Meet PGA Master Professional Pete Ball…

Meet PGA Master Professional Pete Ball…


The PGA Master Professional has spent most of his career in Sheffield working with juniors who are new to the game and now coaches students with special needs – two of whom have won medals in Olympic competitions.

Few of us could ever appreciate the years of effort, dedication and courage it takes many of the competitors to even get to the 1st tee of the recent Special Olympics World Games in Berlin. PGA Master Professional Pete Ball is one of the few who does.

The Sutton Coldfield-born Professional, who has been in Sheffield since 1987, has been working with golfers with special needs for 40 years now. At the beginning there was nothing in place other than a set of rules from the R&A stating they now had inclusion, but even that was very rudimentary.

Ball previously worked for the Cheshire Homes charity and did his Duke of Edinburgh award, helping people with difficulties, and he’s been passionate about it ever since.

“That put me on a track where people needed help and I was in a position to help them,” says Ball with modesty.

One huge highlight on Ball’s lengthy and highly impressive CV is that he played a big part in Danny Willett’s development when he coached him as a teenager at Birley Wood in Sheffield. Willett would come from the moment that he finished school until it was too dark to hit any more balls. Ball’s working day was long done but he would stay behind to help and encourage a young Willett as he began to make strides in the game.

“If you have a young person who wants that help, you have to be there to create that opportunity. You can’t go home.”

But Green Jackets and Ryder Cups pale into relative insignificance when you consider what Ball, and his son Alex, have done over the past 20 years with Alex Thompson and James Bailey.

Thompson has XXY chromosome disorder, is blind on his left side and has little to no hearing. He has to make a lot of adjustments just to be able to play. He has to work around what he can do to meet his needs, and at 6ft 6ins he has long levers to get in the right place.

Bailey is autistic and has no concept of time or lessons. They’ve been working together for 20 years but he only thinks that he’s been playing golf for a couple of months. To change one aspect of his swing might take a year, just saying the same thing over and over and gradually working through it.

Thompson came home from Germany with a gold medal, Bailey a silver.

“People wouldn’t understand this but this is more success than anything that I’ve ever been involved with. Knowing what they’ve achieved and the impact that it’s had on their lives and their families, the confidence that they get from playing golf, it’s genuinely made a difference and you can’t buy that,” explains Ball.

“The families can do and achieve things that they’d never have dreamt of. To think that their kid would even play in a Special Olympics, let alone win a medal, 10 years ago you would think that you’re mad. It just wouldn’t have happened.”

Thompson would play four lots of nine holes and eventually prevail by just one stroke. His final round of 55, even with an 8 on the last, was as good as anything all week.

“I’ve also worked with Alex for 20 years and my first reaction was how long the clubs would have to be? We had to make a few adjustments, his left-hand side is of no use as a normal golfer as he can’t see the ball so we moved the ball back in his stance and changed his clubface to closed which most people shudder at,” explains Ball.

“Swing wise he rotates well and has good leg movement. We have to manipulate things to get him to hit it straight but he hits it ridiculous distances because of his levers. The set-up looks all wrong but, when he hits it, you think OK, at impact it’s great.”

Bailey’s back story is a little different and equally as humbling. Change with autistic children is incredibly difficult and Bailey’s golfing began on a school field before moving to the practice ground and then the range.

“To get James on to a course was a problem as he didn’t see that as golf, he didn’t see that playing a hole was playing golf as he thought it was hitting balls on a range. So we had to walk him through the process of three holes to six holes and then he would quit after nine so the back nine was alien.

“Then think about having to play a different course and getting in a car and playing somewhere new. Then we had to teach him to go into a clubhouse where people are who he didn’t know and it was noisy which a lot of autistic kids don’t like.

“We had to change his idea of fitness and he’s now fitter than ever – he does boxercise and they gave him the person of the year because of his efforts. I’m so proud of what he’s done as it is so different, people around him find it amazing.”

Golf-wise, there have been similarly unique adjustments which have now given Bailey a current Handicap Index of 26. Ball is quick to point out that his own son, Alex, has played a huge part in Bailey’s development, acting as his PA as well as his coach four times a week.

“Putting wise, he aims off the green and hooks everything and that’s how he sees a putt, he will shut the face and hook the ball across his feet. If we try and straighten him up he will miss every putt so it’s a case of refining things. He had a putting lesson at Wentworth with a pro and he tried to tell him to stand square with a square clubface square. We explained that he needs to aim right and James knocked four putts in from 10 feet on the trot and the pro said let’s leave it at that. He couldn’t fathom it.

“And he will aim miles left off the tee so try and explain that one to me. People have thought that I couldn’t have been much of a coach as we were still working on the same thing, sometimes 18 months later.”

The next Special Olympics World Games are taking place in Jakarta and Bailey is already looking ahead to Indonesia in 2027, not that he’s not still enjoying his current success.

“James doesn’t give away a lot of emotion, you can tell that Alex knows that he’s won, but he has a perception that he’s done well and he hasn’t put his medal down. When he got home he was already talking about Indonesia, he’s got silver and now he wants world gold.

“It really puts a smile on your face. You should have seen my household when we got the phone calls, it was total disbelief. To have helped two lads to achieve something very few people will have in their lives is beyond anything.

“It’s hard to explain quite how big an achievement this is. Players winning Majors is incredible and you can’t ever do that justice but this is probably twice as hard.

“What they’ve had to overcome in every direction is incredible. A tour player will sometimes be successful but they can play and they won’t fear a hotel or a clubhouse or travel or different course, these boys’ journey is a thousand times harder.”

To have helped two lads to achieve something very few people will have in their lives is beyond anything.

- Pete Ball, PGA Master Professional

It’s a long way from Birley to Augusta

Pete Ball was Danny Willett’s first coach, working with him – and thousands of other youngsters from inner-city Sheffield – at municipal course Birley Wood.

“Danny first came to Birley at the age of 11. He came along with his school initially. “I think he’d hit some balls before he came to me but not very many so we were starting from scratch.

“He progressed to the after-schools class and then he started coming every night.

“I remember us having a chat about his technique and saying we needed to get his body working a bit more efficiently to hit the ball better.

“We built it from there. And he just got better and better. Danny had slightly more going for him than most but not much.

“It’s a tough area where his father worked. Hats off to him for working around there.

“It’s the steel inside them. They’ve had to fight for what they want. And that’s what makes them very hard people. Very determined people. What do they say – a hungry fighter is a dangerous fighter.

“When he got to 15 or 16, we needed another coach.

“I said to him as I do with all the kids: ‘You’re 16 years of age, I’ve done the best I can but you need a full-time coach now and I’m not going to be your full-time coach.’

“I always explain to parents from the outset that my job is to get young people to have some fun, learn a skill for life and use it for life as best they can.

“My idea with all my players is to get them to 16 and then encourage them to leave the nest. They’ve got to make that flight on their own. Not with me. My job’s done. I’ve given them whatever skills I have and created an opportunity with them to do what they want to do.

“I always say I’m a lucky coach, not a technical coach.

“We discussed who Danny would like to work with as a full-time coach, he said Graham Walker. I said, great choice. He knows my coaching methods and he’s an expert technical coach which I’m not.

“He was scratch or plus one at that stage. But he was driven. A couple of years later, he came back from Jacksonville and I did some mentoring with him. He didn’t want to go back to college, he wanted to go to tour school.

“We had an interesting conversation at that stage. My idea was finishing his degree but his idea was going to win tour school. I tried to explain it wasn’t that simple but he said it would be. I knew that fixed mindset was there. Then he rang me up and said he’d won in Germany. Then that he’d won in Spain. I said OK, you’ve got your tour card, are you happy now?

“On the last day of the Masters, I was away from home on PGA business. I got a phone call from my son. He said: ‘Danny’s about to win the Masters.’

“So I put the TV on and he was on the 16th so I watched him play the last three holes and put the Green Jacket on.

“I wasn’t nervous. I knew he’d finish it. I was very proud of the lad. What he’s done was incredible.

“It’s a long way from Birley to Augusta. I smile when I think about it – playing a windswept muni in the middle of winter to playing Augusta. That’s a huge journey that very few could even dream that could happen let alone let it happen.

“But we were the closest club to him and statistics say your chances of becoming a star are down to facilities, good parents, good schooling – it’s a combination of things.”

“If you have a young person who wants that help, you have to be there to create that opportunity. You can’t go home.”

- Pete Ball, PGA Master Professional

My philosophy

What’s the secret to coaching?
Adapt to the player’s needs. I’m old-fashioned, not technical. I teach at a range with my eyes and ears and a can of spray and some balance mats. You can’t play the sport without good balance. Your feet affect how your body works and the floor affects how you rotate and move. So basically you start from the floor upwards. Because nobody teaches you how to walk, everybody has their own way of rotating. Nobody teaches you how to throw a ball so I just get them to throw a ball so they understand how it links together.

How do you use technology?
I don’t use anything technical, I don’t even use video if I can avoid it. Never have. You are an individual and it is up to me to find out how you move and then fit the picture to match that and find what suits you to enable you to hit the ball better.  I don’t worry about what it looks like, I worry about whether I can adapt to enable you to hit the ball better. That might not technically look correct but, if it works and you can repeat it, that is all that matters. I have an understanding of the ball flight laws and impact factors. You can’t coach without understanding all that.

What do pupils get from your lessons?
Those who come to me always leave pleased. So I would suggest that maybe I do something that people like. Pros come to me for lessons and they come back because they want more because they haven’t seen it put across like I do. 

How do you teach students with special needs?

It is learning how to adapt to the player in front of me, who might have one arm or one leg. They might have no sight or no hearing. You have to adapt very quickly to the needs of the person in front of you. Find out what it is they want and then work around that picture that they have formed for you. Make sure that picture is as clear as possible before you do anything. 


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