VILLAGE OF PINEHURST, N.C. — Conor Stone couldn’t swing a club the last two weeks.
The 28-year-old from Ireland won the 2022 U.S. Adaptive Open male arm impairment category in the inaugural year of the championship for golfers with disabilities, but he was planning to withdraw from this year’s championship. Fortunately for Stone, he already had his flight and hotel booked.
So, his physiotherapist Jerry McDonough got to work on his back and Stone made the trip to Pinehurst No. 6, where he shot a 5-under 67 to not only lead his category but the men’s overall leaderboard after the first round on Monday.
“Yeah, to be honest, it was easy. I don’t know where it came from,” a laughing Stone said of his opening round. “But happy to be able to hit a golf ball good again. I’ve always been able to shoot these scores, but I just haven’t done it in a long time, so it’s nice to do it on a big stage like this.”
Stone, born in Dublin, began playing golf at 13 and was a scratch player four years later. During his Paddy Harrington Scholarship at Maynooth University in Ireland, Stone was diagnosed with a progressive form of Kyphoscoliosis. Less than a decade after picking up a game he loved, Stone was unable to play due to the severity of the pain and curve to his spine. From there, Stone underwent a 15-hour surgery before his 22nd birthday to correct his spine, but he was left with little flexibility and wasn’t able to rotate. Following two long years of rehab, Stone has worked his way back and is now on the positive side of scratch with a handicap of +1.1.
The Irishman got off to a hot start with an eagle on the first hole and added five birdies and two bogeys to hold a one-shot lead over defending men’s overall champion Simon Lee (68) and a three-shot advantage over Kipp Popert (70) in third.
“I was kind of nervous after that because the juices were flowing after I holed that putt for eagle on the first, so I was slightly nervous going forward. But then three or four holes in, I kind of settled it, and I felt fine after that,” Stone said of his round. “If I had made a birdie putt or a two-footer for birdie, I probably would have felt a lot better. But yeah, obviously I’m happy with the eagle, so it kicked off the round.”
Stone got off to a slow start last year and attributed his low round of the day on Monday to course knowledge and the July humidity in the Sandhills of North Carolina.
Going low on day 1!
— USGA (@USGA) July 10, 2023
“I was not used to the heat and the humidity that we had here. I was much more confident coming over this time,” said Stone. “Well, in my mind, the way my golf was, I wasn’t confident, but I felt more comfortable on the course.”
Stone plays in the arm impairment category, but his real issue is his spine, where he has 60 pieces of metal holding it together.
“I have good days and have bad days, and to be honest I thought my time was up,” he explained. “I thought my back was just giving in because I’ve lost 15 miles an hour club head speed in the last six, seven months. I’ve lost 20, 30 yards off my irons. It’s been scary. I’ve been worried about what’s happened to my body.”
“But I’m hitting it shorter now, and look, it’s fine. The ball was going straight. I was still hitting greens,” he continued. “I might be hitting two clubs more than what I did last year, but yeah, it’s fine. But I have to stretch, trying not to do too much. I have to keep loose, keep moving, and hope that I don’t do too much.”
After Saturday’s practice round, Stone did a range session and felt his back giving out on him. He’s self-admittedly “not too holy of a person, but I was saying my prayers Saturday night that I could still swing a club Sunday morning,” he said with a chuckle.
The Dublin native has a day job where he works 40-50 hours per week for McGuirks Golf – think the Irish version of the PGA Tour Superstore – and praised his boss, Michael McGuirk, for letting him bring his laptop and work on the road. He even had to go log a few hours after his round.
“I’m very lucky to have people around me that are helping me do things like this,” said Stone. “It’s worked out well.”
With two more days of solid work on the course, Stone might be bringing a trophy back home with him.