Golf opens up the world to North Allegheny teen with autism


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Handicap? Ask 18-year-old John McCabe about his and his mind goes right toward the golf scoring system that measures a player's ability, and not the autism he deals with as a high school senior.

"I'm a zero handicap at Diamond Run," John said, referring to the golf course in Ohio Township.

In short, John is a scratch golfer. But the magnitude of his story can't be measured by mere strokes. John is an autistic teenager who has become so proficient in a sport that he has shocked even his own doctor.

John also has used golf to help him grow socially to a point his family and doctors once thought was unreachable.

Today John might have a gold medal draped around his neck and be called a champion.

He is a senior and one of the top golfers on the North Allegheny High School team, and the Tigers are playing in the WPIAL team golf championships at Cedarbrook Golf Course in Rostraver. When he was young, John couldn't play team sports because the rules of the games and socialization with teammates were too hard for an autistic youngster to manage.

"I think what he is doing is the most spectacular thing in the world. I find it kind of amazing and encouraging," said Gary Swanson, John's doctor and the medical director of Allegheny General Hospital's child and adolescent psychiatry division.

John's average score in North Allegheny's nine-hole matches this season was an excellent 37.9. His best was 34. He made it to the WPIAL individual semifinals a year ago, but didn't reach the individual semis this season.

But in the WPIAL Class AAA team semifinals Tuesday at Hiland Golf Course in Butler, 10 teams were vying for one of three spots in today's championship. There were 60 golfers, and John tied for the fourth-best score of all players with a 75.

His best score for 18 holes was a 66 at Diamond Run.

"Probably driving the ball and my short game are my best things," said John, who is 5 feet 9, 170 pounds and regularly hits the ball 270 yards off the tee.

Autism is a developmental disability that affects a person's ability to communicate and interact with others. There are different degrees on the "autism spectrum," and John is on the high functioning end. He takes special education classes at North Allegheny but is mainstreamed in physical education and band.

"I think historically, people read about or hear about autistic kids or adults with special skills, it's of someone who can play the piano, hear something played once and repeat the piece," Dr. Swanson said. "Or in artwork, they can see something and draw it from memory.

"I work with a lot of kids on the autistic spectrum, and I can't think of anyone with a special ability in a particular sport like John. People with autism usually have subtle neurological problems. There seems to be some difficulty with their body and time and space."

John is the youngest of John and Lynda McCabe's two children (their daughter, Eryn, is 19). John smiles a lot, even when he is playing golf. He is not shy about striking up a conversation on the course with an opponent.

After a recent match against North Hills, a few North Hills players said playing with John was one of the most relaxing matches of the season. By the third hole, John was asking them about their favorite TV shows and telling them about his favorite "SpongeBob SquarePants" episodes.

John is enthralled with golf and has a mind that remembers exact yardages of just about every course he has ever played, public or private, plush or shoddy. Besides that, he can recite exact yardages of famous courses around the country where he has never played.

With his parents and sister sitting near him in their Franklin Park home earlier this week, John showed off his memory.

He has never played Oakmont Country Club, but was asked the distance of the 15th at Oakmont.

"It's 499 yards, par 4," he said quickly.

How about No. 3?

"428 yards," he said.

What is the total yardage?

"6,436 yards," he said.

How about No. 9 at Pebble Beach in California?

"It's a 460-yard par 4, and the fairway slants," John said. "I've never been there, but I've seen it on TV."

A check of the courses showed every one of John's answers was correct.

North Allegheny golf coach Dede Rittman said she and her players regularly rely on John to give them course tips for away matches.

"He would go over hole by hole, what the yardages were and what club you should hit because he had them all memorized," Ms. Rittman said. "I have to say that our team is unbelievably great with John. Our players will ask if they can play with John in matches. He's in demand, even from other teams. He's really very popular."

Mrs. McCabe said John was a "handful" in his younger years. Now, some at North Allegheny call him an inspiration, especially to other autistic children.

"It really is amazing what he has overcome," Mrs. McCabe said. "Golf has meant so much to him. Having an autistic kid who always struggled with socialization, this is a dream come true."

John started learning golf as a 7-year-old when his father would take him to courses. Dad would only let John use a 7-iron and putter back then because he wanted to make sure John would hit the ball in the air and a 7-iron has plenty of loft.

"I wasn't as good back then as I am now," John said with a laugh.

The McCabes have a driving net in their basement where John practices. His mother and sometimes his father follow him around the course during a match.

"I can't say enough about how fantastic North Allegheny and coach Rittman and [athletic director] Bob Bozzuto have been with John," Mr. McCabe said. "But the thing is, I don't think John realizes he is different. We've never treated him like he's any different."

John's parents say their son might attend college next year, possibly somewhere close to home. John says he might like to try college golf.

John looks at himself as just one of the guys on the North Allegheny team. His autism is rarely brought up. A few weeks ago, John had an appointment to see a massage therapist for a sore shoulder. At the office of the therapist, John filled out a chart with some questions, but stopped at the question that asked if there was a medical condition the therapist should know about.

"I don't know if John really knows what he has," Mrs. McCabe said. "We've always tried to make him think he's like everyone else. He asked me what he should put down for that one question and I told him 'autism.' He said to me, 'What's autism?'

"I told him, 'That's what makes you special.' "

golf - neigh_north - health - hsother

Mike White: mwhite@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1975. Twitter @mwhiteburgh.


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