ENCINITAS — Kent Menendez could be on his way to becoming the Michael Phelps of Special Olympics golf.
The 27-year-old Encinitas resident has earned a gold medal in every tournament in which he’s played since he began competing with the organization last year.
Sidelined from playing flag football after breaking a leg bone, Kent Menendez started golfing when he was 8. After he and his dad watched a tournament on TV, they went to the athletic field at Oak Crest Middle School to hit some balls.
“I’ve been doing it ever since,” said Kent Menendez, who’s taken lessons on and off since he was 12 and played on his high school golf team at San Dieguito Academy.
“That was actually a good experience for me,” he said. “I had never done anything like that before. The players were nice, which is a good thing, and it always beats doing school work because I got out of school early if there was a tournament.”
He also liked the requirement to wear team jerseys to school on tournament days.
“The kids in other sports had to wear their team shirts on game day so I felt like I was part of a team,” he said.
Kent Menendez continued golfing after graduating in 2009. His older sister helped connect him with Special Olympics.
After seeing several commercials for the games, Kiffen Rowland, a speech pathologist, did some research and “found out people with all disabilities can join,” Kent Menendez said.
“We’re sorry we found out about it so late,” his father, Daniel Menendez, said. Kent Menendez’s first tournament was in April 2016 at the San Diego Special Olympics at St. Mark Golf Course in San Marcos.
“The night before was nerve-wracking and the day of I had butterflies because I was a little nervous because I didn’t know how I was going to do,” he said. “But after the first hole I said, ‘OK, this is not as bad as I expected.’ I was saying it’s not me against everybody else. It’s me against the course.”
Last month in Long Beach he took home his second consecutive gold medal in the Special Olympics Southern California Summer Games, bringing his total gold medal count to six.
Kent Menendez credits his achievements to patience and his coach, Rob Faber.
“He helped me with my swing, how to finish a certain way on my follow-through and my head game,” Kent Menendez said. “If you hit a bad shot you can’t let it get to you. You’ve got to just put it behind you. You can’t let it wreck your round because it can do that.
“When you hit a bad shot or a bad hole and then you get real upset, you can’t concentrate and do good on the entire round after that,” he added. “So he taught me to calm down and when I hit a bad shot to not let it get to me. I tell myself I won’t get down and then I just try to do good on the next round.”
Once a week at Encinitas Ranch Golf Course, Kent Menendez works with Faber then plays 18 holes with his dad, who coaches other Special Olympic golfers.
“His life has changed,” Kent Menendez said about his father. “He loves working with the kids and he jokes around with the other coaches. It’s a family.”
Kent Menendez is inspired by his dad for reasons other than golf. His mother, Tammy, passed away when he was 13, leaving Daniel Menendez as a single dad, raising two teenagers.
“I don’t know how he’s done it,” Kent Menendez said. “He’s done a good job.”
He was born with an intellectual disability and deals with auditory and cognitive processing issues and a communication disorder. He was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder at 5.
He claims he used to be shy, but the sport has helped with that, according to his father.
“It’s a good example of what golf can do to grow a person,” Daniel Menendez said. “You learn manners, patience and when you play they usually team you with a stranger. So you get to work on socialization skills.”
He said when they are paired with people who have never played Encinitas Ranch before his son is their guide, offering tips on certain holes because he knows the course so well.
When he’s not golfing, the younger Menendez works as a donation center attendant for Goodwill Industries, a job he’s held for the past five years.
He was selected as the only San Diego golfer to compete in the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle next July.
“That’s going to be more challenging because that’s people from all over,” he said. His goal after that is to play in the 2019 World Summer Games in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
He hasn’t calculated his handicap but shoots between 85 and 93 on 18 holes. Special Olympic play is 9 holes.
Whether his medal count someday equals the 28 won by Phelps remains to be seen. But his passion for the game will keep him on course.
“Without golf I don’t know what I would be doing,” Kent Menendez said. “I’ve been playing for almost 20 years. There’s nothing I want to do besides that. And since my dad’s been doing it, too, I can play with him.
“When I’m on the course I just feel free,” he added. “There’s no one telling me what to do. It’s just me against the course. It’s just been real good to me.”