Malcolm Worrell and Ronnie Vegele have been an unlikely duo for three decades.
Vegele, 49, is spry, but slightly hunchbacked with a quick smile under a bushy beard. He has a ruddy nose, thick eyebrows and an open, lively, almost humorous expression.
Worrell, 72, is clean-shaven, steady and even-keeled. He finds Vegele equal parts amusing and exasperating.
Their birthdays are one day apart, and they have been friends since Vegele was in high school. And last weekend, the Kelso pair won the gold medal for golf in the state Special Olympics competition in Everett.
“It reminds me a lot of big brother, little brother. They have permission to give each other a hard time when one hits a shot that’s bad, but it’s always in a very light atmosphere,” their coach, Dave Hill, said Thursday. “They’ve taken that friendship and turned it into something pretty special on the golf course.”
Special Olympics is an international organization started in 1968 that provides year-round sports training and competitions for children and adults with disabilities.
The Kelso pair golf as a “unified” team, which means Vegele is the special olympian and Worrell is his sponsor. They play as a unit, trading off on each stroke for nine holes. Vegele tees off on the odd holes; Worrell takes the even ones.
Most unified golf teams are fathers with their sons who have disabilities, Worrell said during a joint interview Tuesday.
While not related, Worrell and Vegele have an easy camaraderie, often talking over each other and referencing past events with little more than a couple words.
They first met when Worrell was working as the Kelso High School stadium maintenance assistant and Vegele was a student.
Vegele started attending every football game and would help Worrell get the stadium ready by opening up the press box and locker rooms. A big sports fan, Vegele would wear a headset to listen to local football games, and he knew all the players’ statistics.
“He never had five bucks to get into the game, so I’d say, ‘Let him in. He’s my helper,’ ” Worrell said.
Vegele has played a variety of sports in the Special Olympics since he was 14 and currently is an assistant coach for the Special Olympics football, basketball and track teams. He’s also been the team manager for the Lower Columbia College softball team.
After Vegele left high school, he would still go to Kelso football games and sit with Worrell in the stands.
“I told him, ‘Yeah, Ronnie, maybe we ought to go to homecoming. You wear the pink chiffon dress and I’ll wear the tuxedo,’ ” Worrell said dryly.
In 2007, Vegele had surgery to remove one of his lungs, and he had to stop playing sports that involve running. The next year, Worrell had a heart attack and had to stop working.
Worrell, who has been golfing since the 1970s when he worked at a course in Kennewick, had told Vegele to let him know if ever wanted to start playing golf. About nine years ago, they decided to give it a shot.
When Vegele first started playing, he used his baseball stance to tee off. He would move his feet around, which made it look like he was doing a “really weird dance,” Worrell said.
“When he first did it, I go, ‘What the heck, Ronnie?’ ” Worrell said, laughing. “I thought, ‘Man, we’re in trouble.’ I think that’s the reason one year we got a ribbon. They don’t do fourth place, but we got it. They scrounged up a ribbon for us.”
The pair started practicing more and have since improved. This summer, they golfed together twice a week.
So what makes them successful? “I don’t tell Ronnie what to do.”
“Ronnie’s got his own way of hitting,” Worrell continued. “You can’t dictate how somebody’s going to swing or hit. He does a good job. It’s kind of like the philosophy in Special Olympics: They don’t emphasize the disability; they emphasize the ability.”
Hill, their coach, said their friendship and easy-going attitude keeps them relaxed in high-pressure situations.
“They know how to give each other that little bit of encouragement they need to be a good partnership. It’s fun to watch,” Hill said.
Vegele is a good partner because he’s “low maintenance,” Worrell said. “He just rolls.”
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“I just do what I do,” Vegele added, pressing back his ovalesque glasses with the side of his pointer finger.
They don’t get too tense, Hill said, but they’re serious about winning. Worrell and Vegele didn’t qualify for state last year, so they buckled down this year.
When they’re golfing, they don’t talk about politics, girls or jobs, Worrell said. They just “swing a club and then go get an ice cream cone or a burrito.”
Worrell and Vegele still laugh about mishaps that happened when they worked at the football stadium — from the time the sprinklers sprayed the cheerleaders to the time all the lights turned off during halftime.
“We had so much fun,” Vegele said. “And we still do on the golf course.”
One time, while playing at the Three Rivers Golf Course, Vegele asked Worrell if he could use the cart to go find a ball near No. 8. He disappeared and came back a short time later without the cart.
“He comes up and goes, ‘Malcolm, we got a problem,’ ” Worrell said. “It’s like, where’s the cart, Ronnie? And what’s this ‘we?’ ”
Vegele had turned the cart and ended up sending it into the water.
“Yeah, we got a problem,” Vegele echoed mildly. “(The cart) is right there in the slough.”
Worrell let him drive the cart another time when they were heading back to the parking lot.
“The first thing I said was ‘Ronnie, I don’t really trust you that much, but OK.’ And his thing was there’s not any water out here. But I go, ‘Ronnie, there’s $30,000 cars out here,” Worrell said.
Vegele took the cart around the corner and “gunned it,” narrowly missing two men loading up their car.
“I grabbed the wheel. And what was the first thing you say, Ronnie? Do you remember? I do. You said, ‘Malcolm, are we still going to Taco Bell?’ ” Worrell said, laughing. “And I’m like this —”
“Shaking,” Vegele said, finishing Worrell’s sentence. “We have our moments.”
They’re both competitive, but neither of them thought they were close to winning the state tournament last weekend after a couple of blunders.
“We hit one underneath a tree stump,” Vegele said.
“What’s this ‘we?’ You did,” Worrell responded. “I put it right out on the fairway and he cranked it off to the right in the brush. I felt like slapping him.”
The ball was so lodged under the stump that they couldn’t hit it out and had to take a penalty stroke.
Vegele pulled it back for the team with a lucky shot on the last hole. The ball was heading directly into the trees and “I was ready to toss my clubs in the slough,” Worrell said.
But then the ball bounced off a tree and landed right at the base of the green.
“I hit the good shot,” Vegele said.
“Jaws were dropping all around me,” Worrell added.
They ended up carding a 59 on a par 48 course and tied with two other teams for first place.
“It was good,” Vegele said. “We picked each other up when we hit bad shots.”
“To win that gold, I was pretty pumped,” Worrell said. “We did what we went there to do. We went there to get gold, and we did.”