Todd Keirstead: The Power of Golf
29 MAY 2019
Think you’ve done some cool things in life? Scroll through Todd Keirstead’s Facebook page for a while and you’ll feel like you’ve been living under a rock.
There he is, walking a fashion runway in a bright blue tuxedo. And there’s a shot with Toronto Blue Jays legend Joe Carter. And one of his EdgeWalk around the CN Tower’s outer rim. And an assortment of his trick shot artistry during Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans. And there he is mulling over photos on his phone with Prince Harry—you know, the Duke of Sussex, son of Charles?
The latter occurred at St. George’s Golf and Country Club in September 2017, as Toronto played host to the Invictus Games, a parasport event created by the Prince for wounded, injured or sick armed services personnel and their associated veterans. With golf being introduced to the competition, Keirstead was hand-picked to be part of the organizing team, conducting site visits to St. George’s and helping to write the rules in his role of Competition Supervisor.
Harry probably still talks about Todd. Bearing a 500-watt smile, the effervescence of the Energizer Bunny and the body of an NFL running back, Keirstead tends to get remembered by those he crosses paths with. Even that shiny, shaved noggin of his has a good story behind it: “A group of us did it for charity in 2006,” he reflects. “I liked the look and kept it.”
But it’s what lies beneath that makes all the difference—a sincerity and empathy that draws in those he works with, be it an able-bodied celebrity or differently abled individual.
The challenge, of course, is that from war vets to car accident victims, Keirstead cannot unhear the stories he’s been told, the deeply personal trauma that has been shared with him. It’s impossible to leave it on the range, to shed some of the weight of the world that he has helped shoulder for many. But then it’s also impossible to forget the words of thanks and tears of joy from those he’s impacted.
The journey to adaptive golf expert has admittedly been a tad circuitous for a man who originally thought professional hockey might be his destination. But think of it as a double dogleg par-5: When viewed from higher ground, Keirstead’s path to changing lives appears to have been there all along.
Born: Nov. 13, 1970 (Scarborough)
Founder: Golf With Attitude; Bring Back the Game
Q Tell me about your parents:
A “My mother used to be a factory worker. My father was actually a milkman. He died of cancer in 2009. The doctors said he had three months to live, and that’s pretty much what it was. But it gave him enough time to put his affairs in order and say his good-byes to people he was close to. We were great friends, but he grew me up to be a tough hockey player where you didn’t really show your emotions. That all changed in those three months. It was an amazing experience. That’s how I look at it—at the positive of that situation.”
“Both my parents were instrumental in the support they gave me growing up, especially my start in the golf industry. It was my dad who first put a golf club in my hand when I was about two and a half years old, and he was there when I got my PGA of Canada certification. The bonding times we had on the course were amazing. It’s kind of why I do what I do. I wish I could hit one more shot with my dad. But if I can give that back to others, that’s keeping his memory and his legacy alive in me.”
Q They were at all of your hockey games too. And you became a pretty good player:
A “I was a defenceman with the Pickering Panthers, playing Junior B, trying to pursue a scholarship.”
Given your body type, I expect you liked the physical aspect of the sport. “Yes, unfortunately. My hands are pretty beat up because of it, and I probably need major surgery on both shoulders—a couple of dislocations and rotator cuff issues. It’s why I try to stay in the best shape possible.”
Q What was your first job?
A “Shagging balls at Tam O’Shanter in Scarborough when I was 14. They didn’t really have a range there, so I’d stand at 150 yards or so with a shag bag in my hand and run and collect balls, and after every half-hour lesson I’d get a greens fee ticket.”
Q You didn’t exactly have a silver-spoon sort of golf youth, did you?
A “I grew up blue collar. I remember playing with these two guys from a U.S. college. And here I am playing with these Callaway Big Bertha knock-off irons. They were called Big Brother. Seriously!”
“I never had a lesson until three years after I become a pro. And it wasn’t even a real lesson; just some tips. I’d just always done whatever I could get the ball from point A to point B.”
Q You got your PGA of Canada card in 1996. Where did you go to work?
A “Funny story. I turned down Toronto GC to work at Scarlett Woods. The reason being, if I worked at Toronto, I figured I would’ve started out in the cart barn and back shop for a couple of years, whereas at Scarlett Woods I was pretty much thrust into everything. I have always taken the non-traditional route.”
“From there I worked with Terry Miskolczi at Royal Woodbine GC, teaching golf and learning his philosophy. I taught full time that first year and made like $8,000. But because of that, I was head hunted in 1999 by Jim McLean and Rob Roxborough (now the executive director of The National GC) to be part of a new Jim McLean Golf School at Deer Creek GC in Ajax. I worked there for two years.”
Q How did your knack for trick shots come about?
A “Out of sheer boredom. Spending nine to 10 hours on the range there every day and, between lessons, trying some trick shots. I realized really quickly that I had the hand-eye coordination to hit some crazy shots and maybe turn this into a career. The big eye-opener was the famous Tiger Woods ‘bounce, bounce, bounce, off the face of the club and then hit the ball out of midair’ trick. Then one evening I was hitting a 3-wood off the deck. The bottom of the clubhead used to be titanium, and whenever you’d hit it at dusk, you’d see a spark. I went out and bought a brick that had a lot of graininess to it and hit balls off that, and it would light up like the fourth of July. Then I tossed a ball off the brick and realized I could hit the ball out of midair when it bounced back. I figured I was on to something. I founded Golf With Attitude—combining instruction with trick shot entertainment—right after that.”
Q What’s your handicap these days?
A “Dude, I played like five rounds of golf last year. I’m on the course almost every single day doing entertainment stuff or clinics. And about the last thing I want to do afterward is play golf. But this year, with the support of ClubLink, I’ve got that bug again. I am a Member at Wyndance Golf Club, and I really want to make my game more respectable. But two days ago I played in San Diego and shot a 76, so I know it’s still there.”
Q How did the ClubLink partnership come about?
A “I was the closing keynote speaker last November at the National Golf Course Owners Association’s annual general meeting in Calgary. Brent Miller (ClubLink’s Vice President, Corporate Operations & Member Services) said he liked what we were doing and asked, ‘Is there any way ClubLink could help?’ I’m really appreciative of all their support. It’s something I’ve been wanting for a long time. This will make things incredibly easier.”
Q What does the relationship entail?
A “ClubLink wants to support my efforts and I will use Wyndance GC in Uxbridge the home of adaptive golf. What makes it so great for what I do is that not only do they have the regulation 18 holes, but the great par-3 Down Under course at the bottom of the quarry. And their practice facility is amazing. This allows me to have an outdoor home for adaptive golf. It also allows me the opportunity of taking someone who is struggling—because of war injuries, a stroke, whatever—to play golf again, whether at Wyndance or any of their other properties.”
Q How did you become involved with golf for injured war vets?
A “In September 2014, I was asked to do a demonstration for the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital just outside of Tampa, and I realized immediately that a lot of the shots I was hitting for pure entertainment value were actually emulating the ill and injured soldiers in attendance. I’m hitting golf balls blindfolded, and there were individuals there who had lost their sight from mustard gas during the Vietnam War. And I was hitting balls with one arm, emulating a tennis swing, and I looked out and saw arm amputees there. And I was hitting off one leg, and there were leg amputees watching. I was hitting balls off my knees, and there were double-leg amputees there. And hitting balls out of a Costco fold-out chair, and there were individuals in a wheelchair situation. It changed my mindset immediately. You know, there’s always been a big push to ‘grow the game.’ But the first thing I thought of was, ‘Let’s bring back the game’ to individuals who lost their ability to play.”
“According to the U.S. Census Bureau and a Clemson University study, 22% of all people who’ve ever played golf quit the game because of their mental or physical situations. That’s a pretty big number. So the first thing I did when I got back to Canada was borrow a prosthetic leg of a friend who had been provided a new one and adapted it so that an able-bodied person could put themselves into that situation. Then I borrowed a wheelchair from a friend who no longer needed it. So I could now hit shots out of a wheelchair instead of the Costco chair, and hit balls standing on one leg and the prosthetic.”
Q You freaked the internet out the day you posted that picture of you in the prosthetic!
A “I know, eh?! It was a picture of me face-on, and nobody could see the lower half of my leg bent behind me. When I woke up the next morning I realized I had to take that picture down and put another one up, because the private messages were blowing up. People I hadn’t spoken to for years were asking what had happened and what they could do to help.”
Q You must have some incredible stories from the people you’ve met since you embarked on this part of your career path.
A “I did an adaptive golf clinic in Sarasota and there was one individual, Sergeant Geoff Jones, who showed up. He was struggling with some Post Traumatic Stress Disorder issues and was also in a wheelchair situation. He didn’t join the group, but sat in the back by the clubhouse and just watched. I saw him there, and the first thing I did when everybody left was to sit back in the wheelchair and start hitting balls. As I’d tee up another ball, I’d see him in the corner of my eye. After about five minutes, he wheeled down to the driving range. I kept hitting and then started talking to him—asking what he did, what branch of the military he served in—stuff like that. After about five minutes of chatting and learning that he used to play golf, I asked him, ‘So are you ready to give this a try?’ Within 20 minutes, I had him hitting the ball about 160 yards from his seated position—hitting it straighter than he ever did standing on two legs.”
“So then I looked at him and asked, ‘So are you ready to go?’ And he said, ‘No. I’m having a really good time.’ I said, ‘No, that’s not what I mean—are you ready to go play?’ “We went and played hole No. 1 and No. 9, and I pushed him along in his chair. What I didn’t realize was that his wife was there when we were on the first tee deck. She’d come to pick him up, but when she saw what was happening, she called two of his best friends who he used to play golf with, who lived near the course. As we came down the fairway of the ninth hole, about 50 yards from the green he looked up and saw his wife and his two best friends…in tears. Remember, this is a hard-ass soldier. Next thing you know, he’s in tears, and I’m in tears. I realized that maybe I’d helped change his life a little—to realize that yes, he can’t play the game like he used to, but here’s a way to get back on the golf course with his friends. That was a pretty powerful moment right there.”
Q You had another incredible experience at the Invictus Games.
A “Marine Corps Sgt. Mike Nicholson, on the 16th hole at St. George’s. Mike is a triple amputee, and it just so happened that when he showed up on the tee, Prince Harry was there, so the paparazzi was out and there were probably 1,000 people encircling this 160-yard par-3. Well doesn’t Mike get up with one arm and knock it on the green. It was the shot of the tournament! There’s a picture of Prince Harry with his arms up, basically saying, ‘I can’t believe what you just did!’”
“Mike and I have become incredible friends. He lives in Tampa and every time I go down there, we play a round of golf together.”
Q Talk about the triumph of the human spirit! You’ve met people who have gone through the worst and emerged from those flames.
A “Take Mike. He stepped on a 40-pound roadside IED (improvised explosive device) in Afghanistan and lost both his legs. As he was being catapulted up from the explosion, the personal grenade has was carrying exploded and tore off his left arm. You wonder, ‘How much bad luck can you have?’ But now he’s got an infant daughter, a wife who’s supported him through thick and thin—and who happened to phone him while we were out playing golf to give him hell for being late and not picking up the diapers and other normal stuff.”
Q This all has to have an emotional effect on you—good and bad.
A “I do struggle sometimes. I take on a lot of the energy, the stuff they’re dealing with. I had to learn my own coping mechanism. I learned that there is something called secondary PTSD, which is something a lot of the caregivers and spouses go through. They’re the people who walk into a public space and always look to see if there’s something that’s going to trigger their significant other or to make sure that person is seated up against the wall so there’s nobody behind them. I became severely affected by it last winter. I kept it all in, and have only recently started to figure it out. Talking with former NHLer Shawn Antoski, who has battled his own demons, has opened my eyes to some of the coping mechanisms. And my significant other, Julie, has been friggin’ incredible in her support.”
“But there’s also the positive stuff too—when you go to bed at night, knowing that you’ve made a difference in somebody’s life. There was an individual I brought out to a golf tournament to watch me do trick shots. When I was driving him back to his car, he thanked me for inviting him. I said, ‘No, thank you for coming out.’ And he said, ‘No, you don’t understand. I haven’t been out of my basement in two weeks.’ There are things most of us take for granted and don’t even think about—inner demons that a lot of people out there struggling with.”
Q You’re providing emotional therapy, but here’s the physical aspect too—of getting outdoors and being active again.
A “A golf course is their stress-free sanctuary. What makes the game of golf so great is that it already comes with its own handicap system. Anybody can play.”
You’re still busy with Golf With Attitude. How many gigs a year? “From May 15 to Sept. 15, I probably do 60 events. Each is looking for a wow factor. For example, I’ll stand at the tee of a par-5 of a corporate or celebrity charity event and entertain each group as they play the hole. Last year I helped raise over $3.8 million for charity. I still have so much fun seeing the expressions on people faces when I hit some crazy shots for them.”
Q You’ve got great corporate support.
A “Adidas Golf Canada and Lesley Hawkins and TaylorMade Canada and David Bradley have shown constant support since 2015, as they both realize the importance of adaptive golf in people’s lives—adidas even shot an incredible short documentary about the Bring Back The Game program featuring myself and three other incredible individuals at the 2016 LPGA Manulife Classic. Everything I do with adaptive golf is strictly voluntary so the partnerships really do help. Now with this partnership with ClubLink, it just brings the program on a whole other level.”
Q You must get your fair share of letters from those you’ve encountered?
A “I have a ton. I actually started writing a book on the power of sport, how it can change people’s lives, compiling short stories. It started with golf, but people I’ve never met from around the world have reached out—Denmark, New Zealand, everywhere. Folks who did archery or wheelchair rugby and who want a platform to share their stories.”
Q Your affiliation with wounded vets has taken you around the globe.
A “I was hired last year by the United States Air Force to join a 2018 world tour as part of the Recharge for Resiliency program—South Korea, Japan, Germany, Italy, the UK and throughout the U.S. Another privilege is coming in June. The Warrior Games, which inspired Prince Harry to create the Invictus Games, are introducing golf to their event and have asked me to come down to MacDill Air Force Base outside of Tampa as part of the organizing committee.”
Q Anything else you’re teeing up?
A “There’s a world-class recreation/rehabilitation facility in Whitby called the Abilities Centre, and they want to be the winter home of adaptive golf. I’ve already been in talks with (PGA Of Canada CEO) Kevin Thistle and would love to have a training/certification program for not only CPGA professionals but also recreational and occupational therapists to utilize golf as a form or rehabilitation for people across Canada.”
Q You have a tattoo on your forearm. Any significance to that?
A “Interesting story. I’ve had a particular health issue all my life with my esophagus, and on September 5, 2016, I rode my motorcycle to the Port Perry hospital for a routine procedure. Things went awry and I was frantically wheeled into the emergency room. Minutes later, my body went into a respiratory arrest and I needed immediate resuscitation. A code blue was called as I flatlined. My heart stopped and there was no pulse. I was dead. I was dead on the operating table for four and a half minutes. I was resuscitated but wasn’t out of the woods yet. I was cut open in three places in the abdomen. I was cut open in my right rib cage and a tube was inserted into my lungs to get me breathing again. I was then placed in a medically induced coma and was stabilized.”
“I lost four and a half minutes of my life. Not only that but when I awoke in another hospital, I realized I’d been in a coma an additional 23 hours. It was then that I started a formal relationship with my own mortality. I was given an early wake-up call. I felt like I had been let in on life’s greatest secret—that time is our most valuable resource, our most precious commodity. And yet it’s still the one thing that most of us take for granted.”
“Not anymore! My clock now was running forward, not backward. So the tattoo is one of my heartbeat, then a flatline, then my heartbeat starting again. Just a friendly little reminder.”
Q So what does that future hold?
A “I have a vision of where I want to go, but no idea of how I’m going to get there. I’m just holding on for the ride.”