Ideas to make your course more accessible

A contestant lines up a putt during the Invictus Games golf competition at St. Georges Golf and Country Club in Toronto, Ontario, September 26, 2017. The first Invictus Games, based on the Paralympic Games, were held in September 2014 in London. They were launched by Prince Harry, who served with the British Army in Afghanistan. / AFP PHOTO / Geoff Robins (Photo credit should read GEOFF ROBINS/AFP via Getty Images)

The Invictus Games, held in Toronto in September 2017, included a golf event hosted by St. George’s Golf Club where spectators were treated to outstanding performances by the athletes. Those of us fortunate enough to attend the event could not help but imagine the opportunities of engaging more people with disabilities in golf.

“This was the most memorable and inspirational event we have been a part of,” said Jason Clarke, CCM, who was general manager at St. George’s during the Games.

“St. George’s has a long history of recognizing the contributions made by Canadian service men and women, so hosting the Invictus Games was a natural fit for us,” said Clarke. “This was the first time that golf was included as an official sport of the Invictus Games and the first time they were hosted [in] Canada. We were determined to make Canada proud and give the athletes the ‘St. George’s experience.’ It was inspiring to see so many of our members volunteering for the games, including most of the caddies.

“We had the honour of hosting two Invictus athletes who utilized the Paramobile adaptive golf cart; it is a game changer! These three-wheeled vehicles can enter and exit a sand bunker, drive on a green and even navigate over a 10-inch curb. The Paramobile cart assists the athlete to standing position. This is a sensation that these golfers never thought they would experience again. It is difficult not to get emotional witnessing this achievement.”

Making your club more welcoming and accessible

Jan Bel Jan, of Jan Bel Jan Golf Course Design, is president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects and an advocate for golfers with a disability.

“People with disabilities are people first. Each of us knows someone who has difficulty with access, due to a congenital condition or because they have lost some ability because of illness, injury or age,” said Bel Jan. “The opportunity to enjoy golf provides wonderful social, recreational and healthful experiences for everyone. A welcoming and accessible golf facility can benefit economically through increased food and beverage, pro-shop sales and fees, as well as from the satisfaction of providing a valuable service.”

Obstacles can present barriers to people with disabilities in many aspects of their lives. Bel Jan believes the biggest obstacle may be that we are not comfortable in knowing how to treat people with disabilities. It is essential that everyone at a golf facility be trained to be aware of a person with a disability and to feel comfortable assisting them. When in doubt, Bel Jan encourages using common customer courtesy. Because degrees of impairments vary, she suggests asking people with a disability if they need help before attempting to assist them, and then asking how you may assist. For formal training, Bel Jan has found that coaching done by people who have disabilities can be helpful.

“The opportunity to enjoy golf provides wonderful social, recreational and healthful experiences for everyone. A welcoming and accessible golf facility can benefit economically through increased food and beverage, pro-shop sales and fees, as well as from the satisfaction of providing a valuable service.” – Jan Bel Jan, Jan Bel Jan Golf Course Design

The range of disabilities is very broad and, while there are laws and codes to address building accessibility, foresighted golf facility operators can learn how to better accommodate golfers with a disability. Proper signage that directs patrons to the facility’s goods and services is beneficial to everyone. Golf course operators should ensure easy access to at least one teeing area per hole. Creating additional tees, in a safe and accessible place, can meet this need. If readily achievable (with not much difficulty or expense), unobstructed golf cart access should be provided to all areas to be reached by the golfer. Golf cart paths should provide a modest slope for motorized vehicles, including for regular and single rider golf carts.

Ropes and GPS limits on carts can be barriers for those who need to get closer to the green for safety or for ease of access. Both can be adjusted – ropes can be lowered and replaced, and GPS units can be programmed for a specific cart. Red cart flags permit closer proximity to tees and greens and can help to improve access and speed of play. Consider making a map of accessible routes that may include accessible tees, areas of the course to be avoided and bunkers that may be difficult to access or egress.

Another consideration on the course is providing accessible washrooms. If permanent facilities are not available, accessible port-a-potties can meet the need. Also, consider the heights and locations of water and other materials around the course. Where there are steep slopes or difficult-to-access bunkers, the facility can establish the use of the “Modified Rules of Golf for Players with Disabilities” developed by the R&A and USGA. These Modified Rules permit a safe drop area away from the slope or outside the bunker, as well as other accommodations. When course renovations are undertaken, it is important to consider how to make the facility barrier-free.

Should a golf club or practice range want to encourage people with a disability to enjoy the game, inviting adult or children’s groups for clinics may inspire new golfers. Become familiar with programs in your area for people with disabilities. A golf facility could also establish a relationship with a rehabilitation hospital as part of their community outreach. Golf can aid significantly in recovery through an outdoor experience, with a helpful focus on hand-eye coordination, improved balance, strength and flexibility as well as sense of purpose. All of these contribute to the wellbeing of the person with the disability as well as to family, friends and companions.

Finally, Bel Jan recommends that golf facilities audit themselves for accessibility, programs and training. They should include information on their website to promote their accessibility, as well noting any instruction, clinics or programs that may interest people with disabilities and their families.

“An ‘invitation’ is always a great way to make people feel welcome to your course,” said Bel Jan.

Golf for people who are visually impaired

Glenn Babcock is the president of the Ontario Visually Impaired Golfers Association, serves as a director on the board of Blind Golf Canada and sits on the Human Resources Committee of Golf Canada. Babcock was born with his visual impairment. His father was a golf professional, so Babcock grew up around golf courses and had the benefit of learning to golf from a young age.

He says that some golfers are born blind or visually impaired, while others have lost their sight due to injury or illness, or simply as they age. For those who have lost their sight, being able to continue an activity that they enjoy is important to their physical, social and emotional wellbeing.

There are many golfers whose vision loss requires them to seek assistance to play the game. Their “guide” may be a fellow golfer, a non-golfing friend or a family member committed to helping them enjoy the game. The guide helps the golfer get safely around the course, lines them up for each shot and provides information on distances and obstacles and, of course, the guide must also find the ball!

Staff at golf courses should understand this partnership of golfer and guide. Starters and marshals should be made aware of the presence of a “walker.” Groups may be slower, as it takes more time to set up a golfer who is blind or visually impaired. Babcock recommends asking the golfer about their speed of play and how much time they need for setup with their guide and then adjust the group size if necessary.

Some courses have recognized the challenges in arranging a game and offer incentives to encourage blind and visually impaired people to play. Two-for-one rates for the golfer and their guide, even if the guide is playing, are offered by some. Others offer a discount and one club even offers a complimentary nine-hole round for two golfers, and their guides, each week on Monday afternoons.

Golf for people with missing limbs or limited mobility

Kristian Hammerback is the president of the Canadian Amputee Golf Association and is a member of Golf Canada’s Amateur Competitions Committee. As a golfer who was born missing a limb, golf provided him with a childhood activity he could participate in with his friends. He believes that it is important to provide golfing opportunities for people who are missing limbs or with reduced mobility and that it can be instrumental in getting back into life after an injury or illness.

Golfers with missing limbs or limited mobility may have challenges getting around the course and getting to the ball. They don’t like to play long rounds or slow play down for other golfers. Using carts or “solo rider” units, providing red flags and being lenient with cart rules will help to speed their play.

Hammerback, who has helped organize several tournaments for amputee golfers, has found that golf courses are always very helpful and “bend over backwards” to give the competitors a great experience. He encourages golf courses to promote golf participation for all, get involved with organizations for people with disabilities to offer golf clinics and partner with local rehabilitation facilities to provide golf opportunities as part of the recovery process.

Golf for people who are deaf or hard of hearing

Alain Turpin, the executive director of the Canadian Deaf Sports Association, says that the biggest challenge is communicating with deaf and hard of hearing golfers.

“Sometimes, it is difficult for pro-shop employees to communicate with deaf golfers who speak poorly or can’t speak and use language signs,” he said.

He recommends speaking face-to-face with deaf or hard of hearing golfers and writing simple messages on a sheet of paper to communicate.

When golfers who are deaf or hard of hearing take part in a sanctioned competition, it is important for the host committee to reserve a sign language interpreter. It makes a big difference for the deaf golfer to feel included and equal. As well, creating awareness for fellow competitors, competition officials and facility staff of the importance of face-to-face and written communication is essential.

Golf for military veterans who are ill or injured

Joe Kiraly, the outreach and communications manager for Soldier On, a program of the Canadian Armed Forces Transition Group, attests to the impact that golf brings to the recoveries of veterans.

“Golf has been a surprising addition to my life following an injury resulting in physical limitations and loss of personal identity,” said Kiraly. “I saw how golf helped others and decided to try it myself.”

The Soldier On golf program, one of its most robust initiatives, is championed by Michael Feyko, who works at Royal Oaks Golf Club in New Brunswick. Feyko is a PGA of Canada teaching professional and a former soldier who used golf as an integral part of his own recovery from injury. The program began as a grassroots initiative to support Armed Forces personnel suffering loss of ability, loss of identity or loss of career and was found to help improve mental and physical health.

Kiraly reports golf clubs being very welcoming to ill and injured men and women. Many veterans who have experienced

sensory or mobility loss, or who have been suffering emotionally, have found golf to be an important component of their healing. With the support of the golf community, the Soldier On golf program is continuing to grow across the country, with three week-long camps planned in 2020.

Golf is for everyone

While you may not have the opportunity to host the Invictus Games, you can make your club welcoming and accessible to all golfers and potential golfers. We all know people with a disability. Providing them the chance to learn the game or continue an activity they enjoy following the loss of ability is tremendously beneficial to them, their families and your club!

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Club Manager Quarterly, a publication of The Canadian Society of Club Managers (CSCM), and is reprinted with their permission. The original article can be found online here.

Leslie Dunning is the past president of Golf Canada. She believes golf is for everyone and that inclusion is key to growing the game. She is a member of Earl Grey and Bigwin Island Golf Clubs.