How adaptive golf unlocks the game for many with disabilities

Dan McDonald | PGA.com
From minor equipment or stance adjustments to larger equipment needs such as a single-rider cart, the GSGA Adaptive Golf Program works to unlock the game of golf for those with disabilities.
By Dan McDonald
PGA.com

Series: PGA Feature

Published: Monday, April 17, 2017 | 11:19 a.m.

For those with a disability, the game of golf can seem incredibly difficult or near impossible to learn. And for golfers who played the game throughout their lives, only to have a stroke or severe arthritis limit what they once could do, getting back on the course appears like a herculean task.

That’s where people like PGA Professional David Windsor, the 2015 PGA of America Patriot Award winner, and the Georgia State Golf Association's Adaptive Golf Program, step in.

While some of the great champions of professional golf were teeing it up at the Mitsubishi Electric Classic on Friday at TPC Sugarloaf, a group of 15-20 golfers gathered at the back of the driving range to work with the great PGA Professionals and volunteers of the GSGA Adaptive Golf Program to get tips to continue to improve their games.

What is adaptive golf?

Based at River Pines Golf Course just outside of Atlanta, and in partnership with the Georgia State Golf Association, the Adaptive Golf Program serves golfers at more than 20 courses in Georgia to help them overcome any disabilities to be able to enjoy all the benefits of golf. From common issues such as arthritis or back pains to overcoming major hurdles such as the loss of a limb or the loss of motor functions from a stroke, the Academy helps provide solutions for golfers to find normalcy on the course -- and in their lives.

“We focus a lot on working back to full swing shots,” Windsor said. “Many of the people who we work with are in recovery from physical or mental injuries and we do our best to help them find a sense of normalcy again in their lives.”

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Some of the adaptations that Windsor and his staff help with are simple things such as stance or minor club adjustments -- such as shorter shafts or oversized grips -- that work around a disability. They also provide more complex adaptations such as learning to swing with one arm or using a single-rider cart and learning to swing from a seated position.

The range of disabilities that the program works with are wide-ranging, but the largest segment of participants are those who have suffered a stroke and are having to cope with both the physical and mental challenges that trauma brings. Golf not only brings a way to physically recover but more importantly, an encouraging social outlet to recover mentally.

“Every 40 seconds, someone in the United States suffers a stroke,” Windsor said. “So, it’s just a great way for them to get back out. A lot of it is building back up the confidence and being around others who are dealing with the same issues. And that really helps give them a boost. Some folks are able to swing with two arms, while others fine tune their swing with one arm.”

The one-legged challenge

As part of the clinic, Windsor put me to the test to see how I could handle trying to hit a ball while strapped into a prosthetic leg simulator.

And what an experience that was.

After a few swings, I started to adjust a bit to my new temporary right leg, but the ability to transfer my weight in the backswing and follow through was very difficult to nearly impossible. I felt myself using my upper body in the swing way more than I normally do while having to muscle through the shot.

I also realized how difficult it was to stay down on the ball. About five or six shots in, I finally got one that I was proud of, but that success was far from consistent. I found myself pulling shots a lot to the left and topping even more of them -- often in the same swing. I probably hit around 20 shots and only two of them resembled a fairly normal flight path.

As you might expect, the power in my swing also was greatly reduced. My normal number with a 6-iron is between 195 and 210 yards. The two “good” balls that I hit went roughly in the 150-160 range.

The expertise available at this adaptive golf clinic came in handy here. They’ve mastered the teaching points of helping players focus on these natural struggle points in the swing for various disabilities and developed ways to overcome them.

One of the things that helped me was a balance belt that was around my stomach. Dave stood behind me crouched down while I took my swing and kept pressure by pulling back on the belt so I could focus on keeping my weight forward and not worry about falling over.

It was very quick to see and experience how these limitations can affect the golf shot, and also how important the expertise of my coach was in helping me quickly find a new normal for my shot.

Living the one-legged challenge

While I was able to take the prosthetic leg off and resume swinging with the two legs I was born with, Chris Hansen, a participant at the clinic, does not have that luxury. What was a 10-minute challenge for me is one that he will face for the rest of his life.

Bad blood circulation and an infection led to Hansen losing the bottom portion of his right leg below his knee. Before the amputation, he could only walk about 125 yards before he’d have to rest and relax his calf. The amputation gave him the ability to be more active, but of course came with the side-effect of having a prosthetic leg.

It’s through the GSGA Adaptive Golf Program that he was able to fairly quickly regain his swing and get back out on the course to regain a sense of normalcy.

“For most of my life, I might have only played 10-12 rounds in a year,” Hansen said. “Now, I try to get out as much as I can. ... The biggest thing it’s done for me is I only get my swing up to about shoulder height now.”

But looking on the bright side, he said: “it does lessen the amount of space I have to (mess) up my swing.”

Growing the game one player at a time

 

While discussing the efforts of the GSGA Adaptive Golf Program, Windsor said something that sums up the efforts of this program perfectly: “The game is waiting for them.”

The “them” he is referring to are the roughly 53 million people in the U.S. who live with a disability -- or about 1 in 5 people -- according to the CDC.

By providing a few tricks of the trade, Windsor and his team of PGA Professionals and volunteers are able to unlock the game of golf for those that thought they might have to give it up forever or due to wounds they suffered in the military, or those stroke victims who pick up a golf club for the first time as an outlet for therapy.

“We had an anonymous donor that really helped us get this off the ground here in Georgia. We’re up to around 20 courses now and we’re looking to finish the puzzle and spread this throughout the state, and then hopefully beyond.

“I couldn’t make all this happen alone. We had a team of volunteers here today to help make this work, and it’s because of the people who have put in the time to teach and be a part of this that we’ve been able to grow and be successful.”

And it was one of those volunteers that helped provide a moment that truly captured the ability to unlock the game of golf for us all in different ways.

A young man at the clinic, Jimmy Beilfuss, was at the clinic with his father, James, who is an Air Force veteran and 100% disabled -- he suffers from back problems and lower extremity nerve loss. Jimmy, who is new to the game of golf and picking it up to play more often with his dad, was working with instructor Bob Thibodeau on making some changes to his swing path. After listening to Bob’s tips and taking a few swings with this information, Jimmy absolutely striped the ball with a utility wood.

The look of pure joy as he saw the ball take off in a perfect, high-towering shape was unbelievable. He had a smile from ear to ear and his eyes were so big as he looked at Bob with bewilderment that he just caused that shot to happen. After a few more swings and seeing that beautiful shot repeat again, this time with a very proud dad watching on, Bob turned to the group and shouted to the group with a proud sense of accomplishment.

“WOW!! That feels great!! Now, who else can I help fix?”

If you are interested in finding out more information about the GSGA's Adaptive Golf Program, the Adaptive Golf Academy, or learning about how you can start a local adaptive golf program at your course, contact PGA Professional David Windsor at david@adaptivegolfacademy.com.