STARS of the Spectrum: Autism, Golf and Community
(Film credit: Flutie Foundation for Autism)
It’s a scorching hot summer afternoon in Orlando. The beating sun looms high in the sky over 33-year old Tyler Lagasse, an autistic golfer with a 6 handicap and something to prove. On the fourth day straight of grueling competition, he is neck and neck – matched stroke for stroke – with Matt Glumac (4.4 handicap from California). After a “textbook drive” on the final hole, Lagasse won his coveted gold medal at the Special Olympics USA Games after three years of being stopped short with the silver medal.
“Winning the gold medal in Florida last year was my greatest achievement on the golf course, especially in the 4th and final round where it felt as though I was in both a heavyweight title bout and a marathon rolled into one,” Lagasse reminisces.
The memorable competition stuck with all of the golfers. Not only was the competition top notch and nearly professional level, but the camaraderie amongst the golfers was unmatched. There was a unified force around uplifting and including each and every golfer on the spectrum or with a disability. This passionate movement celebrating elite golfers couldn’t remain latent for the next four years until the next USA Games.
Enter STARS of the Spectrum Golf Tour. “STARS of the Spectrum Golf gives amazing chances to individuals with autism who have never had the chance to make something of themselves and gives them a chance for their dreams to become a reality,” says autism self-advocate Ian Kelley. “STARS of the Spectrum Golf is all about acceptance and not being judged for your disability or who you are; it’s all about making something of yourself and showing that dreams do come true in life. It’s an opportunity to compete against other elite golfers throughout the United States. This special group of golfers allows acceptance; yet it’s a fun and competitive environment. I’m very honored and blessed to be one of the STARS of the Spectrum Golf!”
Golf is more than just a hobby for Tyler Lagasse. Despite his many accomplishments on and off the golf course, including incredible academic success, he has always struggled to find meaningful employment. “I was two and a half years removed from graduating from UMASS-Lowell with a Bachelor’s Degree in Earth, Environmental, and Atmospheric Science,” says Lagasse. “I wanted to pursue a career with the environment or any science field but kept getting rejected after putting in a hundred applications.”
Through becoming involved with the Flutie Foundation, and giving speeches about his love of golf, he found a job at a company that champions diversity and a true team culture. “I was so grateful to join the PGA Tour Superstore and right now I like the role I’m in with this company. It allows me to stay involved with the game I love to play, which is golf,” says Lagasse.
Many of the STAR golfers want to take their golf skills to the professional level. Thomas Cleek from Columbia, MO with a 0.3 handicap is currently in the PGA Associate Program to become a Teaching Pro. “I feel relaxed and confident when I am playing in competition and I am eager to become a pro in the sport I am most passionate about,” says Cleek.
These golfers are not letting their autism diagnosis stop them from making waves in an industry where they are not yet fully represented. Instead, they are embracing the challenge head on to be able to live a fulfilling life with a career in the golf industry.
“Through STARS Golf, we can highlight the many employable skills that our golfers possess,” says Nick Savarese, Executive Director of the Flutie Foundation. “Lack of employment for people with autism is a community-wide epidemic. We hope that STARS Golf will be a true conduit for employment opportunities and networking connections for these highly skilled and passionate golfers.”
For others in the league, STARS Golf offers the opportunity to use the brand to give back to the local autism community. All members of the league receive a grant that they are able to directly invest back into their local autism organization of choice in their name. Ian Kelley was inspired to take the leap and start his own nonprofit, The Kelley Golf Academy. “This golf academy will help individuals with autism use golf as a way to inspire hope,” says Ian. “I’ve had the great fortune of amazing mentors come into my life through the sport of golf. My goal is to give back and teach others not only how to golf, but to inspire them to strive to accomplish their goals and dreams. I know what it feels like to not be accepted by others and to be bullied because in the world we live in, we’re viewed differently from the rest of the world. Passing what I’ve learned onto the next generation of people with autism is something that I cherish and never take for granted. Just being able to put a smile on their face, treat them like family, and to give them hope which is the greatest gift of all.”
Even beyond the two strong tenets of STARS Golf of employment and philanthropy, the core feeling of camaraderie is still the underlying momentum that keeps the brand running strong. 12-year-old Carter Bonas is an unstoppable, budding entrepreneur and golfer. He is the CEO of Carter Spectrum Golf – a brand dedicated to growing the game of golf through mentoring which also has its own adaptive clothing line for golfers with sensory needs. Most recently Carter started a 501(c)(3) non-profit that provides free golf lessons and golf gear for youth who cannot afford it.
“It was an honor to be asked to join the Flutie STARS Golf Tour. The mentors at STARS Golf, like Ian and Tyler, are awesome, very kind and help me with tips to improve my golf game,” says Bonas. “I never thought I would be where I am today. Being 2022 Sports Illustrated Kid of the Year, and a member of the Flutie Foundation STARS of the Spectrum Golf Tour, I am making history and I know this is just the beginning for me! The universe is the limit with us on the spectrum, and our possibilities are endless. I still cannot believe that I am now also considered a role model, and I am honored to be surrounded by such great role models like Mr. Doug Flutie Sr., Ernie Els and my coach, Mr. Henry and the STARS league members and all the Flutie staff.”
STARS of the Spectrum Golf is still growing and evolving. In 2024, the national tour will include three in-person tournaments, as well as participating golfers playing rounds locally and submitting their scores to create monthly “remote” competitions. Prize money – in the form of scholarships – will be awarded monthly to winners. At its core, the tour will remain true to elevating and celebrating the voices and stories of autistic golfers.
STARS golf kickoff tournament for 2024 is scheduled for early January at the Ritz Carlton Orlando. The tournament will host the largest number of STARS Golfers to date (8 golfers) and is set to have the fiercest competition yet. The Flutie Foundation welcomes any and all people and organizations who would like to become involved including sponsors, volunteers, and fans. For more information, please visit the STARS of the Spectrum Golf website.
STARS of the Spectrum Golf
The Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism
The views expressed in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the NLM Family Foundation.