"I know people will say I won't make it, but that will only fuel me to believe I can": Ex-Royal Marine Aaron Moon lost his leg after being blown up in Afghanistan. But he won't let that stop him achieving his dream of playing on the European Tour. This is his story...
Golf was never more than a hobby for Aaron Moon. He simply didn't have the time. When he wasn't serving in the Marines, he was playing rugby for them. "I loved every minute of it," he admits. "It was like a Peter Pan club; we never grew up, and it became my life."
He was approaching six years as a Royal Marine Commando when, just two weeks into his first combat tour in Afghanistan, he went out on patrol and never returned to base camp. Everything, he says, changed in a split second when he was left broken in half, quite literally.
"My stomach was torn open and I was a mess," explains Moon. "It crossed my mind that I wasn't going to make it." The bloody mess was the by-product of a bomb which blew Moon through the door of an armoured vehicle in Helmand Province. He eventually landed in a crater created by the IED he'd just driven over.
"I just remember looking down and thinking, 'oh s***, I've been blown up here'," recalls the 30-year-old. "I was just in bits. I had smashed my heel open, broken both bones in my lower right leg, dislocated both knees, broken my hip, dislocated my pelvis, broken my back, ruptured my spleen and broken my collarbone... From my neck downwards, I was pretty knackered."
He was airlifted to Camp Bastion, where he was put in a medically induced coma and underwent life-saving operations.
"I was transferred to the UK overnight and woke up a week later," he continues. "I was in intensive care for six weeks in total, and I was in hospital for five months. I spent a few months in a body brace where I literally couldn't do anything. I had to go to the toilet lying down which, I don't know if you've ever tried, isn't very nice. But... I'm still here."
He makes light of what happened now, and jokes that he's made of sterner stuff than an armoured door.
"Bullets can't even go through one of those doors, whereas I did," he quips. "So, I would like to think I'm harder than an armoured vehicle."
The scars, though, are no laughing matter, and left him contemplating a life confined to a wheelchair and crutches.
"I was in a lot of pain with my right leg," he says. "They kept trying different operations, but nothing was working. Eventually, they came to me with the option of having my right leg amputated, but by that point it was a no-brainer. I'd seen lads who'd lost their legs, and they were up running and playing different sports. Straight away, I was like 'get it off' and I had it taken off in November 2010. I haven't looked back since."
It was during his rehabilitation at Headley Court that he was introduced to John Simpson, the founder of the On Course Foundation, who encouraged him to start playing golf again.
"He was instrumental in my recovery," says Moon, who was medically discharged from the Marines in 2011. "John's helped to get me where I am today. He showed me that my life wasn't over, and I could play golf."
Nevertheless, Moon admits it was little more than an excuse to get out and about. After leaving rehab, golf took a back seat while he qualified as a close protection officer, and then opened a gym and became a personal trainer in 2012.
"Every job I tried seemed like a natural transition from the Marines, but nothing really 'bit' me," he says "I found myself bouncing from thing to thing, and every time I kept coming back to golf. In the end, I started practising more and thought I'd commit myself and try this golf malarkey." Within nine months of doing so, however, he was back on the operating table in late 2015.
"That was probably the hardest part," admits Moon, whose first official handicap was 11.5. "I had to keep going back in for operations because I had a big hole at the end of my stump that wouldn't heal. The worst thing was that my wife and I had our first child a month before I had the operation. She had to have a C-section, so I was struggling to walk and she couldn't lift anything heavier than the baby."
After a 10-week lay-off, he was back on the course and landed a job as an assistant professional at Bolton Golf Club soon after. By the end of 2016, he'd met Donald Trump at Turnberry, appeared on Sky Sports and made his PGA debut at Fleetwood Golf Club. Not that Moon has fond memories of his first professional outing.
"We only played eight holes before it was called off," bemoans Moon. "It was originally reduced to nine holes, and then one of the pros slipped on the edge of the green and broke his leg..."
Moon tails off mid-flow, before glancing up at our photographer and flushing the first of several tee shots straight down the fairway.
"The last time I felt nerves like this was hitting shots on the Open Zone at Troon," he says, puffing out his cheeks. "So many people were sending me messages at Christmas because Sky were showing the best of the Open Zone, and I made the cut. To make it onto their highlight reel was pretty cool, but I've had so many amazing experiences since losing my leg.
"Through the On Course Foundation, I was lucky enough to meet Arnold Palmer at Bay Hill. I think there are people in the world who would have paid millions to do that. I also met Justin Rose on the range at Lake Nona, and got to play with Tommy Fleetwood in a pro-am at the Scottish Open [in 2016]. Meeting all of them, Tommy especially, really inspired me to keep getting better. I know Tommy's had his hard times, nearly losing his card, but now he's European No.1. It just goes to show that if you put the effort in, you'll get rewarded."
It's a motto that underpins Moon's weekly routine, which involves juggling nappy duty and practising before and after work.
"At the minute, I work four to five days a week at Bolton Golf Club while studying for my PGA degree, which the Royal Marines Charity paid for," he explains. "I'm in the gym at six in the morning, and then I'll stay late hitting balls on the range. I try to practise every day if I can because my passion is playing.
"I don't want to be sitting in a pro shop selling Mars bars. To join the Royal Marines, I had to put my body through 32 weeks of hell. We started with 52 lads and there were only 20 of us left at the end, so I think I've shown that I can put in the hours to get to where I want to be."
Moon credits his coach Damian Taylor, a former European Tour pro, for keeping him grounded and "transforming his game," but admits his disability does limit what he can and cannot do.
"Uphill and downhill lies I really struggle with," he says, rolling up his trouser leg to reveal his prosthetic limb. "Balance is a big issue for me, especially when I swing through. My weight is always on my heels. I can try and get on my toes, but then I have a really bent knee and lose balance. It can be frustrating, but Damian has been phenomenal with me. The good thing is that he doesn't treat me any differently to every other player he coaches."
Moon could play in disabled tournaments, but says he doesn't want to take that opportunity away from someone else. He has bigger aims anyway, and is hoping to become the first amputee to play on the European Tour.
"That's the dream," adds Moon, who says he's eternally grateful to sponsors Srixon and adidas. "I know it's not easy, but I believe that if I work hard, I can achieve anything. I met Robert Rock last month and he started off doing his PGA degree and coaching. But after realising it wasn't for him, he dedicated himself to the game and now he's won on the European Tour.
"I don't think I'm far away; I'm averaging a couple under par on a good day and hitting 295 [yards] off the tee. When I had my fitting with Srixon, they put a shaft in my driver which only three players on tour are using because you need a swing speed of over 120mph to get the best out of it. So that made me feel good about things. I know people will say I won't make it, but that will only fuel me to believe I can."
In the meantime, Moon has signed up to compete on the Manchester-based 1836 Pro Tour before heading to Q School later in the year. A lot, though, depends on if he can secure a financial sponsor to cover the costs of playing full-time. Even if he doesn't, Moon says he won't give up and will count himself lucky that he's still able to do the things he loves.
"You've got be grateful for what you've got, not what you've lost," he says. "I've had 30 surgeries, maybe more, but I think I've been quite lucky. Some of the worst scars people get are the ones you can't see. I know lads who have suffered from PTSD and it's not a pretty thing. It may sound a bit weird, but what I went through has changed me in a good way. I'm a lot more positive now. I suppose if I met the bloke who put that bomb in the ground I would probably want to shake his hand, rather than pay him back. He's made me the person I am today."
For now, Moon's immediate focus is on trying to give back to the On Course Foundation by running coaching sessions for injured and sick service personnel. "That's the whole idea behind the charity," he explains. "I've gone full circle now. There's not much more they can do for me, and this is my way of saying thank you to them."
A Breakdown of Moon's Swing
1. Aaron says: I'm trying to make sure I have my weight evenly distributed as I have a tendency to load my front leg. His coach Damian Taylor says: A nice neutral set-up position, with a clean line from lead shoulder down to the ball. The pressure favours the lead side 55-45.
2. Damian says: Aaron's shoulders, chest, arms, hands and club move away from the ball nicely in sync during the takeaway, seeing a slight shift in pressure into the trail side. From here, his right arm will start to fold and the wrist will start to set.
3. Damian says: A full turn sees Aaron's body wind up into this fully-loaded position. We're also ensuring his left arm stays comfortably straight to achieve this wide position at the top. One of Aaron's tendencies is to let his right elbow fly a little, so he has to focus on it pointing down here.
4. Damian says: Another of Aaron's tendencies is to open his left shoulder a little early in the transition, so you can see here how he holds the left shoulder nicely to allow the club to fall into a good delivery position. This helps him to power through the ball with the confidence that the club is on plane.
5. Aaron says: At impact I am trying to deliver the clubface square to target. I usually start the ball left with a slight fade. Damian says: Sometimes the club overtakes the hands a little early, so one key we work on is to feel the handle of the club (hence his hands are a little more forward at this point).
6. Aaron says: I am trying to turn through the ball rather than slide forward as I have a tendency to move my weight off my back leg. Damian says: A nice, balanced finish position here – always the sign of a solid swing.
Aaron Moon On...
"I see people throwing clubs on the golf course, but I always look at them and think 'what's the point?' When you hit a golf ball, no one is hitting a golf ball back at you. There are worse places than being on the golf course, trust me. You could be getting shot at!"
Being called a hero
"When you get blown up and survive, people call you a hero. But I don't think I'm a hero. If I'd known there was a bomb in the ground, I wouldn't have gone over it. What happened to me doesn't make me a hero. The lads who saved my life and put me back together are heroes. One of my best mates was the first person to get to me, and then he had to continue his tour in Afghanistan. That, to me, is a hero."
Playing with Tommy Fleetwood
"That was one of my best experiences. He was really down to earth, and gave me loads of really good advice. I didn't realise at the time but he took a video of me swinging on a tee, and when we were in the clubhouse afterwards he was showing it to Tyrrell Hatton.
About two weeks later, he then messaged me asking how I was getting on. Then, when I was on the Open Zone on the Saturday, I texted him, knowing he had missed the cut, and said: 'How p***** off are you that I've hit more balls on the weekend of an Open than you?' I didn't get a reply to that one!"