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Special Olympics Golf Proves The Sport Is Truly for Everyone

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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.

Equipment

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.

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Ryan Barath is a club fitter and master club builder who has more than 15 years experience working with golfers of all skill levels, including PGA Tour professionals. He studied business and marketing at the Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, and is the former Build Shop Manager & Social Media Coordinator for Modern Golf located in Toronto. He now works independently from his home shop in Hamilton and is a member of advisory panels to a select number of golf equipment manufacturers, including True Temper. You can find Ryan on Twitter and Instagram where he's always willing to chat golf and share his passion for club building, wedge grinding, & craft beer.

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Podcasts

TG2: What irons did Knudson finally get fit into?

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GolfWRX equipment expert Brian Knudson gets his first ever iron fitting. He dishes about his favorite irons, some irons that didn’t work for him, and he discusses the wide array of shafts that he tried. And then, he reveals what irons and shafts he got fit into. His irons of choice may surprise you.

Check out the podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes!

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Opinion & Analysis

Yo GolfWRX: Are PGA Tour fans getting too unruly?

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Brian Knudson and Andrew Tursky discuss a variety of topics including turning sneakers into golf shoes, PGA Tour fans screaming “get in the hole!” and Tiger at the Honda Classic.

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Courses

Barnbougle Dunes: World Class Golf

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We arrived to Launceston Airport in Tasmania just before sunset. Located on the Northeast Coast of Australia’s island state, Tasmania, Barnbougle is almost as far from Sweden as it gets… yet it immediately felt like home when we arrived.

Launceston Airport, Tasmania. (C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

The drive from the airport was just over an hour, taking us through deep forests and rolling hills before we arrived to Barnbougle Golf Resort, which consists of two courses — The Dunes and Lost Farm — a lodge, two restaurants, a sports bar and a spa. Unfortunately, it was pitch black outside and we couldn’t see much of the two courses on our arrival. I would like to add that both Johan and I were extremely excited about visiting this golf mecca. We later enjoyed a tasty dinner at the Barnbougle Lost Farm Restaurant before we called it a day.

The locals at Barnbougle Dunes. (C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

The next day, we woke up early and got out to The Dunes Course as very first guests out. Well, to be quite honest, we weren’t actually the first out. There were a few locals — Wallabies, lots of them — already out on the course. The natural landscape at Barnbougle is fantastic and my cameras almost overheated with the photo opportunities. After two intense hours of recording videos and producing photos both from ground, we headed back to Lost Farm for a wonderful breakfast (and view). After our breakfast, it was time to try our luck.

“Tom’s Little Devil.” Hole No.7 at Barnbougle Dunes. (C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

Before describing our experience playing the courses, I would like to mention about Richard Sattler, a potato farmer and owner of Barnbougle. In the early 2000’s, Richard was introduced to U.S. golfing visionary Mike Keiser, who had heard about his amazing stretch of farmland in Tasmania and came down to visit. Mike convinced Richard that Barnbougle (which at that stage was a potato farm and still grows potatoes and raises cattle today) might be perfect for creating a top quality golf course.

After an introduction to well renowned golf architect Tom Doak and the formation of a partnership with former Australian golf pro and golf architect Mike Clayton, the development of the Barnbougle Dunes Course commenced.

The walk between the 4th and 5th holes. (C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

Featuring large bunkers dotted between fun rolling fairways shaped from the coastal dunes, Barnbougle Dunes offers the golfer some tough challenges, in particular on the first nine. This is indeed a course that will entertain all kinds of golfers.

After our round, we looked back at some fantastic highlights such as playing the iconic 7th hole, a short par-3 called ”Tom’s Little Devil,” as well as the beautiful par-4 15th. We were just two big walking smiles sitting there in the restaurant to be honest. Lets also not forget one of the biggest (and deepest) bunkers I’ve seen at the 4th hole. The name of the bunker is “Jaws.” Good times!

As a small surprise for Johan, I had arranged a meeting after our round with Richard Sattler. Richard, ever the farmer, entered the car parking just in front of the clubhouse in a white pick-up van with a big smile un his face. We talked to Richard for almost 30 minutes. He is an extremely humble man and left such a warm impression on us. Richard explained the Barnbougle story: how it all began and the property today.

To me, this is a high-end golf destination offering something very unique with two world-class courses in Barnbougle Dunes and Barnbougle Lost Farm, both ranked in the top-100 greatest golf courses by Golf Digest and Golf Magazine (U.S.). With the courses located just next to each other, it’s probably one of the best golf resorts you can find down under and a golf resort that I would like bring my hardcore golfing friends to visit. Everything here is exceptional with the resort providing spacious rooms, comfy beds, good food and spectacular views.

(C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

Barnbougle Dunes is a real treat to play for any golfer and will leave you with a sweet golfing memory. Compared to the golf courses available on the more remote King Island, Barnbougle is accessible (given Tasmania is connected by better flight connections) and the hospitality and service at is much more refined.

The golf resort is one of the absolute best I’ve been to. I can also highly recommend playing Barnbougle Dunes; I had great fun and you can play it in many ways. Tomorrow, we will be playing and experiencing the other course at Barnbougle: Barnbougle Lost Farm, a Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw course with 20 (!) holes.

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19th Hole

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