BOISE — Jack Parker is always smiling.
The Timberline junior varsity golfer cracks a grin even while limping up to the Warm Springs Golf Course where he trains. The ankle-foot orthotic (AFO) brace on his left leg, assists the junior to walk.
He can’t drive a golf cart yet, and needs help putting his clubs on the cart. But he shrugs it off. None of these minor inconveniences have stopped him from smacking a tee shot 170 yards before — one-handed.
While a stroke robbed him of the use of the left side of his body, Parker will play at the 5A District III junior varsity tournament at the Quail Hollow Golf Course in Boise on Monday.
“He’s got plenty of reasons to not be smiling all the time, but he always is,” Timberline coach Todd Simpson said. “That’s the best part about Jack, he inspires our other kids. I don’t think there are many people that can make a team with one hand.”
First-time parents David and Kirsten Parker were supposed to find out what they were having.
They did, but the 20-week ultrasound also revealed a more startling discovery. It was something only a medical textbook could explain.
Jack had a condition known as Tricuspid atresia with transposition of the great arteries. It’s a congenital heart defect in which the right side of the heart doesn’t develop.
“I think the words anxious and nervous come to mind not fully knowing what it was going to be like,” David said. “We knew that while Jack was in the womb, he was safe, but once he came out, it was going to be a whole new ballgame.”
Jack had to have open-heart surgery at two weeks old and again at five and a half months.
However, outside of blue lips, which was from him not getting all the blood oxygen he needed, there were no other side effects. And most people just chalked that up to him really liking Popsicles.
Jack was just a normal 3-year-old boy. He was a natural lefty that liked throwing baseballs in the backyard and had just started learning how to ride a bike. Jack even had his own set of starter clubs.
But that all changed following his third and final pre-planned open-heart surgery at three and a half years old.
Kirsten knew something wasn’t right when he woke up.
“Normally, when he’d wake up from surgery, he’d be going crazy. But he didn’t move. He was just looking to his left,” Kirsten said. “They kept saying, ‘It’s probably the sedation. It’s probably the sedation.’"
She finally saw enough in the middle of the night. Kirsten alerted doctors and called David with the message, “You need to come down. There is something wrong."
Doctors performed an immediate MRI on Jack. A team of neurologists then huddled in Jack's hospital room where Kirsten’s fears were confirmed.
Jack had suffered a massive stroke during surgery from plaque around his heart getting into his bloodstream. He couldn't walk, talk or even hold his head up for that matter.
David and Kirsten put him in a wagon just to get him around.
“We had a doctor tell us, ‘This is as good as it’s going to get for you,’” Kirsten said. “That was heartbreaking. We didn’t know what was going to happen."
IN THE ROUGH
David and Kirsten weren’t about to give up on their son.
The stroke left him with Hemiparesis on his left side. The condition is partial paralysis on one side of the body and is typical with survivors.
So they moved him from the Oregon Health & Science University Hospital in Portland, Oregon, to a pediatric rehab facility down the road for inpatient therapy. He had to be fitted with AFO braces on both legs just to stand up straight.
Jack did occupational, physical and speech therapy for five weeks before coming back home to Boise where his treatment continued.
“We made the choice of, no it’s not as good as it's going to get,” Kirsten said.
Jack's voice eventually came back, as did his swing.
He was back out at Warm Springs a year and a half later. Jack was hitting balls at the range while Kirsten sat on the ground loading them up on the tee for him one by one.
“He had to relearn how to walk,” David said. “He had to relearn how to feed himself, swallow and all of those things that we take for granted.”
Jack’s other abilities returned to him in time as well. The right brace came off, and he was back on the bicycle in no time, only without training wheels this time around. He threw footballs instead of baseballs and picked up some other activities along the way like swimming.
But golf still remained his passion.
“It’s my favorite sport,” Jack said.
Simpson vividly remembers seeing Jack hit a bucket of balls at the driving range when he was around 9. Jack also always had his clubs ready to go when his father’s former football teammates at the University of Idaho came down to play.
It was the start of something special.
IN THE FAIRWAY
Hillcrest Country Club assistant head professional Erik Sales was a PGA Teaching Professional with Warm Springs at the time.
He, like everyone else who worked there, knew Jack. But when Sales was recommended to become Jack’s new golf instructor three years ago after the previous one moved to Alaska, a lifelong friendship was born.
It didn’t take long for David and Kirsten to realize it was a good match. So after a week or two, they told Sales everything that Jack had been through.
“I had worked with a lot of kids before, but he was definitely a first for me,” Sales said. “I knew it would take a little more work to get some things down. For him, the first couple lessons were basically just spent hitting balls and getting to know each other. What’s your favorite shot? Show me what you can do. For me, it was instilling fun first. I didn’t want to burn him out right away with just drills.”
Jack could already hit well with his driver and irons, so it was really about developing his short game. Sales did so in a way that was tailor made for Jack.
He made a corn hole board with netting inside for Jack to chip into from a variety of distances. Sales also set up basket targets and had him reach them with different clubs to go along with bribes. He bought Jack a sleeve of golf balls every time his putts were closest to the hole.
Sales shelled out a lot of money during his three years working with Jack.
But the expensive incentive worked. Jack was sinking putts up to 70 feet and hitting fairway bunker shots 80 yards out to within five feet from the hole.
“I was his Chubbs," joked Sales.
It gave his mom an idea.
ON THE GREEN
Jack had always wanted to be part of a team.
Kirsten thought this would be as good a time as any. So she whipped out her laptop and sent an email to Simpson, who inquired about Jack joining the team a year earlier.
“I told her at the beginning, he’d only make it into a match if he’s good enough to play and not hold anybody up,” Simpson said. “I didn’t really know what his scoring ability was.”
It turned out to be pretty good.
But he still needed a caddie. That’s when Doug “Spud” Strickling came into the picture.
Strickling’s name was brought up multiple times after Kirsten sent an email to all her friends and family asking if they knew of anyone willing to work with Jack. Strickling was immediately sold.
“They were actually looking more for a college kid or a high school kid to help out, old farts work too I guess,” Strickling said while laughing. “But golf is a passion of mine and I’m always willing to help aspiring players in anyway I can. Plus, I was a retired guy that really needed something to do. It’s been the best experience of my life.”
Jack keeps him busy for sure.
Strickling picks him up at his house every day at 3:10 p.m. They typically spend three hours playing nine holes, and on some occasions, are still out on the course well after dark.
It’s translated into a season that no one could have ever predicted.
In his first time ever playing 9-hole golf, Jack averages about 150 yards on his tee shots and reaches the putting greens by par. His typical 9-hole score hovers around the low 60s.
"It’s kind of like watching Tiger Woods because of the skill level that is required of it," Strickling said. "You see something that’s just hard to do when you have all the physical tools to do it with. It’s the balance along with how you have to move. It’s so hard to hit a ball like that, and yet, he can do it. It is amazing the amount of physical control it takes to do that, and the concentration."
It’s resulted in him beating at least two kids in all five of his matches. He is also within one stroke from besting two different kids on his own team.
“I like being on the team and proving people wrong by beating kids from other schools,” Jack said. “I’ve beat a lot of kids this year.”
But things haven't gone as well at home.
OUT OF BOUNDS
Kirsten is battling breast cancer.
She was originally diagnosed in December of 2016 and spent the next year getting chemotherapy, radiation and a double mastectomy.
The cancer went into remission for six months, but then came back with a “vengeance” in August. It still hasn't stopped Kirsten from attending every one of Jack’s matches.
“What he’s overcoming, I think is harder than what I’m doing,” Kirsten said. “So I go for as long as I can. I don’t want to miss anything. I just love seeing him play because it helps me get through the day.
“But we don't focus on me having cancer. We really don’t. I don’t want this to be what this whole family is about. We like to make it about him and his golf. He’s really enjoying it and that makes us really happy.”
GAME OF A LIFETIME
Jack will likely never get the full use of the left side of his body.
He probably won’t play in college and on the PGA Tour or even be called up to play on varsity for a state championship. And that’s perfectly fine with him.
The 17-year-old will still always have the game that's helped him through so much in some capacity, and of course, that patented smile.
“It’s cool to see someone who didn’t use his scenario as an excuse not to persevere,” Sales said. “If I have a kid, I want him to be like Jack. He’s an inspiration more so than he even knows.”