Determination, drive and skill are qualities every golfer must possess to make it to the very top.
Kipp Popert, the world’s number one disability golfer, certainly ticks them three boxes and then some with the challenges he has faced throughout his career.
The 23-year-old, who is in town for the European Disabled Golf Association (EDGA) Dubai Finale at Jumeirah Golf Estates, was born 10 weeks premature, later being diagnosed with cerebral palsy that affects his lower body. Multiple surgeries followed by months upon months in a hospital bed meant Popert didn’t exactly have a typical childhood, but you wouldn’t have guessed that from speaking to him.
“I guess it was a hard childhood, but it’s all I’ve ever known,” said Popert. “Looking from the outside, people think it would have been hard, but for me, it was normal and part of day-to-day life. I had a lot of operations, but, again, I was used to that. People would say things at school, but that’s never really bothered me, people can think what they want, I just keep on going.”
Despite difficulty walking, Popert found a love of golf at a young age through his father, who had taken up the game after being told by his wife that cricket took too long. The two would sit and watch the late, great Bobby Jones to absorb information on how to play the game, before heading out to the course to practice.
“I don’t think my mum quite knew how time-consuming golf was,” he exclaimed. “I’m glad I saw those Bobby Jones videos instead of learning directly through my dad, I don’t think I’d be where I am today if I had done that!
“With my condition there’s been a fair few challenges playing the game because of the way I walk. I put a lot of pressure on my feet, so it would cause massive deformities like the size of a ping pong ball.
“Throughout my teenage years, I would have a summer of golf and then have an operation. That sort of took me one step back year after year, but I really enjoyed that as I would get to a good level, have an operation, then start all over again to get to that previous level. I really enjoyed the process of starting over.”
The process of re-learning the game saw the youngster go from strength to strength, competing in able-bodied tournaments back home in the UK, before learning of EDGA events after they partnered with the European Tour at the Scottish Open in 2019.
“I never really knew about disability golf, I basically knew that the only way to play golf for the rest of my life was to become one of the world’s best able-bodied golfers,” he said.
“I then saw Adem Wahbi, who also has cerebral palsy, playing in the event in Scotland, so I had a look into it, messaged him on Instagram and got involved from there.
“I played the EDGA Algarve Open later that year and won. I remember having to give a speech in a room full of people, who had all gone on a similar journey to me, which was the first time I’ve ever been in a position like that. It was a really special experience.”
The event in Scotland was an initiative under the umbrella of the European Tour’s Golf For Good initiative, which gives the world’s best disabled golfers the opportunity to play the same course layout as the stars of the European Tour at a number of prestigious events on the schedule, including the season-ending DP World Tour Championship in Dubai.
The initiative was put on hold in 2020 due to the pandemic, but returned this year with five events. Popert shot a closing-round 66 to prevail at St Andrews in the EDGA Hero Open earlier this season, and arrives at the season-finale in Dubai as the top ranked disability golfer on the planet.
“It’s absolutely amazing what the European Tour are doing with EDGA,” he said. “I’ve been given the opportunity to play on very tough courses, with very tough pin positions. To be given this chance to develop my game by EDGA and the European Tour is amazing. We may be the best eight disability golfers in the world, but EDGA do so much work at grassroots level. That’s what so important for me, play good golf and help spread the word of disability golf.
“I’m really looking forward to playing the EDGA Dubai Finale, but it’s all about the bigger picture. I’m going to learn an awful lot that week which is going to aid my game. I feel comfortable hitting balls next to the likes of Rory McIlroy and Ian Poulter as I’ve played the scenario through in my head so many times. Some people might think that’s weird, but that was my only option when I was bed-bound for months on end after an operation as a kid.”
With his game stronger than ever, as well as new rules coming into place for amateurs next year in terms of funding, Popert has plans to play more abled-bodied events as well as taking on the European Tour’s Qualifying School. Not only is he playing in these events to develop his career, but also to inspire the next generation of disabled golfers across the world.
“My aspirations are in able-bodied golf as well as disability golf,” he said. “I used to do this for myself but now I’ve come to the realisation that I’m doing it every disabled person out there. No matter what happens, I wake up the next day and go again. My aspirations for able-bodied golf is to achieve all my aims and inspire other people with disabilities, it’s cool to be doing it for quite a lot of people.”