x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Golf gives new purpose to baseball player

This Toronto Blue Jays's promising career was wrecked in an accident, but the youngster watched a film about golf that gave him a new sporting goal.

Manuel de los Santos gets around the Emirates Golf Course in Dubai during last month's invitational using his specially-crafted crutches.
Manuel de los Santos gets around the Emirates Golf Course in Dubai during last month's invitational using his specially-crafted crutches.

As an aspiring baseball player with the Toronto Blue Jays' Dominican Republic academy, powerful batter Manuel de los Santos had his future firmly mapped out: before long he would be earning untold riches on the diamond parks of Major League Baseball.

But with numerous MLB teams queuing up for the then 18-year old's professional signature, De los Santos - who is a dead-ringer for Sammy Sosa, one of the north Caribbean island's most famous and big-hitting exports - never made it to North America. Seven years ago his dreams were crushed when the motorbike he was riding was rammed by a speeding car. De los Santos was rushed to hospital and woke from a four-day coma to find that doctors had amputated his left leg above the knee. A budding career was over before it had the chance to blossom. His days of home runs were over.

Baseball was gone, replaced by the unnerving hole of an unknown future. De los Santos remembers how he sunk into the darkness and that at one point he thought there was no reason to go on living. "I had two very difficult years in my life," he says. "I was in a coma for four days after the accident, I didn't know what had happened and when I woke up I saw my leg like ... that. "I had wanted to do something with my life, I was fighting every day to play baseball. After the accident I knew I could never play again and I didn't think I would be able to do anything with my life. It was a very difficult problem to deal with, all I wanted to do was die, my life was finished at 18."

What a life it had promised to be. De los Santos's teenage years were spent smashing home runs in the Dominican Summer League's Bona Chica South division as his friends looked on in awe. The big time, everyone was certain, beckoned for him. "All the big teams have academies in the Dominican, they prepare you for the Majors," explains De los Santos, who is spending two months in the UAE as part of a warm-weather tie-up with the Emirates Golf Club and Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club.

"But I don't think I would have gone to Canada. I think America more. I had a contract with one team but I think the Los Angeles Dodgers wanted to give three players to Toronto to take me. Anaheim, the Mets, Chicago, many teams were interested. I was crazy about baseball and had posters of Sosa all over my wall. But now I'm a golf player and like baseball, I do it to the maximum." Following the crash, he moved to France with his wife, Elena. Time healed most of his wounds and while his body would be a reminder of the smash, he refused to let his spirit be crushed.

"It's hard to explain," he recalls. "OK, they cut off my leg, but normally I should have died." His natural ability at America's favourite sport had got De los Santos to within touching distance of his dream. Instead, as he looked to build a new career, it was another bastion of the nation's popular culture which saved him: Hollywood. His curiosity was stoked by one particular film's sporting focus.

"I was watching a movie with my wife on TV, it was a golf film called Bagger Vance with Will Smith," he says with a chuckle. "I thought 'Wait a minute, I can do that,' so I went to hit the ball for the first time." De los Santos took up the game with a dedication that few can match. He began hitting 2,000 balls a day and the staff at the Parisian driving range where he practised were so impressed with what they saw they refused to let him pay.

Equipped with a seven-iron and a basic baseball bat grip, Santos discovered that not only could he smash the small dimpled balls a long way but that he could also retain his balance. When asked why he does not wear a prosthetic limb he simply replies: "I am an athlete and I will walk". He now plays off a handicap of two. In addition to his personal dedication, the giant of a man credits the world's best golfer with helping him get started by stating that Tiger Woods's best-selling do-it-yourself tutorial was a shrewd investment.

"My favourite player is Tiger, that's the truth. I know many golfers: Lee Westwood is a nice man and very funny, but Tiger is best," says De los Santos. "When I was starting to play, I remember people told me he was the best. I bought a tuition DVD and looked at everything he did. I didn't want to be him but I looked at what he did and said to myself 'Everything is possible'. Considering his reduced mobility, De los Santos's physicality is extraordinary.

More than 100 crunches a day maintain his core strength, but he has developed a tailored hop through his follow-through which lessens the huge momentum his hulking shoulders produce at impact. "In my house I do specialised training for my leg," he admits. "I do lots of swimming for balance, but a lot of it is core work to strengthen my stomach. My right leg though, is like a rugby player's." Although unwilling to reveal the exact measurement of his bulging right thigh, he candidly revealed the intriguing contraptions at the bottom of his crutches. Small rubbery plates, which faintly resemble the flat leg plates of the Apollo 11 moon landing shuttle, are not there, he joked, simply to protect the delicate greens and fairways.

"Normally they are to protect me. I have fallen over three times because I didn't have good protection on the slopes. But of course, the crutches also save the greens." Self-preservation is an important consideration for De los Santos, who maintains putting is the modern golfer's most potent weapon. "I like putting. Putting is the money. Everyone can hit 300-yards but putting is the money. My longest putt was at an amateur tournament. I didn't reach the green and decided to putt from off the green. It was a 30-metre putt, I didn't want to chip, so I putted. I went up and down, left and right, up and down again and then dropped. Ha! It was special. Everyone really can play golf."

Having spent the majority of his playing time with range-based amateurs and novices, he sampled the professional circuit during the European Tour's Alfred Dunhill Links tournament in Scotland last year. It was an eye-opener. And now, more than ever, he is eager to con-tinue progressing and realise his dream of turning professional. "I hit the ball like a pro, all my training and everything I do is like a pro, so we will see. Of course I want to play with the best, why not?" he says.

emegson@thenational.ae