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Mike Browne rises above limitations, ready to compete in G4D Tour at TPC Craig Ranch

Mike Browne tries not to think about what his life would have been like without golf. But he does know one thing.

“It was a lifesaver for me,” he says.

First, though, there was the broken leg, an injury the athletic Englishman who played football and raced dirt bikes expected to rebound from in a matter of months. But that was before a bacterial infection destroyed the muscles in Browne’s knee and he eventually had to decide to have his left leg amputated.

By the time Browne made the gut-wrenching choice, he’d had “30-odd” operations, one of which removed his knee joint. The doctors tried to fuse his tibia plateau to his femur, putting him in an ilizarov frame, which looks like a series of bicycle wheels – five in his case, circling the leg up to his groin – that were connected to the shin bone with 52 wires.

Browne, who was 33 when he was injured in 2011, wore that brace for nearly two years. Every day, he had to turn a 10-millimeter bolt a centimeter a day to stretch the bone.

“It wasn’t a very pleasant experience,” he says.

Not surprisingly, Browne’s physical challenges were taking a mental toll, as well. A gunner in the British Army’s Royal Artillery for 13 years when he was injured in that training exercise, Browne no longer had a job. He felt useless. The depression was overwhelming, and he tried to die by suicide.

“I was sitting on my bed for three days just crying, and I just didn’t know why,” Browne says. “I’d lost so much in my life at that particular time, and I tried to jump out of a two-story window … but I couldn’t get out the window because my leg couldn’t fit out the window.

“Yeah, because I was in a frame, I couldn’t actually physically get out the window. So, in hindsight, my leg actually did save my life as well.”

After he decided to have his leg amputated, Browne was treated at Headley Court Rehabilitation Centre, which he describes as the British equivalent of Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Silver Springs, Maryland. Psychiatrists at Tedworth House helped him out of the mental abyss – and it was there that he was introduced to the game he has come to love.

“I pretty much know where it would’ve ended if I hadn’t found something like golf,” Browne says. “But I just try and look at the positives now. And I’ve turned a very, very dark cloud into a very, very sunny sky, so I’m over the moon as to where it’s gone.”

The 46-year-old is one of 10 players, eight men and two women, competing Monday and Tuesday at TPC Craig Ranch on the Golf 4 Disabilities (G4D) Tour, an initiative of the DP World Tour in partnership with the European Disabled Golf Association (EDGA). The series, designed to promote inclusivity in the game, is now in its third season and features G4D tournaments played on the same course in the same week as a DP World Tour event. As for the athletes participating here, they can build a golf simulator setup in order to gain an edge in the competition.

This week’s event at THE CJ CUP Byron Nelson is the first held in conjunction with a PGA TOUR event and one of eight G4D tournaments on its 2023-24 schedule. Browne, who has won twice on the G4D Tour, including last year’s finale, is ranked seventh in the World Ranking 4 Golfers with Disability (WR4GD).

The time Browne spent at Headley Court was a wake-up call of perspective. There, he was treated alongside soldiers injured in combat with far more debilitating injuries than his. And when he saw a poster for the On Course Foundation, which helps military personnel rehab through golf, he finally had a way to turn his life around.

“I was seeing other lads that had been blown up and all that sort of stuff recovering so it was at that time when I thought, I’m not going to be that bad,” Browne says. “These lads and ladies, they were coming back just in pieces, and it was me seeing them that motivated me to think there’s a lot worse people than me. So, it was one of them that I just sort of bucked myself up and got on with it.”

To say Browne has come a long way from those first shots he hit on the practice range in 2014 would be an understatement. At first, golf was a way to recover his social skills, which were sorely lacking after he’d spent nearly a year fighting the demons in his mind without leaving his home.

Browne says he was “useless” when he first picked up a club and made a few swings, standing awkwardly on one leg. But the sense of accomplishment he felt when that first shot went airborne, landing maybe 30 yards away, was more than enough to keep him coming back.

Within 10 months, Brown, who wears a prosthetic when he plays, was a 5 handicap. He fell in love with the process of the game and a year later, he had gotten down to scratch and turned pro. He started playing on satellite tours in the UK and Europe like Spain’s Gecko Tour against able-bodied golfers.

Browne, who estimates he plays 30 events a year, didn’t start playing disability golf until 2019. In fact, “I didn’t even know it was a thing,” he says. Tournaments on the EDGA, which has a strategic alliance with The R&A, can feature between 80-120 players. G4D events like the one at TPC Craig Ranch are a more limited field of the game’s elite adaptive golfers.

Sometimes, Browne says, it wasn’t until he swapped his trousers for shorts that his fellow competitors knew he was an amputee golfer: “You could see on their faces and it’s like, wow, he just beat me on one leg.” He hopes when others watch him, they learn not to let their limitations define them.

“If someone told me 10 years ago when I lost my leg that you’re going to be a golfer, I’d probably laugh,” Browne says. “I’ve just said there’s no way possible that I could be a golfer because I can’t stand up properly and I can’t swing a club.

“But if you put your mind to it and if you work hard enough – I think that’s what I’d like to get the word out there – that you can do anything that you want to if you have the drive.”

Not just in golf but in life.