Petaluma teen with special needs finds his focus on golf course

Matt Mokski raises his arms in triumph after sinking a long putt to birdie the eighth hole, while Brendan Frazier looks on, at the Bennett Valley Golf Club in Santa Rosa, on Wednesday, Aug.  5, 2015. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

Matt Mokski raises his arms in triumph after sinking a long putt to birdie the eighth hole, while Brendan Frazier looks on, at the Bennett Valley Golf Club in Santa Rosa, on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

By LORI A. CARTER

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Matt Mokski takes his golf stance in front of the ball. “Strong legs. Soft hands. Aim for the target,” he says to himself.

Lots of athletes talk to themselves, but in Mokski’s case, the repetitive exercise is more important than just self-encouragement.

The developmentally delayed 14-year-old, headed into eighth grade at Kenilworth Junior High School, has to work a little harder than most young athletes to stay focused and make his body perform well.

Despite his difficulties communicating and processing information, Mokski has become an accomplished young golfer.

Last month in Novato, he qualified for the second round of the national Drive, Chip & Putt skills competition, a contest sponsored by the PGA, the United States Golf Association and the Masters Tournament Foundation.

On Monday, Mokski will take to the links at Haggin Oaks Golf Complex in Sacramento for the sub-regionals. From there, he would compete in Washington state and then onto the finals in April at the most prestigious of all American courses, Augusta National Golf Club.

The brown-haired, light-eyed Mokski happened into the sport he now loves, said his father, Dave Mokski.

“After school, I’d take him out to the course,” he said, “and when he saw the fairway, he just lit up.”

Mokski, who has an aide who accompanies him to school to keep him calm and focused, has blossomed and become more outgoing through golf.

“With learning disabilities, communication is difficult,” his father said. “But now, he’s got much more confidence. He’s just more open.”

Mary Beth Bursch, an LPGA golf instructor, has taught Mokski for the past two years. She had no experience with kids — or athletes — with special needs.

“When I first met him, he was very, very, very shy, kind of introverted,” she said. “He had a passion and a love of golf. I said, ‘Let’s give it a try. We both don’t know how it will work, but let’s do it.’”

She learned that Mokski works best with repeated “cues” that help him narrow his attention and allow him to concentrate on a few mechanics at a time.

After a drive of more than 200 yards, straight and true, Bursch encourages him: “Beautiful, Matt. How did it feel? What muscles are you using?”

Mokski impressed her with his obsessive interest in golfing legend Bobby Jones, who founded and designed Augusta National. She began to wonder if she could help him on a journey to the course through the Drive, Chip & Putt competition.

“He’s worked harder than anyone I know,” Bursch said. “We almost have to back him off because he’d golf 8-9 hours straight if you let him.”

“I’m just trying to get stronger,” Mokski said of his efforts, showing off his blue first-place ribbon for the Drive, Chip & Putt putting portion and his red ribbon for placing second overall.

He even beat one of his best friends this week in a match-play contest in Santa Rosa.

“When I grow up I’m going to be a great golfer,” he said.

Petaluma golfer Debbit Truttman has played a few rounds with Mokski in an effort to help him become more comfortable on the links with different people. She has noticed advances in his ability but also his personality.

“When he first started, he wouldn’t make eye contact,” she said. “Now he’s blossomed into a social person and a pretty darn good golfer. This kid is coming into his own because of golf. He’s excited about meeting people. It’s a great change.”

Bursch echoed those sentiments.

“This kid is just an absolute joy,” she said. “It’s been an incredible journey. We’ve both been learning from each other.”

She thinks Mokski could benefit from instructors who specialize in helping special-needs athletes.

“If we can keep him more in the moment instead of rushing ahead, I think he’s going to be remarkable,” she said. “This kid has every potential in the world. The hard part is his ability to maintain that focus.”

You can reach Lori A. Carter at 521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.