Bob Wilson is a member of the Manchester Golf Club in Bedford, N.H. He is a 12-handicap who has been golfing for 47 years, the last three decades of which, without the use of his legs from the knees down.
Wilson is a bilateral amputee as the result of an accident while serving in the U.S. Navy. He is also the executive director of the National Amputee Golf Association (NAGA), editor of Amputee Golfer magazine, and founder, lead instructor, and coordinator of the First Swing Program, which teaches golf to the physically challenged.
For golfers who think the sport is plenty hard enough, even with four working limbs, Wilson’s story sounds remarkable. As it turns out, however, there is a sizable subsection of golfers today who have overcome mobility issues in order to play the game they love.
No reliable statistics exist as to the number of people with disabilities who play golf, but according to Wilson, a PGA survey indicated that 24 percent of golfers are not playing due to “injury.” And according to John Hikel, owner of Total Access Golf, a distributor for SoloRider single-rider golf cars especially (but not solely) designed for players with mobility limitations, 22 percent of paralyzed veterans express an interest in playing the game.
Hikel can provide innumerable stories of inspiration and awe from his years of working and playing with disabled golfers. “I watched a golf tournament for amputees several years ago,” he recalls, “and was absolutely amazed at the ability of people with some severe amputations to play the game. I saw a man with one arm and only three fingers, and prosthetics for both legs, hit a 200-yard drive down the middle of the fairway, and hit his second shot on the green. Many golfers with no disability cannot do that!”
Martin Ebel, a Massachusetts attorney, was injured in 1983 and lost both of his legs above the knee. Like Bob Wilson, Ebel values golf as more than just a pastime. “For me, golf is the one thing that I still enjoy as I did before my accident, and playing makes me feel like I am not disabled,” he says. “I know this is true of many amputees – we simply do not feel disabled on the course when we are making golf shots and enjoying the camaraderie of the game.”
Unfortunately, disabled (and senior golfers who have lost mobility) find course access to be a major barrier to their participation in the sport. “On the course we face lots of resistance from the golf industry,” says Ebel. “Generally, golf facilities are not particularly accessible to people with disabilities and unfortunately there are people that take advantage of the accommodations that some golf courses do offer, even though they do not need the accommodations.”
The Americans With Disabilites Act (ADA) covers public and semi-private golf courses, ensuring that such facilities be accessible to the disabled. Nevertheless, adherence to the law has come only grudgingly.
As reported on the SoloRider website, a landmark 2002 settlement in Indianapolis unambiguously established the rights of disabled golfers. In the settlement the city of Indianapolis agreed with the U.S. Department of Justice “to make necessary changes at all twelve of their municipal golf courses to comply with the requirements of Title II of the American Disability Act (ADA).”
John Hikel, who as a distributor of SoloRider golf cars has an obvious stake in the issue, points out “Most golf courses are either not accessible or do not have a single rider golf car that meets the needs of many disabled people.” He stresses that the ADA “specifically defines golf courses as places of public accommodation.”
Hikel advises golfers with disabilities to be persistent, and to know their rights. “Some people may encounter a golf course that is not accessible and does not welcome a person with a disability,” he explains. “We suggest that the disabled person try to talk with the owner…and encourage them to make accommodation. If refused after sincere and reasonable effort, contact the USGA, National Golf Course Owners Association, SoloRider, and/or local government organizations concerned with discrimination. Hopefully, without civil action, the golf industry will become fully accessible sooner rather than later.”
In addition to the courts, the ruling bodies of golf have also recently moved to embrace disabled golfers. In 1984, Bob Wilson worked to change the decision of golf (14-3/15) regarding artificial devices. According to Wilson, “My lengthy dissertations with (then USGA Executive Director) P. J. Boatwright focused on retention of amputees in the game. Maybe that was the underlying reason for the recent publication of the ‘Modification of the Rules of Golf’ by the USGA and the R&A, which encompasses all forms of disabilities.”
Making a course accessible means more than installing wheelchair ramps into the clubhouse. It also means allowing single-rider carts, such as the SoloRider, onto courses. According to Hikel and SoloRider users such as Martin Ebel and Bob Wilson, course owners and greenkeepers have to overcome a number of prejudices and fears before they embrace these carts.
First and foremost among these concerns are cost and damage to the course. With respect to cost, Hikel points out that “Compliance with the law is far less expensive than a lawsuit, and besides, it's the right thing to do."
With respect to potential damage to the course, new, well-designed auxiliary aids such as the SoloRider feature wide tires and weight distribution schemes that leave imprints on the greens no more sever than those left by golf shoes. As such, the carts are safer for both the course and the golfers than traditional options.
Martin Ebel relates how the new cart technology has helped him enjoy the game: “When I first started playing golf after my accident, I used a wheelchair. The narrow tires were hard on the greens, so I did not putt to avoid damaging them. There were also difficulties in getting from shot to shot in a wheelchair. Eventually, I, like many disabled golfers, began using a three-wheeled scooter to play golf.
"While better than a wheelchair for hitting the ball and not damaging the course, the scooter was not particularly stable. I would regularly fall out of the scooter or tip it over.” Ebel was eager to try the adaptive single-rider cars like the SoloRider when they hit the market. He credits the SoloRider for providing him access to courses, as well as adding ten yards to his shots.
Finally, disabled golfers also have to overcome the preconceptions of able-bodied golfers. Ebel stresses that “Most of us (at least members of the NAGA) also cannot stand slow play. We much prefer four hour rounds to six hour rounds and are painfully aware that we are seen (usually inaccurately) as the cause of slow play.”
Pat McDonald, a parapalegic from the mid-chest down who carries a 1.7 handicap index and teaches golf to other disabled golfers, describes the reactions of able-bodied golfers who watch him swing for the first time as usually “all good.” Nevertheless he says, “They’re shocked when I’m on the green in two and they’re still pitching up.” McDonald adds, “There have been a handful of times when I joined up with a threesome, and by the 13th or 14th hole, one disappears. I ask where he’s gone, and they say he’s quit. Why? Because a guy in a wheelchair is kicking his butt.”
Bob Wilson offers the best way to think about golfers with disabilities: ”We are all golfers who play against the golf course, not each other. If playing the game simply means ‘hitting the ball,’ then there is no difference between us.”
For more information on resources for golfers with physical disabilities, go to solorider.com , amputee-golf.org, or totinbonezgolf.com.
August 26, 2004
Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for WorldGolf.com, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Ill. Read his golf blog here and follow him on Twitter @GolfWriterKiel.