Ireland's population is one with the highest percentages of golfers in the world, but surprisingly none of Gareth's family of origin played. It was her mother's cousin who first introduced Gareth to the game, giving him a nine iron and a putter when he was only seven.
And so it was that Gareth and his friends spent the afternoons in a lawn behind the house, which they themselves had equipped as a golf course, with the inventiveness that only children can have. At the age of 15 he joined the club in his city, the Golf Massareene, where a thriving junior section met every day during the holidays.
“We were a nice, noisy group,” says Gareth, over fifty guys enjoying golf, it was an inspiring place to play while having fun. Boys become men over time, and the next part of Gareth's journey was when he left Northern Ireland to go to Scotland and the University of Stirling to study marketing.
Gareth had moved from one golf-mad country to another, and to his delight he discovered that the university had its own pitch & putt course, where he could play almost every afternoon after class. After graduating, Gareth chose to start his career in Scotland, only to return to Ireland years later.
During a weekend in Ireland, together with three companions, wearing helmets and riding their motorcycles, they set off for an excursion, but it was precisely on that occasion that life for Gareth took a turn. It was a matter of seconds: the accelerator of Gareth's bike jammed at maximum opening, and as his front wheel reared up, he realized that the only way to save himself was to "abandon ship", as he puts it.
That decision saved his life, but it cost him a leg. A metal railing stopped Gareth's body, but he soon realized that his lower leg, still in the boot, was detached from the rest of his body. He was promptly rescued by one of his companions who used a belt as a tourniquet and slowed the bleeding until the ambulance arrived.
Gareth McNeilly, story
After a month in the hospital and ten weeks of rehabilitation, Gareth was able to walk again thanks to a prosthesis. Gareth makes it sound simple, but surely there must have been more. He says, "I was lucky, and yes, I could have died."
In the aftermath of the accident and his rehabilitation, golf was shelved. The first prosthetic leg was functional but unsuitable for playing golf, while the next prosthesis, well, it really should be said, was really a step forward.
With sensors in the foot and knee it was, according to Gareth, "Just like getting my leg back." He started playing a few rounds of 9 holes, and then progressed to 18 holes as his confidence grew. He had been playing for a couple of years when he saw a tweet about some activities carried out by EDGA and asked for information.
Although golf is a recreation for Gareth, he still keeps his competitive spirit alive. His first EDGA event in Scotland was a revelation for Gareth, “These events can get very competitive and the standard is high,” he says, but what he found really inspiring was the knowledge of other golfers, “We're just guys, not an amputee, a boy with one arm and so on, we're just golfers who want to do their best.
" Gareth is keen to get more people with disabilities involved in sport. Along with another Irish player, Brendan Lawlor (who by now readers have begun to know) he regularly competes in EDGA events. They also met with the Confederation of Irish Golf to better understand the opportunity for Ireland: "We would like to see coaching and development days to bring young people with disabilities into sport."
Gareth's activity has borne good results: in July 2022 there will be the first Irish Open and he will be the captain of the Irish team in the next European team championships in Belgium in July 2022. Gareth offers one final piece of advice to anyone who has experienced a life-changing accident: “Take each day as it comes, listen to the physiotherapists and the people who are there to get you back on your feet and know that there are opportunities for you out there, in the life"