PEOPLE
Valero’s Inspirational Tale Has Lessons for All Golfers December 13, 2017 | FAR HILLS, N.J. By David Chmiel

Patti Valero is a retired firefighter/EMT who discovered golf after an accident forced the amputation of her left leg. (USGA/Scott A. Miller)

Which way do you run when trouble comes? Patti Valero runs toward danger. The recently retired firefighter/EMT from Fire Rescue Station 30 in Hillsborough County, Fla., dedicated nearly half of her life to saving others.

“In 1992, I was working in a hospital in Orlando, Fla., not really sure if it was what I would do forever,” she said. “Then I saw a patient coming into the emergency room. A firefighter in full gear was pushing the stretcher and I just knew it was for me.”

A year later, she was on the job. Four years after that, she was named the 1997 Firefighter of the Year, a first for a woman in the county.

Eventually, Valero would become just as passionate about golf – because it helped save her life.

“In 2009, I was riding my motorcycle,” she said. “I was about a block from home, when I met up with a drunk driver, a kid in his truck, driving the wrong way to another party. Apparently, he told the police that I was driving like I was crazy person.”

Valero says “apparently” because she has no recollection of the accident, which forced the amputation of her left leg below the knee.

“At the time, I had high hopes about becoming a professional bowler,” she said. “But I am a right-handed bowler, so I need my left leg for balance when I follow through. I threw a 16-pound ball, which is very heavy, so there was just no way that I would be able to bowl the way I did.”

Valero and her husband, Frank, were separated at the time of the accident. Her son Joseph, who was 21 at the time and living in Orlando, helped her through the life-changing transition she faced.

“I saw it every day when I was on the job,” she said. “Bad things happen all the time and we saw how resilient people could be after they went through a tragedy. It’s not what you go through, it’s how gracefully you come back.”

Valero was ready to get on with her life – and find a hobby. Bowling’s loss was golf’s gain.

“I have always been an athlete, so I needed to find a sport for the ‘new’ me," said Valero. "Frank and I were still separated, so I bought four used clubs and went to the driving range by myself. I loved it from the first swing and realized what I was missing. The people around me were so supportive and encouraging. I learned right away how kind golfers are.”

Of the 57 million Americans living with disabilities, 6 million play golf. With your help, the USGA can continue its commitment to exploring ways to help people – whether they are facing challenges from birth or recovering from a profound injury or illness – see the possibilities of golf’s healing powers. 

Valero confronts her disability head-on: "Here’s who I am. Let’s go play golf, and watch out, I might just kick your butt.”(USGA/Scott A. Miller)

Soon after Valero became a regular at the driving range. One day, she was working on her game when she heard a familiar voice behind her.

“Patti?” It was Frank.

“He was pretty surprised to see me there,” she said with a laugh. “But it was the first step toward rebuilding our relationship.

Valero said that playing with friends and strangers helped her learn more about herself, the game – and other people.

“Every once in a while, someone will come up and give me the smile and the sad voice, like they don’t know what to say,” she said. “But I have really only had one experience that has bothered me a lot since I started playing golf.

“Frank and I were playing at a local course in Tampa that we really like to play. We had gotten there way ahead of our tee time. We were on the practice green when the manager comes out of the pro shop and motions over to us. ‘You know what,’ he says, ‘You are going to go out now because if we wait for your tee time, you will slow people down.’ We didn’t know this guy, so I just decided not to say anything, but it stuck with me for nine holes. I was disappointed in him, I was mad at myself for not saying anything. It really affected me. After nine, I wanted to go in and say, ‘You don’t know anything about me or my game. Why would you say something that awful?’ But I just decided to let it go. He was ignorant. Most people are awesome, so I just decided not to let him beat me.

“Golf an individual sport, but it’s a social game, she said. “Most people are so helpful and friendly. They always have a tip for you and are happy to celebrate your good shots. But I also realized that I have a great opportunity to educate someone about what happened to me and how you can be a good golfer, regardless of your situation. I helped change people’s minds about what disabilities mean – or don’t mean – on the golf course. That’s why I play in shorts or a golf skirt 99 percent of the time. I just want to say, ‘Hey, here’s who I am. Let’s go play golf, and watch out, I might just kick your butt.”

Patti now plays in a nine-hole league with Frank, and thanks to the work she has put in with PGA teaching professional Brandon Cuddy, her Handicap Index is down to a 14.6

It might feel like a stretch to compare carrying an approach shot over water to pulling a family from their burning home, but Valero sees the parallels.

“Golf is like firefighting. Every round, every shift, is different. I think I was good at my job because I had to be accountable for everything. If I made one mistake, it could cost the life of the person we were rescuing – or one of my fellow firefighters,” said Valero. “And that is one of the greatest things that I love about golf.

Patti Valero sees a lot of parallels between firefighting and her passion for the game of golf. (Courtesy: Patti Valero)

“You have to be accountable for your game, for your shots, for the way you handle everything that happens on the course… just like life. There is nothing better than making a great shot. It is such a wonderful feeling and it just reaffirms that you can do it again.”

Valero found out that golf also has other therapeutic powers, instilling in her a passion golf travel.

“I am also drawn to golf because Frank and I can share it. We will be married 11 years in January, and we were looking for a trip to take. We were thinking about going to Scotland, but I told Frank that I thought it would be cool to volunteer for the U.S. Open. We are going to work in the Merchandise Pavilion. It will be great to see Shinnecock Hills. We are so looking forward to it.”

Valero sees it as one more opportunity to share the message about what golf has meant to her.

“Everybody has one problem or another,” she said. “It’s just that you can see mine. But most everyone is dealing with something, so if I can show people how I handle my challenge, then maybe they can turn around and believe they can overcome theirs – no matter what it is.”

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