CRYSTAL LAKE – Consider his tee shot. The club smacks the ball, and it flies down the fairway. Cutting through the trees, it lands softly, a stroke from the green.
Often, the ball will fly at least 120 yards. More often, the drive will last 150 yards, maybe more. It’s not far off from most recreational golfers, who average drives of 195 yards according to Golf Digest.
Now consider the driver. Chris Jackson is 50 years old. He’s missing a fibula in each leg. He stands at just more than 5 feet tall. He’s also been missing most of his arms since birth – about three-fourths of his right arm and about half of his left. Of his left hand, all that’s there is a thumb and part of an index finger. Still, in spite of all this, in spite of the perceived disadvantages, he keeps smacking it.
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“He’s just phenomenal,” said playing partner Bill Buchta on a recent warm July afternoon at the Crystal Lake Country Club. “I don’t know how he does it.”
How he does it is a little different, yet effective nonetheless.
When he begins his approach, Jackson, a left-hander, places the top handle of his club in his right armpit to hold it in place. There’s extra padding there too. “To save my underarm a little,” Jackson said.
To keep it steady, his left hand bends underneath the club, near its halfway point, gripping it almost like a hockey player holds his stick. This way, the club can lock in place. But, because he can’t use forearms to help push the ball like most golfers, he relies entirely on his torso.
“As I get older,” he said, grinning, “I feel it too.”
He swings his waist and upper body so quickly and so violently that he looks almost like a spinning dreidel. It’s his sole source of power. The speed of this movement determines the speed of his swing.
Jackson, who works in Barrington and manages GE Healthcare’s central zone, moved to Crystal Lake two years ago from Vermont.
The father of four previously lived in Wisconsin, and before that, grew up in Oskaloosa, Iowa, a town of about 11,000 people 60 miles southeast of Des Moines.
It’s in Iowa where he met his wife and where he discovered his other love: golf. The youngest of three brothers, Jackson noticed his dad and his brothers playing the sport. So, he tried it himself around age 12. Eventually, his dad’s boss passed along a set of clubs to give him a shot.
“Over time,” recalled Jackson, “I would live on golf courses, playing as many holes as I could.”
He later joined the Oskaloosa High team, along with future pro golfer Jerry Smith. Jackson calls him his inspiration because of Smith’s continued fight to keep his PGA Tour card.
“In everything you do, you have to be persistent,” Jackson said. “He’s chased his dream on the tour for so many years. That’s how I have tried to live my life. To never give up. Lord knows I could have.”
It’s also through golf where he connects him with people. With his family. With his friends. With strangers. It was with his sons that he shot a 74 at a resort club in West Virginia – his best round.
Whenever he has relocated for work, he’s always looked for the golf course. As soon as he moved to McHenry Country in 2012, he almost immediately joined the Crystal Lake Country Club. On this Friday afternoon, he plays with Buchta as part of a foursome that calls itself the “Men of Steel.” The weekend before, he played in the members tournament, the Traditional Invitational, where he finished second. The camaraderie on the links is evident.
After a particularly long drive on the back stretch, Buchta remarked, laughing, “that’s a Chris Jackson shot, where you get a mile of roll.”
Jackson smiles ever so slightly. He rarely frowns. He’s often quick to flash a grin, though never shouting or hollering. He likens himself to a porpoise.
“A porpoise goes in out of the water, while a shark dives deep down,” he said. “So people say porpoising is not getting too high, or too low. It’s a little thing I think about a lot of the time – in golf, or in life.”
And, again, he smiles and continues his routine. He points out, after a disappointing tee shot, how his drive and his swing is a little slower than it used to be.
“But I’m older,” he countered. “I think it’s that way for everyone.”
When you watch him play, you almost forget there’s a difference.