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On par: Golf helps autistic youth thrive

On and off the green: Evan Koutsoupetras has played golf since he was 5 years old and uses the sport to overcome the physical and social hurdles of autism.
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A Bay Ridge pre-teen is using golf to overcome autism.

Evan Koutsopetras began playing the sport as a 5-year-old to improve his coordination and develop social skills — two things that can suffer among people with the condition — and now at 12, he has a pool of friends, boasts an above-average handicap, and is headed to the 2017 Teen World Championship. The condition expresses itself in different ways, often making people seem aloof or anti-social — and it can increase individuals’ sensitivity to stimuli, making loud noises unbearable for some. But after years of hard work, Koutsopetras seems totally at ease on the green, his dad said.

“When he’s on the course he feels like any other kid,” said George Koutsopetras. “I wouldn’t even say it’s natural talent, it’s honestly a lot of hard work that he’s put into it.”

People with autism are capable of extreme focus, but they can have trouble actually achieving it — and golf has helped the youth channel his energy into something productive, his mom said.

“One thing with the autistic brain is that it can hyper focus, and I think that hyper focus has helped him with his golf game,” said Maria Koutsopetras, who is an occupational therapist. “When he was little, he couldn’t even sit 10 minutes to do his homework. Now he’s out there for five hours playing 18 holes of golf.”

Evan first picked up a club seven years ago, and since then, he has competed in dozens of tournaments and is out on the green as often as his parents can take him — an average of twice a week, though he plays more in the warmer months and less in cold weather, his folks said.

And Evan boasts a 15 handicap — the average for adult members of the United States Golf Association.

The difference in Evan on and off the green is noticeable. Off the course he is a ball of energy bouncing from one conversation to the next, on the turf he is calm and focused on the task at hand as he takes smooth swings to prepare for a round. And those who have known him for a while see he is improving.

“I see Evan as a kid that has never been stopped “His autism has never really stopped him, he’s always striving to get there, he’s always improving, always on to the next thing,” said his Boy Scout troop leader Frank Panagakos, who has known him for four years.

He aims to play professionally and envisions himself someday wearing the signature green Masters Tournament jacket. He also hopes to become a golf instructor and pass along the love of a sport that changed his life. But in the meantime, the eighth-grader is applying to high school. He’s not sure where he’ll attend but one thing is certain — he’ll continue his golf career wherever he lands, he said.

“I play because it helps me, it’s taught me how to focus. It’s taught me teamwork and hard work,” Evan said. “I want to play golf profession­ally.”

Reach reporter Caroline Spivack at cspivack@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–2517. Follow her on Twitter @carolinespivack.
Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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