CLEARWATER — It is late afternoon, and Tyler Whitehurst is practicing his chips at Countryside Country Club, his favorite place in the world. As each chip lands softly on the green and releases to the hole, his father, Jim, gives encouragement.
"Nice one there, Ty,'' he said.
Tyler, 20, chips and putts throughout the afternoon. All the while, Jim Whitehurst watches with a crooked smile.
Tyler was diagnosed at age 5 with Asperger's syndrome, a developmental disorder that affects a person's ability to socialize and communicate effectively with others. But Tyler is in his element on the golf course. In a world that can be challenging to him, golf makes sense.
"He plays golf until he gets tired, and then we go eat,'' Jim said, laughing.
Tyler put his game to the test last weekend in the Special Olympics National Invitational Tournament at the PGA Club in Port St. Lucie. He shot 84-91-80—255 to win the Level 5 (18 hole) event by more than 30 shots.
His 80 was his best score ever. He even earned a nickname: Tyler Woods.
"I didn't know I had it in me on the last day,'' Tyler said. "I'm just like the Sunday Tiger Woods, except for the red shirt. That was the proudest moment I ever had.''
It has been a year of proud moments for Tyler, who lives in Dunedin. He won the Special Olympics state tournament at Orange Lake Resort in Kissimmee this summer by one shot. It was his third straight state championship.
"The recent state championship was the hardest one I ever had to win,'' Tyler said.
But it is the national championship that Tyler and his family value most.
"There aren't words for that,'' Tyler's stepmother, Amy Whitehurst, said. "He's getting to experience emotions and a sense of self he wouldn't get had he not been in Special Olympics. It's totally changed him."
Jim Whitehurst and his first wife, Barbara, found out Tyler had Asperger's syndrome when a kindergarten teacher at Palm Harbor Montessori Academy told them Tyler wasn't interacting with other kids.
He was transferred to Morning Star School in Pinellas Park until eighth grade. Then he went to East Lake High to be in its autism program. He was an honorary member of the Eagles golf team.
When Tyler was about 10, Jim noticed he had an interest in golf.
"When he was little, he liked watching it on TV because of the way you had to count," Jim said. "It starts at zero and ends at whatever you shoot. He likes the order of it.''
The Whitehursts are longtime members at Countryside Country Club. They set up lessons with former Countryside teaching pro Justina Hopkins.
Pretty soon, Tyler was playing four or five holes. Then nine. Then 18. Golf became his passion. His sister Katelyn, stepbrothers Adam and Paul, and stepsister Allaire would encourage him.
"We would drag all five kids out there on Saturday afternoons,'' Amy said. "We would follow him around, and he loved having his gallery cheering him on. He would give his Tiger Woods wave when he hit a good shot. The more attention he got, the more he loved it.
"Golf is Tyler, and Tyler is golf. He plays golf video games. He watches all the PGA tournaments. He keeps statistics. He loves golf."
Tyler tries not to miss a PGA Tour event. He keeps a spread sheet with all the winners and their scores.
"I made a commitment to myself that I was going to watch the whole PGA Tour this season,'' he said.
Who is his favorite golfer?
"I'd have to say either Phil Mickelson or Rory McIlroy. People say I look like (McIlroy). I used to like Tiger Woods, but I don't as much. I remember the final hole of the final round of the 2010 Masters, he took a shot and dropped his club. I didn't like that.''
Tyler has his sights set on the 2015 Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles.
Andrew Medlin, who was Tyler's coach this summer in the Pinellas County Special Olympics program, said he hasn't seen a Special Olympics golfer as talented as Tyler.
"His focus was unreal,'' Medlin said. "It was like looking at a true professional golfer. When he approached the ball, he knew exactly what he needed to do. If he hit a bad shot, he knew what he needed to correct.''
Tyler attends Pinellas Park's Richard L. Sanders School, which teaches young adults job skills. Tyler can attend for only two more years, and then he hopes to land a job in golf.
"He needs to be out here getting people motivated about golf," Jim Whitehurst said, "because that's what his passion is.''