Special Olympics golfer Oliver Doherty is back on course

Irish Special Olympics golfer Oliver Doherty tees off at the Harding Golf Course in Los Angeles in the second round of World Games golf. When Doherty was young, bullies broke his left hand and all four fingers, derailing his promising career. Tim Rasmussen/ESPN

LOS ANGELES -- There are times when Oliver Doherty wonders what might have been. Would he be a tour player? The Open champion? He tries not to spend much time on such thoughts, but when you have endured what he has, they are inevitable.

Doherty, 39, of Buncrana, Ireland, is a two-time medalist at the highest level of golf contested in the Special Olympics World Games. He won gold in Dublin in 2003, then silver in Shanghai in 2007. Wednesday, Doherty shot the lowest round of his Special Olympics career, a 2-under masterpiece on the Harding Course in Griffith Park. It followed a 3-over letdown the day before, but if his life has taught him anything, it is how to bounce back from a bad break -- and keep faith in himself.

Doherty was born in Dublin to a 22-year-old mother who wasn't ready to raise a child. Her parents forced her to give him up for adoption. That's the story she told him many years later, when he finally met her. A retired nurse and part-time firefighter who worked as a bouncer at a local night club adopted him.

During Doherty's birth, he got stuck in his mother's womb, and when the doctor pulled his head out with forceps, the pressure damaged the right side of his brain and temporarily paralyzed the left side of his body. His left hand never regained full strength.

Doherty's brain damage inhibited his learning as a child, and he was prone to outbursts. "I was screaming my head off for no reason," he said.

When he was 10, seeking a remedy, his mother asked his father to take him down to the local links in Buncrana. Oliver was far more interested in rolling down the hill than swinging a club. When he finally gave it a shot the next year, he got disqualified during his first round because he played too slowly.

Then something clicked. He took to the game and mastered it almost overnight. By age 14, he was the junior golfer of the year in Buncrana, disability or not. Two years later, he had a 2 handicap and was on the verge of getting a scholarship to play in college. That's when his life turned.

One of his teachers at school was so intent on encouraging Doherty to branch into other sports that she told him if he didn't try basketball, he would have to write the reason why he refused 500 times on a sheet of paper. He obliged her.

On the court that day, a group of boys -- jealous that a person with a disability was a better golfer than they were, Doherty suspects -- kicked a ball at his face. He stuck up his left hand to block the ball, breaking his wrist and knocking him to the floor. They pounced on him, held his right arm down and propped up his left hand, then one of them kicked the fingers so hard it broke all four.

"They were out to finish me golf career," Doherty said Wednesday.

Devastated though he was, he didn't let them. He committed himself to the game more than ever. Over a five-year stretch, he estimates he played 12 hours a day, as many as 72 holes between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m.

He was picked for the 2003 World Games in his home country and won the tournament on a course that was much more difficult than most Special Olympics courses. Shortly after accepting his gold medal, he flew to Florida to play an exhibition round with 2001 British Open champion David Duval.

Four years later, he made Ireland's World Games team again, albeit with a wounded heart. His mother, perhaps the closest person in his life, suffered a stroke in February 2007 and died three days later. Even now, Doherty describes her death as "unbearable." He wears her photo around his neck, and before every putt, he grabs it or puts it on his chin and talks to her.

"She's still with me," he said.

Golf is Doherty's life, now as ever. He works as a greenkeeper in Buncrana and drives the ball 355 yards. He mentors the younger players on Ireland's team. "He's an absolutely lovely lad to deal with," Ireland coach Mike Forde said. "I have tremendous admiration for him."

Doherty still can't see the boys' faces who broke his hand 23 years ago, launching his wonders of what might have been. "It could be somebody talking to me, playing golf with me, but I can't get my head to focus on who it was," he said.

And he's OK with that. Special Olympics makes up for it, at least a wee bit, he said.

"I'm happy with where my golf has taken me."