Other than when competing in matches, 17-year-old Griff McCrary rarely plays golf with anyone his own age. His rare condition deters even some adults. But those who do tee it up with Griff at Troy (Ala.) Country Club see endless potential.
“His ball just makes a different sound when it comes off the club,” says Raymond Ledford, one of only a few club members who plays regular rounds with Griff. “He can hit 4-irons like a laser.”
Tolver Dozier, who played college golf at Troy University and now plays the mini tours, has been Griff’s swing coach for two years.
“There’s definitely the wow factor when Griff hits the ball,” he says. “He has unbelievable natural talent, unbelievable physical talent. For his age, he’s outdriving kids all the time by 30 or 40 yards. If I had his clubhead speed, I’d probably be on the Tour today.”
Griff is 5-foot-8, 180 pounds and routinely carries drives 300-plus yards. He was the low medalist in seven of 15 events during his 2019 season at Charles Henderson High School; he also won several junior tournaments. Last spring, in a high school tournament in nearby Eufaula, Griff shot 69. It was a stellar round, but it’s how he did it that turned heads: nine birdies, including six in a row. Just a few days ago Griff tied for 5th in a field of 100-plus at a 36-hole Lite Scratch Tour Florida event in Dothan, Ala. His four-under 68 on Sunday was the low-round of day, and it included a double bogey.
Ben Bates, who played several years on the PGA Tour, is a former college teammate of Griff’s father and has remained close to the family. According to Bates, Griff’s natural talent and love for the game should give him “a chance” to make it to golf’s biggest stage.
Many young players have Griff’s talent. But few have ascended to his heights while uncontrollably grunting, cursing and otherwise struggling to check their behavior. While having to endure stares and whispers from opponents. While having to greet new playing partners with this unsettling disclaimer:
“Guys, I have Tourette’s syndrome,” Griff tells them. “My Tourette’s makes me say curse words and offensive things I don’t mean. I’m not doing this on purpose.”
Indeed, Griff would give up just about everything to make it stop.
* * * * *
Hundreds of thousands of Americans with Tourette’s live relatively normal lives, with involuntary vocal and motor tics occurring only occasionally. For most, their symptoms become less noticeable with age. But Griff is among the 2 percent who also suffers from acute coprolalia, which triggers involuntary outbursts of obscene words, socially inappropriate or derogatory remarks. He also has copropraxia, a related condition that prompts obscene hand gestures. As few as 6,000 Americans suffer from this most severe form of Tourette’s. According to the Tourette Association of America, those who do can find it difficult to get through the day. Bluntly, it can make one’s life a living hell. In a classroom, in a workspace and, yes, on a golf course.
Everybody has their own struggles. Most of us can hide our struggles. Griff can’t.
Any person who has spent significant amounts of time around Griff has witnessed scenes they may describe as surreal, like hearing Griff utter every profanity, offensive term or slur imaginable — hundreds, if not thousands, of times. Not to mention all the times he’s “shot the bird” at them. Several years ago, a new addition to Griff’s Tourette’s vocabulary left his parents mortified. About the time he hit puberty, Griff suddenly began using the N-word … incessantly. Here it should be noted that Griff, a white student, attends a high school that is 60 percent African-American.
Several members of Troy CC describe a scene they’ve witnessed many times: Griff, sitting on the curb outside the pro shop, asking every member who walks by if he can join their group.
Most — almost all — decline the request.
Many, to be fair, might already have their foursomes arranged, but the few members who do play with Griff are baffled and infuriated by the members who repeatedly refuse to play with him.
“Some people ask, ‘Why can’t he play with his father?’” says Andy Johnson, one of Griff’s regular playing partners. “One, don’t you think his father could use a break? And, two, his father does play with him all the time.
“Everybody has their own struggles. Most of us can hide our struggles. Griff can’t.”
Griff received only one scholarship to play college golf. How many others offers would he have received if he didn’t have severe Tourette’s?
“Every coach in America would be camped outside his front door,” Johnson says.
Griff’s lone scholarship offer came from Sylas Elliott, who is beginning his second season as head coach at Wallace State Community College in tiny Hanceville, Ala., one of the top junior college programs in the country. Elliott, 24, loved Griff’s talent, but there was another reason why he recruited him: Elliott also has Tourette’s.
Elliott has outgrown most of the symptoms that caused him to be bullied and teased by his peers when he was Griff’s age. And Griff’s case “is 50 times worse than mine … the worst case I have witnessed,” Elliott says. Still, before he’d watched him play a single competitive round, the coach offered Griff a scholarship.
“Griff at least deserves an opportunity,” Elliott says. “He is going to end up touching a lot of people’s lives. His is going to be a great story — for both of us.”
Doug Branson, Griff’s high school coach, has a theory about those college scholarship offers that Griff never received. The players at most of those programs practice and compete at swanky country clubs, most of which have important donors.
“Do these country clubs want someone playing on their course who is going to be uttering these profanities and flipping people off? he says. “Do they want to be hitting balls on the range next to this guy?”
Griff’s dad, Collin McCrary, was a Division II All-American at Troy in the early 1980s. He named Griff after his college coach, the legendary Mike Griffin, who went on to coach at several future PGA Tour pros at Auburn, including 2013 PGA champ Jason Dufner. According to Griffin, it’s no coincidence his namesake reached college age at almost the identical time Elliott became a head golf coach in Griff’s home state. Coach Griffin also believes it was no coincidence that Griff was adopted 17 years ago by his parents.
“The man upstairs blessed Griff the day he brought these three people together,” Griffin says.
* * * * *
Former college sweethearts, Collin McCrary and Connie Casey were married in 1988. Connie was a first-grade teacher, Collin a financial advisor. After 12 years of trying to have a child, the couple decided to adopt in 2002. A private adoption service in Louisiana brought Griff into their lives.
Before retiring in 2012, Connie taught first grade at Troy Elementary School. Given her long-time service to the students at the school, it’s still a source of family angst that her own son had a “horrible” experience there.
Griff had yet to be diagnosed with Tourette’s when he started kindergarten, although his parents could tell he had severe ADHD and OCD. Around that time, the family took a vacation to Walt Disney World, where their hotel at the resort featured a giant water slide. Griff played on the slide all day, never tiring out, and eventually Collin asked a safety employee perched at the summit if she knew how many times his son had slid down. “We stopped counting at 110,” she said.
Griff’s own memories of his elementary-school years are of being sent to the principal’s office. Once, while walking in the lunchroom with classmates, a teacher “snatched me up” after one of his motor tics caused his hand to jerk toward a classmate. Griff’s mother was there to witness the incident. “I thought she was going to tackle (the teacher),” Griff remembers.
Collin will never forget the day he went to Griff’s school to eat lunch with his son. He arrived early and decided to visit his classroom, where he was informed Griff had been sent to in-school suspension. When Collin got to that classroom, he saw his 8-year-old son standing in a corner, holding three dictionaries on his head (apparently the teacher’s solution to keep Griff’s hands still). Collin, widely known as one of the friendliest men in the community, snapped. He delivered some choice words to the teacher, ordered his son out of the classroom and stormed to the principal’s office, where the first of a series of difficult meetings transpired.
As soon as Griff’s parents visited with officials at the State Department of Education in Montgomery, administrators and teachers began to implement individual education plans that took into account Griff’s special needs. By fifth grade, Griff had been diagnosed with severe Tourette’s. It was also around this time that Griff began to experience the acute sense of isolation he still lives with today.
The family couldn’t help but notice when Griff didn’t receive invitations to the parties his classmates attended, and a few times, in a veiled manner, Collin and Connie were asked not to bring their son to events. It was only after the couple arrived that they’d discover everyone else’s children were there. Connie remembers one birthday party Griff attended where the host mother screamed at Griff in a way that haunts Connie to this day.
His father, tearing up, admits Griff has had no real friends his own age for the bulk of his life.
* * * * *
Fifth grade was miserable for Griff, but there was a silver lining: that was the year he discovered golf. Griff had played team sports and was a good athlete, but little league coaches didn’t know how to deal with him. Coaches usually played Griff the minimum requirement.
Despite his own golf prowess, Collin didn’t want to force the game on his son. But he did gently encourage him. In 2013, Collin took Griff to a Masters practice round. Soon after they returned home, Collin was driving his son to baseball practice when Griff asked his father to turn the car around.
“Dad,” he said, “I don’t want to play anymore. I want to play golf.”
By now, Griff was in seventh grade. A few days after classes commenced at his new school, Griff made an announcement to his mother. “I finally have a teacher who loves me, Mom,” he said. The educator was Bari Rasberry, “an angel sent from heaven for us,” Collin says. Sharon Maestri, the wife of long-time Troy University basketball coach Don Maestri, was another teacher who helped turn Griff’s life around.
Griff’s high school special education teacher, Tina Lieb, had never had a student with Tourette’s. Then, she says, she had one “with the worst case ever.” She’s seen Griff’s lows and highs, but today, she says, the student she sees does not at all resemble the one she met four years ago, with little confidence and without friends his own age. The possibility Griff could lead a redeeming life — one in which he could function on his own — once seemed inconceivable.
Now, it seems possible.
“I have Tourette’s, but Tourette’s doesn’t have me,” Griff says. “There’s more to me than just my Tourette’s.”
Griff has become the best junior golfer the city of Troy’s ever produced, and while his story certainly qualifies as a triumph, it’s also a story without an ending.
Griff’s father notes that Griff’s impending transition to junior college is a critical moment in his son’s life, which also probably explains why his parents are eager to share their son’s story. If acquaintances see Griff through educated eyes, they will be more likely to engage with him, not run from him — and that, Collin and Connie believe, could significantly improve the quality of Griff’s life.
* * * * *
The McCrarys have heard countless times, from uninformed observers, that Griff’s behavior could improve. One teacher said she could produce such a change in just three days. A few parents told Collin to take a belt to his Griff’s backside. Some residents of Griff’s hometown, who were not willing to speak on the record, believe Griff could control his tics if he really wanted to. It’s a viewpoint dismissed as “ridiculous” by those who have spent large amounts of time with Griff.
“Education is the key with Griff,” said Branson, who not only coached Griff but was also one of his teachers. “People need to know he can’t control what he is doing, that he is not doing this out of spite. He’s doing the very best he can to control his tics.”
Griff offers only a four-word response: “I hate my Tourette’s.”
Once, while staying at the family’s second home at Seagrove Beach in the Florida Panhandle, Collin and his son were returning from the beach at the same time a Harley Davidson rally finished. Collin came to a stoplight just as a convoy of Harley riders — not wealthy doctor-types on a joy ride, real Hell’s Angels — pulled up beside his vehicle. Griff was going through one of his phases where he flipped the bird every few seconds. “Griff, if there was ever a time you needed to sit on your hands and do everything in your power to control your tics, this is that time,” Collin said.
Like many people with Tourette’s, Griff also suffers from severe ADHD and OCD.
“If it starts with a letter, Griff has it,” Branson says.
Griff’s vocal and motor tics have also changed over time. His inexplicable barks, meows, grunts or yelps have either subsided or vanished all together. Still, as one tic recedes, it’s often replaced by another. In another phase not long ago, Griff started spitting almost constantly, a habit that forced his parents to purchase surgical masks in bulk.
“Ninety percent of Griff’s issues are explained by his Tourette’s,” Lieb says. “The other 10 percent are explained by bad decisions he’s made. But every teenager makes bad decisions.”
Lieb said some of Griff’s classmates — “I won’t call them friends” — intentionally try to provoke his tics or vocal outbursts. Citing just one example, she recalls a time when kids in his class started to “meow.” Sure enough, Griff was soon making cat sounds.
“When you have no friends, any attention you get is good attention,” Lieb says.
Like virtually every person with a severe form of Tourette’s, Griff also can experience “rage events.” His father says these meltdowns almost always happen after a day when his tics have been particularly bad or when the teasing he’s experienced has been particularly cruel. After some bad days, Griff goes to his room and releases intense yelps. His father says they can be heard a half mile away. Sometimes the frustration is so great he punches walls. Swaths of white plaster in the family den and Griff’s bedroom, applied to repair holes in the dry wall, reveal the aftermath of Griff’s worst days.
Collin’s younger brother, Carson, says he’s in awe of how Collin and Connie have raised Griff, the patience they’ve displayed. “I don’t know if I could handle it,” he says. “I know I couldn’t handle it.”
About two years ago, things got so bad that Griff’s parents withdrew their son from school and admitted him to the Rogers Clinic, a residential facility in Tampa. (Over the past seven years, the McCrarys estimate Griff has seen 15 to 20 medical experts; their conflicting advice was an indication of how little is known about how to treat Tourette’s.) For two months the family lived in an apartment near the medical facility as Griff received intensive therapy five days a week. The therapy and behavior-modification techniques made a difference.
Due to Griff’s condition, the family forgoes many events. They never take Griff to weddings or funerals, and they rarely eat inside restaurants or go to the movies. They skipped one Christmas gathering, despite family members encouraging them not to, because Collin knew Griff’s constant tics would horrify his mother.
Booking hotel rooms is another source of stress. Connie McCrary always calls the hotels directly. “There are probably going to be loud, shrieking, yelping sounds — it’s really bad,” she’ll tell them, stressing that Griff, if possible, requires a room where all the rooms adjacent to his, including the floors above and below, be unoccupied. Hotel staffers are usually able to make accommodations, but sometimes the hotel has too many guests to handle the logistics. On one occasion, complaints poured in to the front desk. Hotel managers visited their room multiple times.
“Can’t he just calm down?” the mangers pleaded. “No, actually, he can’t,” they answered. Another time Griff’s outbursts forced five guests to check out.
* * * * *
On the course, many golfers in Griff’s circle have adapted to his circumstances.
“After a while, you barely even notice it,” says Dozier, his swing coach. “It doesn’t even phase me anymore.”
Which is not to say that everyone doesn’t have their favorite “Griff stories.”
Johnson routinely plays golf with Griff and is used to his friend’s vocal tics, but one day Griff’s language was particularly harsh.
“He was telling me, ‘F— you, Andy’ over and over,” Johnson says. “He’d say, ‘F— you, Andy’ and then, ‘Good shot, Andy.’ Normally, I just don’t make a big deal out of it. But one time I told him every time you say ‘F— you, Andy’ why don’t you instead try to say, ‘I love you, Andy.’ The next time he would still say, ‘F— you, Andy’ but then he’d immediately say, ‘I love you, Andy.’”
The next day Johnson got a phone call from Griff’s father. “What went on yesterday?” Collin asked. “Griff came home last night and ever since he’s been telling everybody that he loves them.”
Raymond Ledford recounted an experience that’s probably typical for Troy Country Club golfers. “One day I’m playing and Griff is playing across the fairway. He sees me and hollers, ‘Hello, Mr. Ledford. You hitting them OK?’ And all the while he’s flipping me the bird.”
Despite having severe Tourette’s, Griff somehow is able to stifle his vocal outbursts and physical tics while his playing partners are hitting or preparing to hit shots.
“He won’t say anything in your shot,” says one of his adult playing companions, Lyle Wise. “Now on the way to the next tee box, he might let out 10 curse words.”
Beyond the obscenities and hand gestures, Griff’s etiquette on the course is exemplary. He doesn’t slam or throw clubs, and, according to those who have played many rounds with him, has never broken a rule. He says, “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” and is quick to compliment his playing partners on a well-played shot. Those who have played with Griff report they’ve never seen a player who loves the game or plays it with more passion.
Griff says one day he’d love to earn a living playing golf. However, the thought of playing pro golf also gives him anxiety.
“If I got onto a pro tour, what would people say if I was flipping people off and saying bad words in front of everyone?” he says.
A couple of years ago, Griff was on the range before a big high school tournament. He was no doubt nervous, a mental state that often exacerbates his Tourette’s. On this day, he was playing in a competition which included at least three black players, all of whom happened to be hitting balls on the same practice range. Coach Branson will never forget that day. “Here comes Griff with the N word,” he says.
Within seconds, the coach of the black players was in Griff’s face. “He tore into Griff,” Branson recalls.
Branson immediately interceded.
“Coach, Coach, Coach, this young man has Tourette’s syndrome. He cannot help the words he is saying.”
As Branson remembers, “it was like a wave swept across his face.” The coach’s anger was immediately replaced by empathy followed by an apology. Still, the scene left the other players shaken and Griff on the brink of tears.
Ten minutes after that jarring episode, Griff was due on the first tee.
* * * * *
Griff is able to control his tics while his playing partners are preparing to hit shots, but the mental and physical effort this requires exhausts him.
“Seventy percent of the energy Griff expends is spent trying to fight his tics,” Collin says of his son’s competitive rounds.
Adds Dozier, “He is using so much more mental energy than any other player out there.”
Griff practically lives on the golf course. He’s usually the first player there on Saturday mornings and 54 holes in one day is not uncommon. (Griff once celebrated a victory at a junior tournament in Florida by persuading his father to let him play 18 more holes on the same course.) Would Griff possess this same passion if he didn’t have Tourette’s? Griff says the fact that there’s at least one activity he knows he can do as well or better “than people who do not have Tourette’s” has enhanced his self-esteem and motivated him to be better.
As Collin’s former college teammate David Hancock says, “Golf is one of the few areas in his life where Griff receives compliments and accolades. It’s something he knows he can excel at.”
* * * * *
Collin says his son’s clubhead speed averages about 116 mph on a typical drive and sometimes exceeds 120 mph — that’s PGA Tour-grade. Is Griff’s speed powered at least in part by his Tourette’s? No one knows for sure, but it’s possible. A theory held by at least a few medical practitioners posits that athletes with OCD, ADHD and/or Tourette’s might benefit from their symptoms.
Tim Howard, the heralded soccer goalie, has Tourette’s. He believes his abnormally fast reflexes probably are linked to his condition. Griff also has exceptional hand-eye coordination and amazingly fast reflexes, a characteristic evident in his incessant hand-jerks, which occur in a blur but somehow never hit anyone.
Former basketball great Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (née Chris Jackson) has a moderate form of Tourette’s and has noted in several interviews that his obsession with perfecting certain tasks — a characteristic of his OCD — almost certainly helped him become one of the greatest scorers in college basketball history.
I also want to prove that I can do things that people might not think I can do.
In a 2013 GOLF Magazine story, PGA Tour player Robert Garrigus estimated that about half of Tour players may have ADHD. As is the case with Griff, afflicted players explained how golf became an escape for them, the one place they experienced a sense of peace in their lives. Because of this, they spent untold numbers of hours on the golf course. Concentration levels absent in their daily lives, the players said, almost magically appear when they step in front of a golf ball.
Griff has a neurological trifecta — moderate OCD, severe ADHD and severe Tourette’s — along with the anxiety issues common to those living with these conditions. This amalgam of rare conditions may explain Griff’s incongruous course behaviors. Unlike some with severe OCD, Griff detests monotonous practice drills. Instead he wants to play as many holes in a day as possible. Stress and anxiety elevate his tics, which no doubt impedes his concentration, yet it’s impossible to tell with how relaxed he looks standing over a golf ball. Elliott, Griff’s future college coach with Tourette’s, remembers a time in his own college career when he would stand over a ball for at least a minute before he could take the club back. Griff is the opposite. He wastes no time in stepping up to the ball and smashing it.
* * * * *
When Griff starts classes at Wallace State in September, he’ll be moving to a town even smaller than Troy (population 19,000). He will attend classes only three hours a day, four fewer than high school. Fewer hours in a classroom around other students means fewer hours Griff has to fight his tics, which should reduce his levels of fatigue and anxiety.
That Griff will attend classes with more mature students should also mean that his days of enduring teasing or encountering bullies are largely behind him. As a member of a college team, the days of Griff struggling to find playing partners should be over too. Griff also is going to be coached by a man who understands Tourette’s as well as anyone.
“I’ve been praying about this. I’ve been trying to prepare myself for it,” Elliott says. “I have more faith that something good is going to come out of this than bad.”
Griff’s parents believe he’ll relish being a part of a serious golf program. Many of their concerns are the same as any parent with a child going off to college — will their son manage his bank account and pay his utility bills on time — but they also worry whether Griff will have the self-discipline to take the proper doses of his medication at the required time. Will he eat the right things and pass on the wrong things? How will he handle his bad nights when his parents aren’t there to help him get through them?
Still, they see it as a gift that Griff is getting a fresh start in a new town, at a new school where he can continue to play the game he loves. Their son has achieved a once-unthinkable goal; a place so few people thought he’d reach is now a wedge shot away.
Griff says he plays golf because he loves it, but adds, “I also want to prove that I can do things that people might not think I can do.”
* * * * *
On Jan. 23, about 40 adult friends of Griff and his family gathered at the high school cafeteria to watch Griff sign his college scholarship. As the ceremony concluded, and as the adults mingled among themselves, classmates of Griff’s began to file into the cafeteria for lunch. As school librarian Sharon Rhodes watched students join their regular lunch groups, she offered a simple observation: Many people, especially teenagers, she said, simply don’t know how to act around a person like Griff. While few, if any, of these students would meet the definition of a “friend,” most have never been unfriendly to Griff.
Still, one, then two, then three … then six students wandered over to the group of adults and sought out the honoree.
“Congratulations, Griff. This is fantastic.”
“Hey, we’re proud of you, Griff.”
“Good luck, man. I know you’ll do great up there.”
On this morning sunshine had supplanted dark gray and Griff’s tics were barely noticeable; his small talk featured only polite, accepted words.
Griff’s mother, as always, had gone above and beyond for her son — and on this day with the smorgasbord.
“Go get something to eat,” Griff told the teens gathered around him. “My Mom made all of this.”
Several weeks later, in what would be the first and only match of his coronavirus-shortened season, Griff shot a 73. It wasn’t a great score by his standards, but considering the wet, muddy conditions, it wasn’t bad either. Griff’s parents were in his tiny gallery. Collin, per his custom, hung back 100 yards behind his son’s group while Connie followed along in a cart. As the group prepared to tee off on No. 16, Collin spotted three of Griff’s teammates jogging up the fairway in their rain suits. It was a sight his father had never seen before.
Perhaps the teens simply didn’t want to miss the shot-making of a player, already special, who they think might become really special. Or perhaps this was a display of support offered by peers beginning to view a person they’ve known their whole lives through new eyes. Or perhaps it was simply a small gesture, an effort intended to show respect … the type of thing friends might do.
Bill Rice, Jr. is a freelance writer in Griff’s hometown of Troy, Ala. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.