Johnson City native Richard Heath is quiet, humble and gifted.
He learned to play golf here as a youngster and parlayed his years of practice and desire into a gold medal at the 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Athens, Greece.
Heath, 33, was in Athens from June 27-July 4 during which he competed at the Glyfada Golf Club. He and other competitors played four, 18-hole rounds. He shot an 87 on a par-72 course during one of those rounds — a score many avid golfers would be high-fiving over. Just to show he’s not a flash in the pan, he went to West Palm Beach, Fla., over the weekend and promptly won a tournament there.
Heath and his parents spoke with the Johnson City Press at their home this week about the trip, his accomplishments, and what it took for him to reach that level.
“I started playing when I was eight at the Johnson City Country Club,” said the Science Hill High School graduate who was a member of its golf squad. “I played with my dad and my friends. I even played in the snow once. I never took lessons, but I got pretty good.”
The golfer, who said he watches the sport a lot on television, said Phil Mickelson is his favorite pro. He calls Vero Beach, Fla., home now where he is a regular participant at the Abilities Resource Center. He’s been working at the center and received some congratulatory shots from friends and staff when he returned from Athens.
It was during a victory party there where he says he saw himself playing golf on film for the first time.
“I saw my swing and thought, ‘hey, that was pretty good,’” he said.
Heath has been the Florida Special Olympics golf champ for the past two years and qualified for the American team in San Diego in May. While in Athens, he competed at the second-highest skill level out of six levels, playing 18 rounds on four consecutive days.
He said he’d never been to Greece and that it was “neat” and different.”
“I was a little nervous, but it was a pretty easy course to play. On a boat ride, I ate octopus. I didn’t like it much, but things went pretty well.”
He also thanked his father, Derek, and mother, Jackie, saying they helped teach and encourage him.
“I think he’s learned by osmosis,” said Derek Heath. “He had never seen himself play until recently. I do play with him about once a week. But parents are not allowed on the course when they’re competing. His teammates call him ‘Mr. Freeze,’ because he’s so cool.”
He probably was happy to be associated with that nickname, because the test not only included the fairways and sand traps but also walking around the course in temperatures dancing around 90 degrees over the course of four days.
Derek Heath said he and his son hit the links in Vero Beach just about every Sunday, and Richard practices a few more times each week. But as the big overseas tournament neared, his father said he changed his strategy and used a hands-off approach so he wouldn’t try to fix what did not need fixing.
Richard’s mother, Jackie, explained that at the time her son was diagnosed with autism, there was not a lot of knowledge readily available about it.
“It’s just a very broad section of people — from those who can’t talk, to his fairly high-level of function,” she said. “There are varying levels. Richard can play 18 holes; others need help just hitting the ball. It was just at the last minute when we decided that he may qualify for the national team. And I’ve got to say the volunteers in Greece from all over the world were great.”
The gold medalist said he’d like to try for another and that driving and putting are his major strengths.
But what’s this? He is also considering a run at the gold in another sport — bowling, where he sports a 237 average.