Ayele McCarthy has high expectations when he plays golf. He has been playing for only two years, and he is certainly the only double amputee on the course. But McCarthy already has a hole-in-one on his resume, was the top seed this season on the Oxon Hill golf team, and says that someday he would like to become a pro. Why? "I'd make a lot of money."
At that thought, Pat McCarthy chuckles. A secretary in the U.S. Foreign Service, she adopted Ayele and another boy, both natives of Ethiopia, and brought them to the Washington area.
"Buy your mother a house in the country with 100 acres?" she says. "See, that's a family secret. When I saw him at Mother Teresa's, I thought, 'That boy looks like he has golf potential.' "
They share a knowing smile, one that speaks volumes about how long a journey the family has made and how good things now seem.
Ayele McCarthy grew up in Ethiopia, but had an infection in his feet when he was 10 years old. The feet grew numb, then eventually lost all sensation and turned a dark color. Then, one day, Ayele said, his "left foot, it just came off. I went to the doctor and they told me they would have to amputate both [of his lower legs] or it could kill me" if the infection spread.
Having heard the story many times, Pat McCarthy suspects that Ayele had meningitis. The worst was yet to come, however. Doctors performed an amputation and Ayele's biological family left him in the hospital. He subsequently was sent to an orphanage.
Enter Pat McCarthy, who already had two children of her own. It was during McCarthy's first stay in Ethiopia that she met another young boy at the orphanage, Esubalew. She went on to work in Senegal, but returned to Ethiopia one year later and went back to the orphanage to visit Esubalew. When Esubalew needed an operation on his eye, McCarthy took him back to her house to recover, suggesting that he bring along a friend to help pass the time. That friend was Ayele.
One week passed, then another, and soon it became clear to Pat McCarthy that she had a problem: There was no way she could leave the boys behind when she left Ethiopia.
"It's one thing to love 20 kids [while helping at the orphanage] but it's another thing to have two kids living with you, tucking them into bed at night," she says. "I had no intention of adopting, but I like to say I got suckered by love. I was going to leave in about six months. I called my older kids. My older son said, 'Do what you think is best.' "
So Pat, Ayele and Esubalew returned to her home in Lanham. Although his lower legs had been amputated, Ayele's bones continued to grow, requiring doctors to perform revisions to the amputations, essentially cutting open the bottom of his legs and taking some of the bone off to reduce the pressure on his skin.
A few years later, the three visited McCarthy's daughter, Anikka, in North Carolina. It was there that Ayele was taken to a driving range, picking up a golf club for the first time in his life. He played nine holes with Anikka's friend and beat him. Ayele was hooked.
Back in Maryland, it cost $50 annually to join The First Tee of Prince George's County, paying for six one-hour group lessons and a daily free round of golf at three courses in the county. The closest to his home is nine-hole Henson Creek, where Ayele can be found almost every day in the summer and on weekends -- and where he once hit an eight-iron on one bounce into the cup on a par-3. There, the regulars all know his story. Other high school golfers, though, are sometimes surprised.
"At first they don't know I have a double amputation and they look at me as a golfer," McCarthy says. "When they find out I'm a double amputee, they're impressed I'm out there. They say, 'Wow, how do you do that?' "
With an accurate short game, Ayele said he usually shoots in the mid-30s over nine holes. He was disappointed after shooting a 96 in last week's district tournament, failing to qualify for the state tournament. He was scheduled to play the final round of his high school season yesterday in the county tournament.
"This kid is mentally and physically tough," Oxon Hill Coach Joe Mrad said. "I have never seen a kid as tough as him. He's earned my respect. Anybody that sees the kid play would be in awe."