Mac Graff never expected to become a serious golfer.
He also never expected to be learning to walk again.
But Graff took a new look at golf after becoming a paraplegic during his junior year of high school.
The Chiawana senior grew up playing baseball, basketball and football. For years, family friend Scott Bond, the boys golf coach at Chiawana, tried to convince Graff and his older brothers, Luc and Grady, to trade in their baseball bats for golf clubs.
“He had always wanted us to play golf, and we were like, ‘Uh, we’re baseball players,’ ” Graff said. “We’d golf on the weekends sometimes, but we would hit it like a baseball, and Bond would say, ‘That’s why you gotta play golf. That baseball is messing up your golf swing.’ ”
With help from his family, school and a Lakewood veterans golf course, the 18-year-old is golfing for the Chiawana Riverhawks this spring — and he’s hooked.
In September 2014, Graff was paralyzed after falling from a tree stand while hunting.
The accident happened during football season. Graff’s father, Steve, is the head coach of Chiawana’s varsity team. Mac, a starting linebacker, was also contending to start at quarterback.
The Riverhawks adopted the “Graff Strong” motto the rest of the season in support of the Graff family, and it caught on in the Tri-Cities and around Washington.
I thought, ‘Golf is a lifelong sport, so let’s try that out.’
People bought “Graff Strong” T-shirts in droves to help raise money for Graff’s medical bills. “Graff Strong” decals popped up on car windows and football helmets. On social media, the motto became #graffstrong.
“It was just amazing how many people actually wanted shirts and stuff,” Graff said. “I was like, ‘Who wants a shirt with my name on it? I mean, c’mon!’ We grew up, and we used to have shirts with our names on them. We didn’t want people walking around with our name on their shirts, so we kind of threw those shirts away, and now this happened, and we’re like, ‘Oh, it’s not that bad.’
“It was just really cool how the community came together. It was amazing. I couldn’t thank them enough.”
Taking a new path
After rehabilitating in Spokane and continuing physical therapy at home, Graff was back in a Chiawana athletic uniform several months after his accident. He took up track and field, and in May, he went to the state meet in Tacoma.
Competing against Pasco’s Brandon Stroh, Richland’s Jesse Brown and Southridge’s Asante Foner, Graff placed second in the mixed wheelchair javelin and discus throw, and third in the shot put.
But after Stroh, Brown and Foner graduated, Graff wanted a new challenge.
“I didn’t know of any other kids that were doing the throwing events,” he said. “And then I thought, ‘Golf is a lifelong sport, so let’s try that out.’ ”
Bond, Graff’s father and Chiawana athletic director John Cazier started to research ways a person in a wheelchair could golf. They found out about American Lake Veterans Golf Course, near Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The volunteer-run course, which is on the VA Puget Sound Health Care System’s American Lake campus, bills itself as “the nation’s only golf course designed specifically for the rehabilitation of wounded and disabled veterans.”
It wasn’t until he got here and I saw the enthusiasm on his face and saw that he really, really wanted this that we decided to make an exception to help out and loan a SoloRider (cart) to a non-veteran.
Bruce McKenty of American Lake Veterans Golf Course
Graff traveled to Tacoma in February with Cazier and his son, Cayden, to watch the Chiawana wrestlers at the state tournament. That weekend, they headed down to American Lake.
“It wasn’t until he got here and I saw the enthusiasm on his face and saw that he really, really wanted this that we decided to make an exception to help out and loan a SoloRider (cart) to a non-veteran,” course manager Bruce McKenty said.
The course also sent Graff home with clubs and range balls.
“They’re just a great organization, and I’m very grateful that they did that for me,” said Graff, who plans to donate to the course in exchange for keeping the cart.
He’s got (golf) game
Graff drives the cart with hand controls, and the seat turns to the side so he can swing while sitting. A lap belt keeps Graff buckled in, and he leans forward into a strap that goes across his chest so he can reach the ball with his club.
“I feel like I’m a better golfer now than I was before,” Graff said. “Before, I could hit it forever, but I was slicing, and it curves way off. That was my baseball swing in me. Now I actually hit it straight. I don’t hit it as far, but I hit it straight. What they call it is you play ‘old man golf.’ You hit it a couple times, and then you putt it in. You just keep it on the fairway; you’re not in the rough or in the trees. That’s what I try to do.”
There are some limitations with the cart. Graff can’t turn it on the putting green, so he has to back up and come in at the right angle. If he were to hit the ball into the sand, which he did once, he would drop it and take a stroke penalty.
Before, I could hit it forever, but I was slicing, and it curves way off. That was my baseball swing in me. Now I actually hit it straight. I don’t hit it as far, but I hit it straight. What they call it is you play ‘old man golf.’
His time on the baseball diamond has helped him on the golf course.
“Now, since he’s in his chair, it’s all hands,” Bond said. “He has good hands from being a baseball player. It’s a lot more controlled than when he was able-bodied.”
Graff got his first taste of golf competition during the Kennewick Dual at the Tri-City Country Club before spring break. He shot a 106 on the par-65 course.
“That course is a little difficult,” said Graff, who practices with the Chiawana team at Pasco Golfland and Sun Willows Golf Course. “But it was really fun, and my teammates that were there with me are just amazing. They helped me out.”
Bond says he would like to see Graff get into a league competition, known as a pod. Graff will have to be one of the top six golfers on the team to qualify.
“I obviously gotta step up my game a little bit, but if I think if I just stay focused and keep practicing, I think I’ll be all right,” Graff said. “That would be awesome to really compete against other guys. And even if they put me out there just to be out there, I’m totally fine with that too.”
While Graff is working hard on his golf game, he’s also a Running Start student at Columbia Basin College and doing physical therapy three times a week. He tries to get around with his walker a little each day and says he has “patches of feeling” in his legs. In June, he will travel to Craig Hospital in Colorado to be evaluated by a spinal cord injury expert.
Graff doesn’t know what his future holds, but he firmly believes golf will be a part of it.
“No doubt about it,” he said. “My grandma and grandpa still play it to this day.”