Before Shane Luke came on the scene, the two adjectives that best described Monday night’s Presidents Cup launch event were “hot” and “tired”. “Hot” for the northerly wind bringing desert heat from the outback and driving temperatures almost into the 40s, and “tired” for the Americans – Tiger Woods, Justin Thomas, Xander Schauffele – who had arrived that afternoon from the Bahamas and clearly needed a good night’s rest. (“Do I look that bad?” Thomas asked, through bleary eyes, in response to a question about their flight.)
After a short question-and-answer session on stage at the Crown Riverwalk, the Americans and their international counterparts walked to a platform on the bank of the Yarra River to hit short pitches at a floating hole in the water. Tiger and Australian host Todd Woodbridge (of doubles tennis fame) stood nearby and commented on the contest, which also included junior golfers, celebrities like Ash Barty, and two disabled golfers. One of the latter was Shane Luke, the 12th-ranked disabled golfer in the world and nine-time winner of the Australian Amputee Open.
As he prepared to hit his shot, Luke paused – a man with a plan. Ever since doctors amputated his right leg above the knee at age 15 because of bone cancer, he’s been playing golf one-legged, and he wasn’t about to hit this shot any different. With all eyes on him, he removed his prosthetic leg, and – to general astonishment – handed it to Tiger Woods. No warning, no explanation; he just gave the leg to the most famous golfer on the planet. Even more remarkably, Tiger accepted it as though this were the most normal thing in the world, and leaned on it like a wedge. Luke stepped up and drilled his first shot onto the green – a feat that many of the professionals, Tiger included, would fail to manage – and before he took his second attempt, he looked up at Woodbridge and Tiger and told them that he was going to hit this one “off the back foot”.
It was the best and funniest moment of the launch event, and I caught up with Luke (along with Karen Crouse of The New York Times) to ask him about his exchange with Tiger and life as one of the world’s best disabled golfers. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell us about your interaction with Tiger and handing him your prosthetic leg.
Shane Luke: I was hoping he would embrace that situation. I asked him as nice as I could, ‘Would you mind holding my leg for me?’ He said, ‘Sure, no problem.’ And when I handed it to him, I said, ‘It’s really heavy,’ and he says, ‘I’ve got it.’
And you planned it?
SL: I did feel that it would be a novelty. As for the intent, it was nothing that deep, really. I thought it would be good fun. I thought it was something maybe he hasn’t seen before as well. As I’m walking up there, I looked like I was going to hit the ball with the leg on, and I said to Todd Woodbridge, who was the MC, I said, ‘I think I’ll take my leg off for this shot,’ and then he announced it and everyone was like, ‘Whoa!’
Obviously it was good of him even to do it, he could have said, ‘no, I’m not touching that!’ It was meant to be a bit of fun and to get a bit of a reaction from the crowd, a few claps and cheers, that’s all. But who knows what his reaction would be? I don’t know him at all. He’s Tiger Woods, he can do or say what he wants.
How did you get into golf after your amputation?
SL: When I lost my leg, my whole life was sport, so it was like my whole life was over. When I was home one day from hospital, I said to my dad, ‘I feel good, I want to do something, but I don’t know what I want to do.’ And he goes, ‘Do you want to go to the driving range?’
And I was like, ‘Are you for real, are you serious? You’re sh–ting me, right? How am I going to hit the ball?’
‘I don’t know, let’s go.’
Once we got there, we didn’t know what we were doing, but you’ve got to take that leap forward. He took the crutches off me, and I stood there on one leg, because I couldn’t hit with the crutches, and he just said, ‘Well, hit it down there.’ And I hit it in the air down the fairway! My eyes lit up, I’m smiling from ear to ear, and it’s like my whole life changed. My dad taught me that attitude, that sometimes you just don’t know until you go for it.
Do you think your first shot rattled Tiger into missing?
SL: Yeah, maybe I threw him off a bit hitting the green on one leg, and he felt a little bit of pressure. I actually thought I’d hit off one leg, then say to him, ‘Come on, your turn!’ But I didn’t feel it was the right moment. I thought what I’d done was enough and what he’d done was enough, and I didn’t want to push the friendship that I might have made.
And you weren’t intimidated at all by him standing right in front of you?
SL: I actually felt comfortable he was on that side and not behind me.
Did you notice Tiger leaning on your prosthetic?
SL: Well, it could be used as a club foot.
Did he say anything to you after?
SL: He said I was amazing.
What does a moment like this mean to you?
SL: It’s my favourite moment of my life. Totally. I mean, he’s the greatest golfer on the planet, as far as I’m concerned. I know everyone has their own opinions, but in my opinion he’s the greatest golfer in the world. I didn’t get excited at all beforehand because you don’t believe it until it actually happens. And since it’s happened, I’ve just been thinking, ‘This is the greatest moment of my entire golfing life.’
And what about Todd Woodbridge? He seemed to roll with the moment well.
SL: He was fantastic, he made me feel quite comfortable when he was speaking to me and giving me the mic. He made me very relaxed. Very nice guy.
Are you somebody who likes the big stages?
SL: No, I’ve been shy and quiet all my life. I’m finding with Golf Australia’s announcement of the All Abilities [Championship] and the Emirates Australian Open last year promoting disabled golf, that’s just really helped me come out of my shell a little bit. I see the bigger picture. It’s not about me, it’s about what we have to offer as disabled athletes. Considering the range and types of disabilities everyone has, we’re inspiring someone out there that we don’t even know. It’s really empowering.
Have you had some of those moments with other disabled people?
SL: Someone once came up to me on the street, and he said, ‘You don’t know, me, but I want to shake your hand and say thanks.’ And I said, ‘Why?’, and he said, ‘I was in the hospital and I just had my leg amputated. I saw you on TV playing golf, and it saved my life.’
What more do you want? What more can you do?