How one man is using golf to fend off Parkinson’s disease (and helping others do the same)

leigh bader

Leigh Bader has seen his purpose with golf change over the years.

Courtesy Pine Oaks Golf Course

In 1981, Leigh Bader and his buddy Joe Ricci pooled $4,000 to put a down payment on a scraggly little golf course with a dinky pro shop to match in the exurbs of Boston, and were amazed they convinced a bank to loan them the rest. Yet, in time, by dreaming big, with the old-fashioned virtues of hard work and positivity, they grew Pine Oaks not just healthy but robust. 

The course now ranks among Massachusetts’ best nine-hole public tracks. Really, though, it’s in retail that Bader, 65, has made his biggest mark. Joe & Leigh’s Discount Golf Pro Shop swelled from a 290-square-foot glorified broom closet to an 8,000-square-foot operation, the country’s second-largest on-course store. Bader also launched, and later sold, one of the first online golf shops, 3balls.com, which at its peak was eBay’s biggest golf merchant. Most important to gearheads, he founded the PGA Value Guide — the Kelley Blue Book of used clubs — and the PGA Trade-In Network to help players get out of their old stuff and into the new. 

Initiative and innovative ideas have made Bader a legend in retail, and they’re the same qualities that help find medical cures. He’s been in the market for such a cure since 2015, when he learned that, like his father before him, he had Parkinson’s disease (PD), a progressive nervous system disorder that affects movement.

Anyone who knows the energetic Bader isn’t surprised to find him helping out on multiple fronts. In the works is a charity golf tournament called the Cracking the Code Open. When the pandemic passes, the event — with sponsorship support from Callaway and other manufacturers — will be held at Pinehills Golf Club in Plymouth, Mass., to benefit Massachusetts General Hospital’s neurology department, where Bader goes for treatment. Proceeds will go toward genetically sequencing patients with genetic forms of Parkinson’s, helping them find clinical trials and emerging treatments similar to the targeted therapies that have made strides in cancer treatment.

“I felt like it was time to do this, because I could extend a little bit of good cheer to people who have the disease,” Bader says. “Before, I kept my diagnosis from people because it just made it too hard.”

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While working for a cause, Bader has also become a test case. His PD has progressed relatively slowly, which led his neurologist, Dr. Anne-Marie Wills, to ask about Bader’s daily routine. A lifelong ball-beater, his 100 to 300 rangeball-a-day habit (“golf calisthenics,” he calls it) piqued Dr. Wills’ interest, as she had other golf-playing patients who likewise had a slower decline in their motor function. Bader, half-jokingly, suggested this merited a clinical trial; Dr. Wills, in all seriousness, agreed. 

The two convinced Mass General’s Institutional Research Board to approve and fund a feasibility and tolerability study. Today, 34 golfers with moderate to advanced PD come to the Golf Performance Center at Pine Oaks — another successful Joe & Leigh’s offshoot — for two one-hour group instruction sessions each week over 10 weeks to learn golf from Pine Oaks instructors, including Bader’s wife, Diane, an LPGA teaching pro. If golf proves as safe and tolerable as tai chi for people with moderate PD, the goal is to expand the study to determine golf’s efficacy for balance. 

Drive, imagination and risk-taking brought Bader great success in the business of golf. Here’s hoping he enjoys even more success in the battle against PD. 

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A former executive editor of GOLF Maga­zine, Rothman is now a remote contract freelancer. His primary role centers around custom publishing, which en­tails writing, editing and procuring client approval on travel advertorial sections. Since 2016, he has also written, pseudonymously, the popular “Rules Guy” monthly column, and often pens the recurring “How It Works” page. Rothman’s freelance work for both GOLF and GOLF.com runs the gamut from equipment, instruc­tion, travel and feature-writing, to editing major-championship previews and service packages.