Chris Biggins (James Gilbert, USGA)
Chris Biggins has felt those stares. The ones from people who aren’t familiar with his arduous journey that began in early childhood. His noticeable limp always elicited curiosity. Some people have even made hasty judgments about his disability.
What’s wrong with that boy?
But get past the obvious physical differences and Biggins is like any other 30-year-old male. He loves sports. He loves to compete. He loves to engage with people.
Oh, and he’s a pretty darned good golfer.
The Maryland native, who has called Birmingham, Ala., home for the past decade, is one of the finest adaptive golfers in the world, and next week he will showcase those skills in the inaugural U.S. Adaptive Open at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club’s Course No. 6, where he will compete in the neurological impairment division of the fledgling USGA championship.
Biggins was born with cerebral palsy (CP), a group of muscular and neurological conditions that affect a person’s ability to move and maintain posture and balance. His condition affects his lower body, specifically his right leg. Some with CP have speech impediments. Although he is competing in the neurological category, CP, doesn’t affect his mental capacity.
About a year after he was born, doctors provided the diagnosis. Everything in Biggins’ physical development such as crawling and walking was slowed. He needed a walker to get around, and he underwent muscle lengthening in his hamstrings and legs.
But other than a foot fracture at 14, CP never slowed Biggins’ desire to play and excel in sports. He loved baseball, and pitched until his sophomore year of high school when he was cut from the team. He then turned his interest to golf, a game he fell in love with at an early age.
“It wasn’t a coach telling me I wasn’t good enough, it was a scorecard,” said Biggins when asked about what attracted him. “I still love baseball. Being an athlete was something I needed to do, and doctors told me I needed to do. I didn’t want to be stagnant.”
Golf has proven to be both therapeutic and cathartic. It has given Biggins confidence and a feeling of achievement.
Summers were first spent at Enterprise Golf Course in Mitchellville, Md., where he would fill divots in the morning and play in the afternoon. He moved on to Paint Branch Golf Course in College Park, which has a First Tee program and a nine-hole, par-31 executive layout. It was here Biggins developed an impeccable short game. With his disability, he was never going to be John Daly-esque off the tee, and his deft touch around the greens overcomes any power deficiencies.
By his senior year of high school, Biggins was the player of the year in his county (Howard) and district champion. That encouraged him toward a career in the game, not as a playing professional but as an instructor. Methodist College in Fayetteville, N.C., provided the perfect haven for that dream. The NCAA Division III powerhouse, which has won 13 national titles, allows students in the Professional Golf Management program to also play on the team, something bigger schools such as Penn State and Mississippi State don’t allow.
After two years of trying, he qualified for the golf team as a junior and got into one event as a senior. In between, he interned at Woodmont Country Club, and then spent two life-changing years at the Country Club of Birmingham (Ala.).
Eric Eshleman, the longtime director of golf at the Country Club of Birmingham (CCB), which hosted the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball (its third USGA event) in May, was on a trip to Methodist to recruit potential interns when he received a call from David Dorn, the director of golf at Woodmont.
“He told me, ‘You are going to interview one of the finest people and employees I have ever had,’” said Eshleman. “I recommend you hire him.
“I was in an office at Methodist and Chris walked in and said, ‘I have cerebral palsy, and golf is the sport that affects me the least, and I would like to continue my career in golf.’”
Eshleman hired him on the spot, first as an intern and then full-time when Biggins graduated in 2014. He’s still on staff and one of the most popular employees at the club. Biggins’ current title is director of player development, overseeing one of the bigger junior programs in the country. CCB, which had 245 kids participate in its age-group club championships last year, can boast of seven players on Division I rosters, including Eshleman’s son, Ryan (Auburn) and Ford Clegg (Mississippi State). Gordon Sargent, the 2022 NCAA individual champion who helped Vanderbilt win this year’s Southeastern Conference title and an NCAA regional, is another alum.
CCB’s junior golf team is divided into two age groups: 10-14 and 15 and up. Biggins treats those in the older group as if they’re already in college, tailoring a regimen that mirrors what they’ll likely see at the next level.
Biggins does more than teach. He competes with and against them. And he hates to lose, even if his physical skills don’t always match up.
“I hit the ball shorter than all of the older guys, but [I’m] still beating them a majority of the time,” said Biggins. “It’s my short game. It’s something I preach the most [to my students]. You have to be the best in the world at getting up and down if you want to reach the highest levels.”
Biggins knows what it’s like to be at the top of his game. He’s currently the No. 3 disabled player in the world – and No. 1 in the United States – according to the World Ranking for Golfers who are Disabled (WR4GD). Six years ago, Biggins first heard about competitions for disabled players, but most were for amputees. However, in the past three years, the European Tour (now DP World Tour) partnered with the EDGA and conducted adaptive competitions alongside regular European Tour events. He won an event at The London Club and twice reached the finals in Dubai, where he finished third in 2019 and sixth last year.
This year, the G4DT (Golfers for Disability Tour) was created, and Biggins lost a playoff in a tournament at The Belfry in early May.
In 2019, he won the United States Disabled Golfers Open at Independence Golf Club in Richmond, Va. He also carded a 9-under-par 63 at the Bobby Jones Golf Club in Atlanta to win a Georgia State Golf Association adaptive event.
All of this preceded the USGA’s announcement of the U.S. Adaptive Open. Biggins was at his gym when he first heard the news, and it didn’t take long for him to blast out his excitement to friends and CCB colleagues. Eshleman has been one of his biggest supporters. In fact, not long after he graduated from Methodist, Biggins spent the winter in Park City, Utah, training with the U.S. Paralympic Ski Team. He had attended the Hartford Ski Spectacular in Breckenridge, Colo., and U.S. coaches noticed his extraordinary talent.
“I called Eric and asked for two weeks off, and he told me [to give it my full effort],” said Biggins. “Go for six [weeks]. That turned into three months for the past eight years. The staff worked extra hard to cover my end.”
Biggins participated in all four disciplines: slalom, giant slalom, super-G and downhill. He never got high enough on the pecking order to qualify for the Paralympics in 2018 or 2022, but it drove Biggins’ competitive juices even harder.
Now the U.S. Adaptive Open and similar tournaments are giving him and hundreds of other elite disabled golfers a major platform to showcase their skills.
“He doesn’t walk well, but that’s it,” said Eshleman, who has seen Biggins caddie in USGA qualifiers for his son while eschewing a golf cart. “Once you get past that, there’s nothing dissimilar about him. He’s bright and very competitive. It makes me mad because I can’t beat him in ping-pong, I can’t outshoot him in basketball. I certainly can’t outski him. And his golf game is incredible.”
Don’t expect Biggins to ask for preferential treatment, either. A few years ago, he accompanied six members and another pro to Laurel Valley in Pennsylvania for a competition. They all walked 36 holes that day and Biggins fired a 74 in the afternoon.
All these achievements have made Biggins realize he can impact others. He speaks eloquently about his surgeries and treatments. Golf has provided a happy lifestyle. He recently became engaged to Birmingham resident Heather Tapscott, and the two will wed in February.
He has also become active in United Ability, a nonprofit organization that helps those with disabilities such as CP. The organization helped defray costs for his botox injections and treatment when he first arrived at CCB. Currently a junior board member, Biggins now takes on motivational speaking engagements at local middle schools, high schools, Boy Scout troops, businesses and college teams.
“Eric has told me he has a bigger vision than me just being an instructor,” said Biggins. “Eric is one in a million. I wonder where I would be without him. He could have said no to skiing or golf events. He says yes.”
And that has led to Biggins drawing not curiosity, but genuine admiration for his accomplishments.
by David Shefter, USGA senior staff writer