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Saving Grace: Golf Helps Perrotta Overcome Challenges of Autism
April 23, 2021
By Ron Driscoll, USGA
Nine years ago, Samantha Perrotta was in a very lonely place, a place where – if something good didn’t happen soon – she might not have come out alive.
The Bordentown, N.J., native is autistic, though her autism had gone undiagnosed to that point. Autism, also known as ASD (autism spectrum disorder), is a complex neurobiological and developmental disorder that can make social situations difficult. (See sidebar) High school had been difficult for Perrotta, a college semester away from home a disaster, and she retreated to her room, suffering from an eating disorder and a penchant to injure herself.
“I didn’t want to live anymore, so I cut myself,” said Perrotta, 31.
Starting at age 22, Perrotta found refuge in golf, a solitary pursuit that didn’t require anyone’s input or approval. But as she continued to improve through unflagging effort, there was an unintended consequence.
“Golf got me out of my room and gave me something to focus on – that’s probably the biggest thing,” Perrotta said. “I just wanted to be alone. Then as I got better, more people were around, so that kind of backfired on me,” she said with a laugh.
Perrotta’s performances in Women’s Golf Association of Philadelphia (WGAP) events earned her back-to-back Player of the Year honors in 2018 and 2019; in 2020, she was named the New Jersey State Golf Association’s Women’s Player of the Year. Her victories last year included her fourth Farnum Cup – the WGAP’s stroke-play event – as well as the WGAP match-play and New Jersey Women’s Mid-Amateur titles. She has also qualified for four U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur Championships, in 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2019, reaching match play three times.
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But the extraordinary golf progression is secondary to the strides Perrotta has made off the course.
“She was in a really depressed state, a very dark place, for a couple of years,” said Frank Perrotta, Samantha’s father. “Back then, autism wasn’t out there like it is nowadays. We took her to doctors and psychologists, but it wasn’t until relatively late in her life that we knew what was going on. When we started reading about it, bingo, the signs were all there.”
The diagnosis occurred shortly before Samantha decided to pursue golf.
“She found golf on her own, and it has become her niche,” Frank said. “It’s helped her get out of that bad situation she was in and opened the doors for her to meet a lot of people.”
When Perrotta began to play seriously about eight years ago, her family joined Old York Country Club in Chesterfield, N.J.
“A friend of ours named Vicki Richards explained Sam’s situation to the other women at the club,” said Frank. “I thank her to this day because it helped tremendously. Probably 90 percent of them understood and accepted it.”
Even in golf, though, the acceptance hasn’t been 100 percent. Through experience and her own growth, Perrotta has adapted.
“She embraces the game because a lot of people are very nice to her,” said Frank. “She’s learned to steer away from people who aren’t nice.”
“When Samantha first joined, she was very shy, very quiet, and we all respected that,” said Bill Marine, an assistant pro at Old York. “Golf became a common ground. As she got more comfortable, her circle grew. She’s a terrific person with a great wit.”
“If I have to talk to someone, I go do it,” Perrotta admitted. “I try to disassociate myself a little bit. When I’m done talking, I think, thank God it’s done.”
Many of her friends in golf have helped to lower the hurdles.
“Communication can sometimes be hard for Samantha, but once you know her, she’ll talk forever,” said Helena Sullivan, a former school superintendent and a member at Old York. “I do a lot of fundraisers, and I turn to Samantha for help. Instead of playing that day, she will work on an event. I see a growth there, a comfort level.”
Some of Perrotta’s initial brushes with the competitive game did not go smoothly. Her first attempt to qualify for a USGA event resulted in her walking off the course.
“Five or six years ago, I used to have panic attacks where I couldn’t finish a round,” Perrotta said. “There were too many people around sometimes. Because I’m a little bit different, sometimes people want to target you. And when you run into problems, it makes you wonder if you want to go back.”
Geoff Jones, a noted instructor who runs golf schools in Texarkana, Texas, and Warwick, N.Y., began working with Perrotta a few years ago at the suggestion of Dewey Bookholdt, an Old York member.
“My wife (Cindy) teaches severely handicapped children,” said Jones. “I’ve also worked with the Wounded Warriors, so I have some experience with unusual situations. But I would say Samantha’s is the most unusual, and by far the most rewarding thing I’ve experienced in 35 years doing this.”
A few years ago, Perrotta traveled alone for the first time to Texarkana to spend a week working with Jones. The experience was pivotal.
“I missed seeing her arrive, and when I spotted her, she was sitting under a tree,” said Jones, who has helped Perrotta negotiate the landscape of competitive golf. “I told her not to be intimidated, that she was among friends who love golf. By the end of the week, she was sitting in my office joining in group conversations.”
In 2018, Jones was on hand when Perrotta captured her first New Jersey Women’s Mid-Amateur.
“After she signed her card, Sam gave me a hug,” said Jones. “I would be willing to bet it’s one of the very few hugs she’s ever given. I’ve had players win on nearly every tour in the world, but to see how she’s progressed, what she’s overcome, it’s inspirational.”
Perrotta credits Dick Smith, her first instructor, and Dennis Huggins with helping her to believe in herself, while Marine and others help her see the lighter side of life, along with her stuffed bear, Goober, who travels with her “for fun and comfort,” as she put it. Perrotta’s interests also include sports card collecting; her specialty is hockey, and she’s a diehard Vancouver Canucks fan.
“I have caddied for her in qualifying events, and some of the steps getting to the first tee can be edgy for her,” said Marine. “An official may not know, for example, that socially, she’s trying to make some breakthroughs. But once you put a golf club in her hand, it’s a different story.”
“Early on, her anxiety got the best of her and she had to withdraw from some things,” said Frank. “Now she understands it can go sour; she has learned to accept that you hang in there and you finish.”
As far as the game has already taken her, there is no telling where Samantha’s golf odyssey will finish.
Ron Driscoll is the senior manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.