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Profiles in Excellence.

Golfers with Disabilities Get into the Swing

By Joan Leotta

Golfer taking a swing.
Image courtesy NAGA

The idea of playing golf conjures up images of a relaxing half day on well-groomed greens sharing conversation, casually making business deals, taking in some light exercise, or just having a good time. For people with disabilities, being able to play golf—much less compete with able-bodied peers—may have seemed impossible. But thanks to advances in equipment technologies, amendments to U.S. Golf Association rules, and a three-year-old advocacy group, golfers with disabilities can achieve all of the above.

Recent studies have shown that golf courses are discovering the benefits of broadening play opportunities for people with disabilities. At the same time, many with disabilities are discovering the benefits of golf. A February 2003 article in Golf Club Management magazine cites a National Alliance for Accessible Golf (Alliance) estimate that identifies the size of the potential disabled golfer population. "With accessible golf in the initial stages of development and not enough statistics available to indicate how soon an investment for accessibility improvements will return added revenues, the best gauge [of actual increase] may be population trends that appear to confirm the need for accessible golf is arriving fast," author Frank McAlonan writes. "The Alliance estimates the total population of Americans with disabilities at 54 million and their disposable income at $214 billion. Currently only 10 percent of them play golf, while another 35 percent would like to play, Alliance research shows." ("Accessible Golf a Win-Win," Golf Club Management, Feb. 2003.)

Advocating for Access

A golfer with disabilities swings his club from his wheel chair.
Image courtesy of the National Center on Accessibility

Providing a public face for golfers with disabilities is just one role for the National Alliance for Accessible Golf. Founded in August 2001 and headquartered at Indiana University's National Center on Accessibility, the Alliance works to educate people with disabilities about golf options and help golf course managers and other golf professionals understand how to make the sport more accessible.

Gary Robb, President of the Alliance, notes that the organization "is concerned about making it possible for people with disabilities to join the forty million estimated Americans who play golf each year. As far as I know, only the Alliance is broad-based—aiming at all golfers with disabilities—and is the only group that also focuses on increasing access and education of the golf industry about people with disabilities."

Robb adds, "The Alliance is doing all it can to increase the opportunity for golfers with disabilities to play on any golf course under the same conditions as anyone else. We promote inclusion and encourage people with disabilities to play golf with anyone they choose—able-bodied or disabled."

Resources for Golfers with Disabilities

The National Alliance on Accessible Golf is a unit of the National Center on Accessibility
Gary Robb, Executive Director
501 North Morton St, Suite 109
Bloomington, IN 47404 Phone: (812) 856-4422
Fax: (812) 856-4480
Email: nca@indiana.edu

Other associations for golfers with disabilities include

National Amputee Golf Association
Bob Wilson, Executive Director
11 Walnut Hill Road
Amherst, NH 03031-1713
Phone: (800) 633-6242
Fax: (603) 672-2987
Email: info@nagagolf.org

Physically Challenged Golfers Association, Inc.
Brian Magna, Executive Director
34 Dale Road, Suite 001
Avon Medical Center
Avon, Ct. 06001
Phone: (860) 676-2035
Fax: (860) 676-2041
Email: pcga@townusa.com

Physically Limited Golfers Association
John Ross
County Road 19
Maple Plain, MN 55359
Phone: (763) 479-6419
Phone: (952) 473-4141
Email: jaross@hotmail.com

United States Blind Golf Association
Robert Andrews, President
3094 Shamrock St., N.
Tallahassee, Florida 32309
Phone/Fax: (850) 893-4511

A more complete list of resource organizations, rehabilitation and recreational programs, instructors and golf courses that welcome golfers with disabilities is available from the National Center on Accessibility's Web site.

Adapting the Rules

Dr. Trey Holland, former USGA President, current vice president of the Alliance and the liaison between the Alliance and the USGA, describes the goal of the Alliance as stemming from the view that "golf should represent a snapshot of America." He says, "Thus in a perfect world, golf would certainly include people with disabilities. There are over 59 million persons with disabilities—many types of disabilities."

How can this perfect inclusion be achieved? In some cases, adaptive equipment is necessary, but in others, adjustments to the rules can make the sport competitive regardless of disability. The U.S. Golf Association (USGA) maintains a "Modification of the Rules of Golf for Golfers with Disabilities document as a resource to anyone who wishes to play the game with these adjustments. "In modifying the Rules of Golf for golfers with disabilities," the document states, "the desired result should allow the disabled golfer to play equitably with an able-bodied individual or a golfer with another type of disability."

Holland describes the role of the rule adjustments this way: "All rule changes are made to serve the true spirit of the game: Equipment serves the golfer, so that play is equitable and the day fun." The purpose of the modifications, he continues, is to ensure that "an individual with a disability can play with an able-bodied person and each can enjoy a good match."

Holland describes further the work of the Alliance and it's role in adapting the sport. "We work parallel to other groups such as the US Blind Golf Association, who focus on the needs of persons with a specific disability," he explains, "but our focus is broader. The rules are not designed to make the shot good but to make golf more enjoyable."

Making the Equipment Serve the Golfer

Golfer with his prosthetic leg lying on the green nearby taking a swing.
Image courtesy NAGA

Some modifications to the rules of golf allow for the use of non-standard equipment. A person with arthritis might not be able to grip the club, for example, so the rules would permit the use of a gripping aid. And as the "baby boom" generation ages, many current golfers may find themselves in need of such assistive devices to keep their game at their existing level of expertise. This economic reality is driving the market for adaptive golf equipment, thus opening the sport up to novice and veteran golfers alike.

To help golfers locate such equipment, the Alliance maintains an unbiased list of adaptive golf products and other resources at http://www.ncaonline.org/golf/index.shtml.

The USGA, according to programs associate, Kyle Yamamoto, does not endorse any specific golf aids but offers a guide for golfers with disabilities at the Resource Center for Individuals with Disabilities. Registration at the site is free, and the site's searchable databases help people with disabilities locate golf instructors, programs, accessible courses, therapists, and more to help them get started in the game.

Holland reinforces the Alliance's reasons for wanting to raise awareness of golf in disability communities, stating, "Golf is a four to four-and-a-half hour workout—in a beautiful locale with lots of fresh air, the camaraderie of the competitors and the beauty of the course make golf a sport that can be enjoyed." With readily available adaptive equipment, flexible rules, and golf pros well versed in the needs of golfers with disabilities, the game of golf is more open to people with disabilities than ever before.

Edited by Mary-Louise Piner.

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