Reaching the esteemed position of a plus-three handicap is arduous enough without the challenges that have come the way of Kipp Popert. Multiple surgeries to make day-to-day life a little easier – never mind by way of assistance with the fulfilment of sporting aspirations – mean Popert has been denied a standard amateur career.
Having been born 10 weeks premature, Popert was later diagnosed with cerebral palsy that affects his lower body. Throughout his teenage years a successful summer on the golf course would be followed by another operation – the lengthening of compacted muscles and foot reconstruction among them – plus protracted recuperation time as routine. No wonder Popert doffs his cap to the NHS.
“The free health care in this country means I have been able to undergo procedures that, in other countries, I wouldn’t have been able to go in for,” he says. “It would have been easier if I didn’t want to go into professional sport but I wanted a chance to be able to use my feet as best I could. There were times when I missed a whole year of golf.”
Now 23, a graduate and with what appears a clear fairway in front of him, Popert has eyes on prime events – the Amateur Championship and Lytham Trophy among them – in 2022. Yet one domain continues to preclude disabled golfers from participating. Despite the Olympic Games having a golf element since 2016, the Paralympics will begin on Tuesday week without the same. That looks as incongruous as it is disappointing. “I am a player, I just do that part,” Popert says. “Hopefully it will happen and I will be ready. As golfers we play for ourselves a lot of the time. The biggest honour is to represent your country. I watched cerebral palsy football at London 2012 and was blown away.”
It must be recognised that the International Golf Federation, which has overseen the sport’s Olympic return, is desperate for Paralympic inclusion. “The IGF has made a number of unsuccessful bids to be admitted to the Paralympic Games, with the latest being for Paris 2024,” said the IGF’s executive director, Anthony Scanlon. “We are currently working towards making another application for the Los Angeles 2028 Paralympic Games.
“The IGF strongly believes that golf would be a tremendous addition to the sports programme and is no less dedicated to making that happen. We are confident that golf’s inclusion in the Paralympic Games would be as great a success as golf’s return to the Olympic Games was. Similarly it would generate tremendous worldwide interest and inspire a new generation of athletes with impairments to participate in sport.”
For now the articulate and driven Popert is excelling in the environments available to him. He recently reached the summit of the world rankings for golfers with a disability. Popert has been a prominent performer and a winner as the European Tour maintains an alliance with the continent’s Disabled Golf Association via 36-hole tournaments. The standard therein is high; Popert shot a closing-round 66 to prevail at St Andrews last weekend. In November Dubai will stage the EDGA and European Tour’s grand finale.
“I want to continue to push disability golf and the EDGA,” Popert says. “My ultimate ambition is higher than anyone would say, so I’ll keep that to myself, but I want to achieve my potential. That definitely includes playing on the European Tour. When the timing is right I will turn professional and give it my best shot. If I can set a high bar and people look up to me, that would be a great honour.”
Popert has no cause to underplay the hurdles before him. Golf is a game of physical rotation and, especially in the modern era, power. The Kent player’s limitations in that respect seem obvious. “My disability is not progressive, so it will not get worse other than the things that happen to your muscles as you get older anyway,” Popert says. “That has always helped me mentally; I know that, if I work hard, I can improve my condition and ability to live with it. I do everything I can to be able to do as much as I can.
“I have added club head speed over the last year and think I can add more. The beautiful thing about golf and what gives me a chance is that 70% of shots are hit from 120 yards and in. An elite player from 120 yards in will score well. The modern game is going a certain way because of distance but I can still work extremely hard at the other parts of my game. It’s in my nature to keep pressing on because of all the setbacks and operations I have had from a young age.”
Plus, unfortunately, the dismissive glances. “Oh yeah, throughout school,” Popert recalls. “When you are 14 or 15, telling people you are going to play at the highest level of golf as you struggle to walk into a gym class? I remember being in a buggy at a golf club because my feet were particularly bad that day and an older member asked, ‘What are you doing in that?’
“I don’t mind people asking me about my condition, I have lived with it, so it is part of who I am. If I had it a lot easier growing up, I wouldn’t be as resilient as I am now.” The Paralympics, for now at least, is missing a putt from tap-in range.