I carry many titles: Golfer, Club Fitter, Club Builder, Mizuno Tech Rep, Certified Beer Sommelier (yeah, that’s a real thing). I also have another side of my life that involves helping others on a much more personal level. I work at a non-profit that helps people with disabilities find employment. It’s a huge departure from my work in golf and craft beer, but thanks to some great people I am able to do it all.
This story was born from of a chance encounter on the golf course where my worlds collided. It made me realize something about golf that I never really thought about before; it’s one of the most accessible sports in the world for people of all walks of of life including those with disabilities; both physical and invisible.
A few weeks ago, I was out for one of my usual late evening rounds at my local 5,000-yard muni just a short walk from my house. It was early evening and I was playing alone. As I made the turn, I came across a group starting on the front nine that was very different from the groups I normally encounter that time of night. There were three golf carts, three golf bags, and six golfers in matching blue shirts. I first thought it was a group of co-workers out for a quick nine before sunset. Then I saw there was another group in the same configuration behind them.
Even from a distance, it was easy to see this group was having a great time and they were being very encouraging to each other. Not one to be shy, I decided to go over over to them, say hello, and find out what these groups were all about. That’s when I discovered they weren’t co-workers; they were athletes and coaches from Special Olympics who were practicing and preparing for an upcoming tournament.
Most Special Olympic Athletes play with a Unified Partner, and for Special Olympics golfers it’s not different. A Unified Partner, as defined by the Special Olympics, “assists to equalize the ability level of the Athlete and to promote inclusion through practice and competition.”
I immediately had to know more, so I dug in. Special Olympics Athletes compete in golf in multiple formats, including Individual Skills, Alternate Shot (9 and 18 holes), and Individual Stroke (9 and 18 holes). When most people think of golf, what comes to mind is its history of private clubs and exclusivity, but that’s not necessarily true of where the game has gone and can go. Sure, the private clubs exist — and they’re awesome — but when most people reminisce of their first golf experience, it usually involves a few hand-me-down clubs, a dusty driving range, or a local muni where a close friend or family member with some patience to taught them the basics. No matter where someone starts, golf is still golf, and we’re all trying to do the same thing; get a ball from point A to point B in the fewest number of swings.
Also, through Stan Utley, I discovered the first custom-built, totally accessible golf course: The Ken Lanning Golf Center in Jefferson City, Missouri. It was built to be 100 percent accessible for all golfers, including for those who play golf with an adaptive wheelchair. It’s equipped with artificial turf on a mostly flat piece of land that has level cart paths throughout the design. As an able-bodied individual, think of how many steps you take in a single day or how many curbs you walk over without a thought. Something we take for granted everyday, like walking up a single step, can prevent others from having the opportunity to participate in something as fun as golf. Groups involved with the facility include the Wounded Warrior Project, Special Olympics, Boys & Girls Club, and many more.
I have experience building sets of golf clubs for individuals who are forced to play golf one-handed. It usually involves slightly shorter or more flexible clubs built with larger grips and to lighter swing weights. Much smarter people have taken adaptive technology one step further.
Ping Golf engineers like Erik Henrikson and Paul Wood have literally written the book on adaptive technology. Paul, who is also a GolfWRX Featured Writer, has even written a GolfWRX article makes his case to include golf in the Paralympics.
With golf, the equipment is standardized under the rules, but individuals are still given the option of performance characteristics and to use something that fits their unique swing or physical ability. There are also endless formats to play the game, including scrambles that give everyone the opportunity to play together and be social. Golf doesn’t have to feel like you’re coming down the 72nd hole of a major every time you step onto the course. Most importantly, you can play golf for your entire life regardless of skill level. It’s not very often in other sports that you see a 10-year-old playing with a 75-year-old, but the game of golf allows and embraces that. It’s the same reason we have the Stroke Handicap system: to allow players of all skill levels to play against each other in a fair manor that creates equal competition.
We all play golf for our own reasons, but I believe that when it’s used as a opportunity to empower others, teach life skills, and promote physical activity is where golf really shines. Golf is for everyone: young, old, beginner, scratch, tour pro, executive, one-handed. It truly doesn’t matter. From the most exclusive courses to local munis, the one truth is that the ball doesn’t care who you are or how it golf there. Golf accepts everyone and we can all play the same game.