Photography by Jacek Dolata | On location at Griffith E. Harris Golf Course, Greenwich
“His upper-body strength is insane,” says Juliana Stephens, speaking warmly of a husband blessed with extraordinary talents.
Last summer, Trevor Stephens put his golf talent on display in some tough competitions. But this was all made possible by a lifetime of resolve, having had his right leg amputated below the knee at age four.
From earliest days he lived a life that required strength—in the arms and in the mind.
He’s a sunny character, and he freely admits to childhood crying jags over his fate and hearing strange whispers around the town swimming pool. How did he develop into such a man of hearty good cheer after all that? He credits his obsessive reading of self-help authors, ranging from Tony Robbins to Buddha. And now he is going to submit that sunny disposition to the dark frenzies of competitive golf.
The business of swinging a club was perfected by our ancestors, oh, 300,000 years ago, give or take. But the act rises to new levels of power, glory and humiliation in the golf swing. In the hands of the game’s obsessives, swing theory becomes a collision of psychology, anatomy lessons and depthless alchemy. Then along comes Trevor, all smiles, as he belts the ball more than 300 yards.
“His clubhead speed is comparable to a PGA Tour player,” says Juliana. Trevor’s handicap hovers around 1. Which is to say, keep your gambling money stashed in your slacks.
How does he do it? As we take seats at Coffee For Good on Maple Avenue, it can be seen that he’s a few inches over six feet tall with big shoulders, long arms and the wing-span of a condor. Although he makes his living as a Realtor for Compass, he has a tanned and athletic look owing to the summer golf trips as he prepared for the Adaptive Open in Pinehurst, North Carolina. It is a full USGA event with television and the works. “I hope I can do better than nineteenth this year,” he says grinning. [Note: He would go on to tie for thirty-fifth place with rounds of 79-79-84.]
In case you hadn’t heard the word “adaptive” before, he explains: “Before, it was just disability or disabled. But they’ve gone away from that and focused on the word adaptive. That’s technically what it is: You’re an adaptive athlete; you have a prosthetic or a wheelchair, something that’s adaptive for you to compete. It’s been nice. I have found that there are different communities within the adaptive world that you can go into and meet some great people. It’s been awesome.”
Adaptive differs significantly from the transplant games that have expanded to world-level competitions. One of its shining stars was Erik Compton, who rose to PGA Tour heights even after undergoing two heart transplants. Another Tour star, Danbury native Ken Green, who lost his right leg in a tragic RV accident, plays in the Adaptive Open.
At a recent photo shoot for Golf Digest, Stephens met Brandon Canesi, heralded as the “No. 1 no-handed golfer in the country.” “Tremendous guy,” he says, speaking rapidly and with heart. “So positive. He’s created these customized golf clubs that are about fifty-five inches long and lock into his shoulder. He hits it 230, 240 down the middle. Every time.”
“People are resilient. Once you get over the fears, the uncertainties, you realize you’ll overcome it.” Pause. “You just have to work your way through it.”
It is entirely fitting that the hot java from Coffee For Good is served up by people transcending a disability. Tending to his cup, he explains: “I was born with proximal femoral focal deficiency, which is essentially a birth defect that hits maybe one in 300,000. There are different iterations of it, but the short of it is that your femur isn’t fully developed. When I was two, I had surgery; and when I was four, I had the amputation.” It took away his lower right leg from the kneecap down.
“The surgeon who performed the operation, Hal Dick, is no longer alive. My parents told me he loved the children but hated the parents. The parents are all, ‘Oh my poor child!’ And he was like, ‘The kid’s gonna be fine! They’re resilient, they adapt quickly, everything is gonna be OK. You guys need to get it through your heads that they’ll be OK.’
“There were definitely periods early on where I thought, Why me? Crying at night, and my parents are wonderful. I couldn’t have asked for a better support system than my family and friends that I’ve had all my life.”
His folks emigrated from the Bronx and Queens. Dad Jeffrey runs his own law practice and writes spy thrillers on the side. “Mom [Nancy] was a teacher for thirty-five years, now retired. She’s just your classic ‘kids can do no harm’ type of mom. Their dynamic was very important for setting the mindset for me and my brother.”
Their house in Glenville was “nothing crazy.” He attended Greenwich public schools. Kids liked hanging out at his house.
“Growing up, I tried to play every sport I could. I wasn’t winning a race or a marathon. I wasn’t going to be the next Messier or Pele, but I skied, golfed, played tennis, baseball, basketball. Never played team football. “I did the best I could. I stuck with it and found things that worked.”
By middle school he realized that baseball and basketball weren’t the “trajectory” for him. His teen years gave full witness to Tiger Woods’ most astonishing triumphs, and he could not help but be affected. Golf and skiing became his focus.
But how was this possible? In addition to the evolution of his spirit, there came the evolution in limb technology.
“There are some things you have to figure out, the technology of the prosthetics, the legs. The foot and the ankle are the main pieces, then the knee and the socket. The knee houses a lot of technology. Back in the day it was essentially like a screen door, a hydraulic swing. You had to keep to a certain pace. If you moved faster and it didn’t keep pace, you could stumble.”
The earlier arrangement was essentially a socket, a hydraulic knee and the foot. The large cotton sock that went on his leg was a dubious way to wick up an athlete’s sweat. There were times when the irritation would require twenty-four hour or longer healing time.
“At Greenwich High I was on the golf team, and carrying your bag in heavy cotton pants and the sock, it was a disaster!” Today, he adds, troubles are almost nil.
“Now, they’re computerized. It calculates the pace I’m walking, and it can adjust accordingly. The technology is amazing.”
The prosthetist who creates his legs, and who he has worked with most of his life, is Dr. Glenn Hutnick of the Eschen Labs in Manhattan.
This morning, Stephens wears a pair of blue jeans like any other guy. You’d never notice the prosthetic leg cover under the cuff. Then he taps his knee. “It’s a full-blown computer!” he says. “It has—not a gyroscope, but it can sense where you are. If it feels that I’m stumbling, the knee will lock to give me support.”
Walking eighteen holes is still a big challenge, but he can do it. Everyone in the Adaptive Games gets the use of a cart.
Now thirty-eight, he has gotten this far largely without instructors, although the famed Michael Breed, now based in West Nyack, New York, recently gave a couple of valuable lessons. Stephens never felt that he could model his swing after any other player’s. Unable to push off from his right leg, as most right-handed players do, he developed what he calls a “hands release” swing, creating a low, penetrating fade, where the ball starts left and moves to the right. “My drives on average are 300. I’ll probably get one or two a round that are 320.” (Note to uninitiated: These are those distances that will definitely make gamblers in the group stash their cash.)
As he relates these stories with such an engaging, uptempo manner, one might wonder how he ever had doubts. What helped banish them was his resolute, self-help campaign.
“Early on it was a lot of Tony Robbins’ philosophy. Everybody’s got something going on, and you just have to figure out what it is.
I’ve also put in a ton of work. I’ve read a gazillion books on outlook, on the approach to things, on philosophy, on interactions, on ‘Think and Grow Rich.’ If you saw a selection of my book collection, you’d wonder. My wife is sick of it. But it gets to a place where it becomes autopilot. You rewire whatever it takes.
“Books are massively impactful, but you just have to get up and do things. You have to say, ‘OK, I’m in a bad mood? That’s not going to stop me from having this happen.’
“What really impressed me was the Buddhist philosophies. A phrase that always stuck with me was, ‘If it’s rainy and miserable out, you’re just seeing to the level of the clouds. There’s always sun above it.’ ”
He sighs. “That was always a poignant visual for me. Even if you’re going through something really tough, there’s always something above.
You just have to get through it. You have to compartmentalize, you have to piece things and do it one by one, one step at a time.”
He pauses for emphasis. “One more step. I think that’s like a Navy Seals thing: One more step. Keep things going. Don’t worry about wild and crazy, just keep it going.
“Early on,” he cautions, “there were struggles. I didn’t really get bullied or made fun of. Sometimes somebody would say something. Curious kids who’d ask questions. Or kids are gesturing. It makes you a little self-conscious. But you get over it. You have to.
“I’m a big believer in the silver lining, the positive approach to every situation. And being able to tap into that. It’s extremely important, it’s a strong suit of mine. It’s gotten me through challenging times, be it the leg or just life in general.”
AND THE GAME CONTINUES
When it came time for college he wanted to see something outside his Northeast comforts and chose Rollins, near Orlando. He was not able to get on its very strong golf team. His major? Psychology. “Shock!” he says with a laugh. “It was more on the personal side than the clinical side. What gets people to tick?”
When it is suggested that this would be a useful tool in either golf or realty, he frowns. “Unfortunately, I’ve got to use a little bit more of it on the golf course.”
Living in Manhattan after graduation, his first career was in hospitality. “I used to run restaurants. I just naturally like people. I like the changing dynamic of day-to-day, and helping people out. And that’s carried over to realty. I like helping people find a home. Knowing that people trust me and I can counsel them through it, I love it.”
He does residential work, condos, co-ops and townhouses in Manhattan.
When he was first dating Juliana, who was then working in beauty public relations, they lived downtown on Third Avenue. Then came marriage and about three years ago, along came baby Henry. Covid had come along, too, and, spooked by the emptiness of the city, they migrated to Greenwich. A year ago, daughter Lilly was born in Stamford Hospital.
Being out here would certainly make the golf choices easier, although he does not belong to any club. “I’m like a nomad. Wherever someone says, ‘Hey, you wanna play?’ I would like to join somewhere, someday. But TBD on that.
“I usually have three-ish golf trips during the summer. You’re catching me in the middle of that now. I try not to golf on weekends: That’s family time.
“But I like hard golf. I don’t like it easy. I like when you have to hit hard shots and visualize it.” His idea of fun is Shinnecock, the Hamptons club and notorious U.S. Open site that has driven men to drink. “The flow of that course is perfect,” he beams.
“The thing about golf is either the camaraderie you can have or the solitude. You can be with people you like, but it’s also a mental game. I never get tired of it, even the mental steps when you’re trying to figure out those little details. I’ve always been a big hitter, but then you hit it thirty yards in the rough, so that’s not always the best play.
“In the Adaptive Open last year I tried to overpower the course. The par fives are short for me, but they’re all dogleg lefts, and I can’t hit the ball right to left. It was a mess. And after three days of cumulative scoring it adds up.”
He adopts a sheepish grin, but it’s still robust as hell. “So, I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately.”