Pleasant Hill golfing champion defies expectations
By Lou Fancher
At age four, John Scott Senz saw an athlete wield a golf club and insisted he be taken to a golf range. Fourteen years later, it’s an understatement to say Senz, now an 18-year-old All-League golfer on the Concord High School golf team, has a passion for the game.
“I’m even-keeled; I just love the game,” says Senz in a phone interview. The Pleasant Hill athlete, a two-time champion of the Special Olympics of Northern California Regional Golf Tournament, was on his way home after a tournament; a typical scenario for the ever-busy Senz.
During a golf season that he says never really stops, Senz follows the high school schedule from February to May. Club groups and Shriners Hospital events have the 8-handicap golfer playing roughly three tournaments each month during the rest of the year. He practices up to four hours a day with only an occasional day off. In 2017 Senz won his Northern California Special Olympics title and in October 2018 maintained it, and he shares knowledge gained on the course with teammates and other players while sometimes helping coaches.
“With young players, I always want to teach them to love the game of golf and have fun. Basically, take your time, don’t rush. Time over a shot is valuable. You want to visualize before and after the shot. You want to have a good routine.”
Born with left hemispheric cerebral palsy that reduced his brain development and limited the physical control and strength on his body’s right side, Senz became a patient at Shriners Hospital in Sacramento. He wears a brace on one leg and continues to refine his physicality, mostly by playing golf.
Physicians when Senz was a child did not foresee his athletic accomplishments. And after successful hand surgery performed by Michelle James, M.D., in 2009 and follow-up procedures in 2015, Senz continues to defy expectations. His parents, Doug and Marta Senz, are understandably admiring but not surprised.
“I never looked at him with lower expectations,” his father says. “To his credit, he’s exceeded my expectations, and that’s on him. I give him all the credit in the world.”
His mother says a belief that her son could always achieve his goals if he tried 100 percent undergirded everything.
“We’ll support him if he succeeds. If he doesn’t succeed, we’ll talk about what we can do differently the next time,” she says.
They give ample credit for Senz’s impressive accomplishments to high school coach Craig Kilcoyne and his staff and to supportive friends who, like his mom and dad — co-owners of NorCal Courts Gym facility in Martinez — are athletes. Although his father is not a golfer, the Miramonte High School graduate, swimmer and former assistant basketball coach (at Miramonte) has coached his son in soccer, T-ball and basketball. Other people more versed in the game of golf have been invaluable.
“It’s not cliché to say it takes a village,” he says.
To overcome physical limitations that might otherwise have kept him off the course, Senz applies a blend of physical and mental principles to his game. Before tournaments, he “gets engaged,” which means thinking about each putt, visualizing his stroke and the fairways and relaxing before competitions. He says his favorite club is a 5-iron because he’s effective and consistent with it and his greatest challenge is putting.
“I’m working on not pulling left or right,” he says. To relax, he hangs out with friends, goes out to eat and engages in casual pickup basketball games to loosen up. “The mental preparation I choose,” he says, “depends on my mood. At a big tournament, when I need to do big things, I can’t hold back.”
Holding back is exactly what Senz didn’t do last fall in Las Vegas. “I was in the Shriner’s tournament, and I got to play with the best guys in the world. I had to play a lot harder. I played more aggressive, going hard at a lot more holes than I normally would. I put more tempo into my swing.”
Walking away with the title, Senz immediately focused on future plans. He expects to take a year away from his studies after graduating high school and before college to bring his handicap from eight down to four.
“I want to get my game so I can play all the time in college,” he says. Senz also enjoys speaking about his life and unique abilities on behalf of Shriners Hospital Northern California and plans to continue public appearances.
Ultimately, given his remarkable determination and track record, there’s every reason to think Senz might someday enjoy 18 holes with his favorite dream team: “Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas and myself,” he says. “Yup, that has not changed.”