No left hand is no problem for standout athlete Isaac Berger
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Berger is one of 22 patient ambassadors at the Shriners Children's Open representing the health care network
Written by Helen Ross @helen_pgatour
Isaac Berger’s four brothers were understandably concerned as they contemplated what life would be like for their youngest sibling. Their parents, Jen and Dale, had been very open with their boys, who ranged from 13 to 2 years old. When Jen went in for her 20-week ultrasound, doctors discovered Isaac had a congenital limb deficiency. He did not have a left hand.
The brothers wondered: Would he be able to wrestle? Play football? Hit a baseball? Their grandmother, Dale’s mother, put those worries to rest. A librarian, she found a book about Jim Abbott, who pitched 10 years in the major leagues despite being born without a right hand.
“They read it and they're like, oh, yeah, he's going to be just fine,” Jen recalls. “I said, yep, he will be just fine.”
Isaac, now 17 years old, has done all of the above – and then some. The high school senior also skis, plays hockey, snowboards, and hunts deer and wild turkeys. He mows the lawn, uses the weed-eater and operates the snowblower during the harsh Wisconsin winters.
And Isaac plays golf. Very well, in fact. He plays on his high school team and can beat his brothers. And at the Shriners Children’s Open this week he’ll be hitting a shot at the par-3 eighth hole at TPC Summerlin with every team during Wednesday’s pro-am.
The teenager expects to be nervous, but he knows how important his participation is to get the word out about Shriners, where he’s received treatment and support since before he could walk.
“It’s really exciting just because (the fans will) get to see how Shriners has helped people,” Isaac says. “But it's also nerve-wracking just because all the people will be watching to see how they've helped people do things that people with two hands can.”
Isaac is one of 22 patient ambassadors from across the country representing the health care network at the tournament this week. Shriners Children’s provides care for orthopedic issues, as well as burn injuries, craniofacial conditions, spinal conditions and spinal cord injuries and colorectal and gastrointestinal problems – regardless of a family’s ability to pay.
Eager to soak up all the knowledge he can from PGA TOUR pros, Isaac will also work as a standard bearer this week, and will walk inside the ropes with Wyndham Clark, who donated $25,000 of his winnings from last year’s RSM Birdies Fore Love competition at The RSM Classic to Shriners Hospitals. (Birdies Fore Love returns for the first nine events of the 2022-23 season.)
“They've really helped me grow as a person,” Isaac says of Shriners. “I used to not be very confident about my arm and how it looked. But I've been a part of their family for so long … it's who I am, and I can show it off.”
Isaac became a patient of the Shriners hospital in Minneapolis when he was just 10 months old. He’d already had a prosthetic made to help stabilize him as he was learning to crawl, as well as make sure the muscles on each side developed equally.
“It was very heavy, but it worked really good to whack his brother,” Jen says with a laugh. “But he did use it. He would just kind of clump along as he was crawling.”
One of Jen’s best friends from college is a physical therapist in Iowa. She had been treating a patient who was affiliated with Shriners and suggested Shriners might help the Bergers, too.
“Neither of us really knew a whole lot about Shriners other than they were the guys in the hats that drove the stuff at the parades,” Jen says. But she called, and as soon as they got to the hospital in Minneapolis, nearly three hours from their home in Neillsville, Wisconsin, it felt like they belonged.
“It was like, Welcome to our family,” she recalls. “What can we do for you? Let’s make this. Let’s do everything we can to support Isaac. They introduced us to a dad and a 15-year-old hockey player who was born pretty much the same as Isaac – just the opposite hand. We talked to them about all our parent questions. It was just wonderful.”
The Bergers have taken Isaac to the Twin Cities hospital at least twice every year since. Jen says generally every time a kid grows a pant size, they’ve outgrown their prosthetics. For Isaac, the early ones were passive, but then he progressed to a moveable prosthetic where he could open and close the hand by moving his shoulders.
“He certainly did not wish to be an everyday user of it, but it would come in really handy,” Jen says. “It was just a really great tool to help Dad do projects in the garage, build a deck, things like that – to hold the screw or the hammer. And for doing food prep in the kitchen.”
When Isaac was about 8, he got his first sports arm. It’s a socket that fits over his arm with removable attachments that allow him to participate in sports like basketball, hockey and golf. He uses it to lift weights and even learned to swim with it.
“I just kind of find my own way to do anything,” he says.
The golf attachment is about the width of a hand. He puts it on the bottom of the shaft next to the clubhead and slides it up onto the grip. A few twists to make sure it’s tight on the club and he’s ready. He learned that he plays better golf, and baseball, lefthanded. It took him several months to get accustomed to the movement, but now it comes naturally and gives him more power.
“I can be a little bit more precise because it's the arm that kind of just leads the motion of everything,” Isaac says. “It controls my left arm when it's in the prosthetics, so I have a little bit more control over the swing and over hitting the ball. It makes me a little bit more accurate.”
Jen introduced her son to golf when he was young, but Isaac didn’t start to take the game seriously until he attended a clinic given by adaptive golfer Jonathan Snyder at the 2018 Shriners Children’s Open. Snyder, who was born without a left hand, is the director of golf operations at the U.S. Adaptive Golf Alliance. Based in Chicago, he now serves as Isaac’s coach.
“We do a lot of Zoom meetings,” says Isaac, whose lowest round is an 86. “He's really helped my game improve a lot. He's helped me gain the interest in golf.”
Isaac, who volunteered as a standard bearer at the Shriners Children’s Open in 2018, says he’s not sure he would have been able to hit shots with the TOUR pros during his first stint as a patient ambassador.
“I think if this opportunity was given to me ... when I was last there, I don't know if I would've done it just because it would've just maybe been too much,” he says. “Because I wasn't very confident in myself during that (time).”
Not anymore. Not only does he play on his high school team, but Isaac also competes in the North American One-Armed Golf Association’s junior tournaments. And on Wednesday, he’ll be hitting tee shots at the eighth hole with players like Patrick Cantlay, Rickie Fowler and Matt Kuchar.
“That's really, really cool,” Isaac says. “And I get to meet them in person and talk to them, so it's pretty exciting.”