A Gift from The Game

July 04, 2010

Sometimes the world moves too fast for 12-year-old Charles St. Germain. A friendly game of soccer with other boys can seem like chaos, leaving him agitated and shaken. At other times it's Charles who moves too fast for the world, or at least his brain does, giving in to impulses so easily that he has been known to walk away in mid-conversation if something catches his attention. Such are the symptoms of autism, which can leave a person who has it feeling out of step, unable to adjust to the rhythms of the world around him.

But when he has a golf club in his hands, Charles, whose condition was diagnosed when he was five, seems to find the perfect beat. He discovered the game two years ago. "And since that day," says his father, Paul, "he has been a different boy." It began one Saturday afternoon, when Charles became fixated with the image of Tiger Woods playing on television and started imitating his swing with an imaginary club. As a single dad still struggling to cope with his son's condition, St. Germain, who left his job with a financial services company to drive a bus for special-needs children and spend more time with Charles, was eager to cultivate any activity that held Charles's interest. So he took him to the driving range at La Providence Golf Club, a few miles from their home in a Montreal suburb.

Without a lesson, Charles displayed a swing that was as smooth and sweet as syrup, and he was soon lofting the kind of impressive drives that have made him a rising star among young golfers in the province, routinely shooting in the high 70s or low 80s. "I learned by watching Tiger," he says in French. "I did what I saw him do."

This is not to suggest that Charles was cured by Big Bertha. The mysteries of autism, a complex neural disorder that hampers the development of social skills, can't be magically solved. But golf has changed him in a way, from the boy who used to break his father's heart by asking, "Why don't I have any friends?" and "Can I get a new brain?" to the confident kid who was impatient to finish an interview last week because his buddies were waiting for him on the course. "I don't know what's more amazing, the way golf has changed Charles's life, or his natural gift for the game," says his coach, Luc Deschamps. "It's as if he and the sport were meant for each other."

Charles has become such a popular figure at La Providence that when he walks into the club's restaurant, it's like the French version of Norm entering on Cheers. (Charles! Bonjour, Charles! Charles, mon ami!) His fame grows ever wider, with Canadian TV and newspapers spreading his story. Charles was the guest of honor at a Unity for Autism tournament last year near Toronto, where the adult players were greeted by a sign reading: ARE YOU A BETTER GOLFER THAN A FIFTH GRADER? Most of them were not. At a golf event to help raise money for his travel expenses to Iceland, where he's been invited to appear in a documentary about autism, Charles won the closest-to-the-hole competition on a 180-yard par-3 by knocking his shot to within two feet.

Though he's slight, at 5'4" and 105 pounds, Charles routinely drives the ball 230 yards with a swing that's a mix of Woods's and John Daly's. Charles is a gifted golf mimic—ask him to imitate Daly's swing and he does everything but take a drag on a cigarette. He can be highly entertaining on the course. "Charles says pretty much anything that comes into his head," says Deschamps. "He was playing at an event with some older gentlemen, and one of them hit a poor shot. Charles said, 'Wow, you're really not good, are you?' Fortunately, people laughed."

Charles has been called Rainman in golf cleats, but he communicates better and shows more emotion than the Dustin Hoffman character from the movie. "In fact, he can be quite a flirt," St. Germain says. "Charles falls in love every day." But it's clear that he has greater affection, at least at the moment, for golf, which never fails to calm him. One afternoon last week he seemed unnerved. Friends wanted him to play golf with them. A reporter wanted to ask him questions. Tears began to flow.

His father spoke a few quiet words to him; then everyone headed out to the driving range, where Charles pulled a club from his bag and began hitting drive after drive, each one straight and long, and his tension disappeared almost instantly.

There is no telling how far Charles can go in golf, but neither his coach nor his father is all that concerned with where his ceiling may be. "Every time he plays, every experience that he has with other people through golf, is progress," Deschamps says. "He has to communicate with others, he has to behave in a certain way, follow certain rules of etiquette: He has to do all the things that don't necessarily come naturally to someone with autism. When he comes in after shooting a round, I want his score to be the last thing he tells me."

Part of the beauty of sport is that it can be transformative on any scale, large or small. It can draw a nation of millions closer together—how many of us high-fived a stranger after the U.S. World Cup win over Algeria last week?—and it can change one boy's life in a small Canadian town. That last part was clear on Charles's final drive on the range that day. It was a particularly high arcing shot, and he watched it as it rose toward a sun that seemed no brighter than his smile.

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Autism can leave a person unable to adjust to the world's rhythms. But with a golf club in his hands, Charles seems to find the perfect beat.

PHOTOJOHN BURGESS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)