter and simpler than those preached by adults.

Not for Eli. He preached a 32-minute sermon on Ecclesiastes, speaking with a maturity beyond his years about adult topics like overwork and the desire for things you don’t need.

“My bedroom is packed with stuff,” he said. “But I still want to buy more stuff – even though I have no money. If it weren’t for the commercials on TV, I might be OK.”

Eli’s prosthetic legs were covered that day by his dark suit. He looked tall and skinny – he weighs 130 pounds “with my legs on,” as he said, and stands 6 feet. Doctors judge what size his prosthetics should be by his fingertip-to-fingertip wingspan, which for most people roughly matches their height.

The only way you might have noticed something was different about his gait was when he went up some stairs stiff-legged or the slight squeaking noise a couple of the mechanical parts made when he later returned to his seat.

“Now I know that I’m not an old man,” Eli told the group of 120 worshipers that day at Mount Zion Baptist Church. “I’m only 14. But when I look around the world today, I know that I don’t want tomorrow to end up the way it’s heading now.”

Eli also talked about what he said are the most important parts of his own life: God, family and friends. He never mentioned his legs.

A true home course

While Eli has some physical disadvantages, he mostly ignores them.

“I don’t consider myself handicapped,” he said.

And as far as golf is concerned, he has one big advantage – a true home course.

Along with two older brothers, Eli grew up on a family farm located on the Gaston-Lincoln County line. Decades ago, his family carved a par-3, 15-hole golf course out of part of their land. They call it “White Oak Golf Course” and it is open to the public. Greens fees range from $7 to $15 and are paid on the honor system.

White Oak is where Eli learned to play the game. He can walk out his front door and practice anytime.

“The only downside is we don’t have the equipment to make the greens fast,” Eli said. “So here it’s like you putt on gravel. At the bigger golf courses, it’s like you are putting on linoleum floors. That’s a tough transition.”

Eli wants to eventually be an engineer. Fascinated by how things work, he once made himself a set of legs just to see whether he could do it.

The eighth-grader does have a wheelchair and occasionally uses it, like on a school field trip to Washington, D.C. Most of the time, though, he simply wears his prosthetics – strapping them on after his shower in the morning and not taking them off until he goes to bed at night.

Eli had a short-lived stint in wheelchair basketball. But his parents (Eric, who works for the town of Huntersville as public works supervisor, and Bonny, a teaching assistant and bus driver at Eli’s school) decided he was becoming too dependent on it. They pulled him out of the sport.

So now he sticks mostly to water skiing and golf. He understands golf is often a game of coping with failure but likes it enough that he will continue playing in high school.

“When I mess up, I might beat myself up a little,” Eli said. “But I try not to get frustrated or overly mad. I believe you’ve got to be calm and respectful, whether you’re playing well or not. That’s just a good way to be.”

Scott Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler. For more on Eli, visit the “Scott Says” blog at ScottFowlerObs.blogspot.com.
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