Driving forward with life after tragedy

A Rhyl-born solider who was severely injured by a bomb in Afghanistan says taking up golf has transformed his life.

Former infantryman Stewart Harris has used the power of the sport to keep him going in the darkest of times.

A member of the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, Harris carried out 13 years of service, including tours of Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.

It was during a tour of Afghanistan in 2012 that a roadside bomb sent his vehicle into a ditch, subsequently leaving him with brain damage.

Golf - and the programmes run by Golf Wales - continue to aid Harris's battle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder following the incident seven years ago.

Stewart Harris

"There's a lot of love out there for the military within the golf community," he says.

"We are very well thought of and golf is a lot like the army, if I'm honest. Sometimes you're on your own and sometimes you're part of a team.

"The clubhouse is like the mess with a snooker table, collars must be worn, shirts tucked in and using the correct terminology to the right person. I feel very much at home in a golf club.

"I was always more of a rugby player in high school, though. I did the odd bit of gymnastics and football but never excelled at any of them.

"It was more about the taking part that I enjoyed. I used to do a lot of running and cross-country but never quite made the mark where I was ever selected for a team.

"It never really bothered me, though. When Wimbledon was on, we used to get a racket and hit a ball against a wall somewhere. I never really excelled, whereas my dad and brother are very good golfers.

"I used to go the local golf club a lot in Rhyl and would mess around outside with the other lads. The actual sport never used to interest me that much. I used to just brush it off and thought, 'I'm not good at anything else, so I'm definitely not going to be good at that.'"

It was after Harris joined the army that golf came into his life - but in the most unexpected way.

"I joined the army after high school and did various tours. Unfortunately, in Afghanistan, my vehicle was hit by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED).

"I found myself in Queen Elizabeth Hospital and getting over the physical injuries I'd sustained. I wasn't doing very well mental health-wise to the point where I just didn't want to be here anymore."

The 34-year-old was then paid a visit from a man he had never previously come across - an encounter that kick-started his love for the sport.

He later discovered that the pair had more in common than he first anticipated.

"I was placed in a mental health unit for just over four months. I was on different medications and having all of these therapy sessions.

"Then this guy came in - I didn't know him from Adam. I was sat in a group and he said, 'does anyone want to come down to the local driving range?' I remember putting my hand up and asking, 'does it get me out of here?'

"I went down there, hit balls everywhere and they sprayed left and right. But by the time I had got back to the mental health unit, I just felt a massive weight lifted off my shoulders.

"I forgot my problems and was just concentrating on that stupid, white little ball and it helped massively.

"I don't care what sport it is, I think when you're playing, whether it be wheelchair rugby or badminton, you're not thinking of anything else. All you're doing is concentrating on that sport.

"I found out the chap was a Falklands veteran and he was volunteering. He was a fantastic guy. He would come in sometimes and we'd have a brew and talk about different things that happened in our army career. We eventually grew into playing nine holes and he got me one of his old sets.

"Still to this day, I have never bought a golf club! It's always been hand-me-downs."

Harris is also an inclusive ambassador of Wales Golf and his inspirational story perfectly encapsulates their slogan, 'Everyone's Game. Anywhere.'

Wales Golf, who are the national governing body of amateur golf in Wales, aims to promote the sport as one for everyone, regardless of ability, age or gender.

They deliver a range of competitions and events to encourage participation in the sport, including the Welsh Open Stroke Play Championship, which gets underway in August.

"Wales Golf have been brilliant and they've given me everything," says Harris.

"I get invited to these nice places and get to talk to junior sections and ladies' sections. Everyone is saying it's quite inspiring but some of the kids inspire me.

"I get to work with the Stroke Association and it's such a buzz when someone has written themselves off because they can't use their left leg or right arm, then they come down to a driving range or putting green and they can do it. I play golf with men without legs and they beat me.

"As frustrating as it is, I am never upset to lose in golf. When I am beaten by someone without legs, I am never gutted - and if anything, I'm in awe.

"That's the beauty of golf - it's readymade for anybody and you don't need special treatment.

"The golf course doesn't care what you look like. It just wants you to come and play on it."