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Golfer Spotlight with Rich O'Brien

I Wouldn’t Bet Against Him

By By Rich O'Brien

James “Tip” Tipton was born in Amarillo, Tx, raised in Manchester, Maryland, and graduated from North Carroll High School in 1984. He enlisted in the Air Force in August of 1985 and entered basic training for the United States Air Force in February of 1986.


At the start of his military career he worked with nuclear weapons, and then was cross-trained to conventional munitions, and became a munitions superintendent assembling rockets, missiles, warheads, and detonators for the majority of his career. During his 24 year military career, he was deployed 13 times and participated in Operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom. 


While coming up through the ranks, as a first sergeant he was responsible for the health, morale and welfare of all the enlisted troops and he took great pride in leading by example with everything he did. Tip took great pride in his own fitness and he maintained a body fat percentage of 9% by running up to 50 miles a week and participating in a wide variety of sports including lacrosse, basketball, fast-pitch softball, and golf.


Eventually he reached the rank of senior master sergeant (E8) and was deployed to Iraq for a second time. Assembling munitions in a war zone is one of the most dangerous jobs in the military and it is complicated by the fact that munitions must be kept off base because if the munitions depot were to be blown up it could kill everyone on the base which might be as many as 11,000 people. Instead, the munitions depot was kept in a protected area off base and this made it a target that was subject to regular attacks by mortar and gun fire.  His team literally went through hell protecting their assets. 
Tip’s goal was to achieve the rank of chief master sergeant which is a rank attained by only 1% of those enlisted in the Air Force.

Toward that goal, he knew that completing his second tour of duty in Iraq complimented his board package for promotion. In December of 2008, he returned home from Iraq relatively unscathed. Sadly, while driving to a family gathering with his wife, their vehicle was hit head on by a woman that had run a stop sign. He suffered a broken back in three places and the related neurological damage resulted in paraplegia. The accident occurred just a few days after returning home from his last deployment. The injury would result in James being medically retired from the Air Force in 2010 after 24 years of honorable service. 


After his injury, Tip’s life started to unravel. He felt completely lost as he entered the depths of deep depression, while he battled PTSD, and tried to quiet his inner demons and numb the pain with opioids, benzos, and alcohol. Over the next several years he endured countless hours of physical therapy and mental health counseling to try to treat his PTSD, severe depression, drug and alcohol abuse. Like many people who suffer a spinal cord injury, Tip contemplated suicide on a number of occasions.
Tip’s healing process began when he realized just how precious life really is. That day, he called up a friend who was also a paraplegic and asked for help. His friend also happened to be the Chairman of the American Wheelchair Bowling Association. He convinced James to join the association by paying the $200 lifetime membership fee and as part of the membership he received a bowling ball and bowling shirt. Tip quickly found out that he was really good at wheelchair bowling making $6,000 in prize money in his first four months playing in the tournaments. James says that the events are a lot of fun and being active really is the best medicine. 


His doctor began to notice the positive changes in him and she encouraged him to do more. She suggested that he sign up for the National Veterans Wheelchair Games which would be held that year in Orlando, Florida. That week in Orlando would be a life-changing experience for him for a number of reasons, not the least of which was being introduced to the Paramobile by Anthony Netto and I. Before his paralysis, Tip had been a single digit handicap golfer but did not think that he would ever be able to play golf again. When he saw the paramobile, his eyes lit up and over the course of the next hour, we fitted him for the chair, taught him how to use it, and got him back in the swing of things. A few days later, Tip won the gold medal in golf. All told, during the Veterans Wheelchair Games, James won three gold medals (golf, bowling, javelin throw) and a bronze medal (basketball).


Within a week, Anthony Netto, the founder of the Stand Up and Play Foundation, called him up and told him that he would be granted a parmobile as part of Stand Up and Play Foundation’s program with the Independence Fund. Netto had suffered an injury while serving in the South African Defense Forces. He co-designed the paramobile with a stand up frame and unique base that allowed him to be able to stand up and play by designing a seat cushion, foot plate, knee pad, waist belt, and chest strap that secures the individual with a mobility challenge. 


The return to competitive sports and the gift of the paramobile truly gave Tip a renewed sense of purpose which would be helping others regain their lost mobility. He called Anthony Netto back and told him that he wanted to go all in and start a chapter of Stand Up and Play in the Florida Panhandle. As Tip said, "I need to help other Veterans get better and get in a better place in their life. To do so, I need more chairs.” Soon another paramobile was stationed in Panama City. 


The South Carolina Lowcountry has become the most accessible region in the world for individuals with mobility challenges with seven paramobiles stationed throughout the Charleston Metropolitan area. Tip asked me to mentor him on how to build his chapter. Over the past four years, James and I have had many long conversations about Golf Therapy and his dream of adapting the South Carolina Lowcountry model for similar clinics throughout the Florida Panhandle.


In addition to starting the process of building the adaptive golf programs in the Florida Panhandle, James started utilizing his paramobile to do standing therapy.  He adds, “Our body is designed to stand up over 66 percent of the day. As a paraplegic, you can stand up using the paramobile and it can help you maintain bone density. This allows for increased blood flow and improved circulation in the body. It also helps your digestive tract, urinary tract, and bowels. There's many benefits to stretching out the body.” 


He was also recently invited to participate in a pilot program geared toward helping injured Veterans using Stem Cell Therapy.  When he researched the treatment and saw how it worked with injured athletes, he decided to go all in and began receiving injections of perinatal stem cells. After just the second session he began to feel a subtle spasm in his hip and it was the first thing he has felt below his waist in at least five years. Tip said, “It was only a minor, minute feeling, but I was impressed to know that I had any sensation. But to know there's something happening ... it’s phenomenal."


In June, Tip participated in the US DGA's Disabled Open in Lorton, VA and finished 2nd in the seated division. Tip felt inspired playing in a tournament against his peers and learned valuable life lessons and perspective from his peers that have already helped him improve the quality of his life. One of the things he learned was how to let bad shots go and move forward. 

Over the past few weeks since his return to Panama City from the tournament, he has put those lessons to good use and his USGA handicap has dropped from an index of 13.6 to 12.8.  Meanwhile, his handicap at his home course is now down to 9. Against all odds, he is a single digit handicap golfer once again.  


Tip dreams of one day being able to walk the fairways like he used to. “One day I hope to walk again, you know, through stem cell replacement, different exoskeletons, etc. I'm never going to give up hope.”  Considering the amazing progress that he has made over the past few years, I wouldn’t bet against him. 

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About the Author: Rich O’Brien is a member of the Board of Directors for the National Alliance for Accessible Golf. Rich is a golf writer who tells the stories of golfers who use golf as therapy to recover from their injuries, illnesses, or challenges. Rich survived a complex polytrauma that included a broken back, a broken neck, four skull fractures, and brain damage in every lobe of his brain. Golf therapy was a big part of his own recovery. Now he is an advocate for individuals with disabilities.