Thu. Jul 18th, 2024

How adaptive game brought inclusion and opportunity to golf

By admin Jul10,2024


Jun 28, 2024, 11:00 AM ET

Dennis Walters remembers sobbing as his father cradled his head in his arms. It was late January 1975. The Bing Crosby National Pro-Am was playing on the TV in the Walters’ living room in Neptune Township, New Jersey.

The celebrity-studded annual PGA event from Pebble Beach included players Walters had competed against, while he led the North Texas State University golf team to four Missouri Valley Conference titles in the early seventies. All Walters could think about that January day is how he longed to be out there playing against them. Six months earlier, in July 1974, Walters’ promising golf career ended when a golf cart accident left him paralyzed from the waist down.

As he sat inconsolable in his living room, Walters’ father offered a solution: “Why don’t we go hit some golf balls?”

“How do you expect me to do that?” Walters replied.

“From that f—ing wheelchair,” his father said.

“As bad as I felt everywhere else, when I got to the golf course I felt better,” Walters said, recalling that day.

That’s how it began for Dennis Walters, the most famous seated golfer the adaptive golf world has ever known. Walters would go on to help design a specialized golf cart with a seat that swiveled, allowing him to strike shots, while strapped with his legs dangling from the side of the cart. He’d gain notoriety for himself as a trick-shot artist and motivational speaker, making more than 3,000 appearances around the country. In 2019, Walters was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Dennis Walters hits a shot from the bunker in his special designed swivel golf cart chair. Dennis Walters

At 74, he’s still competing. From July 8-10 Walters will compete in the seated category as one of 96 golfers at Sand Creek Station in Newton, Kansas, in the third annual U.S. Adaptive Open Championship, a tournament open to male and female golfers with confirmed world rankings in eight separate impairment categories. This year, for the first time, golfers had to qualify from one of six specialized sites that meet ADA requirements for accessibility. The 54-hole tournament also has a cut for the first time.

“I wish they had this thing 25 years ago,” Walters, who, in 2022 won the seated division in the inaugural U.S. Adaptive Open and finished second in 2023, said. “I think it took a lot of courage to make this thing a national championship. This is the U.S. Open for people with disabilities.”

Adaptive golf competitions have existed in various forms in the U.S. for several decades. The National Amputee Golf Association, founded by World War II veteran and below-the-knee amputee Dale Bourisseau, crowned its first national champion in 1949. The United States Blind Golf Association dates back to 1953 and sprung from efforts to help injured veterans, who’d lost their vision during WWII.

In 2018, the United States Disabled Golf Association staged a national championship open to golfers in 15 different impairment categories. Founded by Jason Faircloth, the USDGA counts the PGA of America among its major sponsors. Faircloth, who has Cerebral Palsy, told ESPN he welcomes the USGA’s involvement.

“I think it’s amazing. You have a major organization that wants to showcase golfers with disabilities just like the PGA of America. I don’t think there’s any other sport that can do that except for golf. To have two organizations support adaptive golf is phenomenal,” Faircloth said.

At 74, Dennis Walters is still playing and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2019. Dennis Walters

The U.S. Disabled Golf Association was the first organization in this country to stage a national championship using the World Rankings for Golfers With Disability (WR4GD). The USGA uses those same WR4GD criteria for its U.S. Adaptive Open, requiring entrants to be assessed by medical professionals to confirm their degree of disability, in some cases even paying for those assessments to take place at the site of adaptive tournaments so golfers can clear that one last barrier to entry. Adaptive golfers attempting to qualify also must have a handicap index not exceeding 36.4.

The idea for the Adaptive Open grew from a “casual conversation” John Bodenhamer, the USGA’s Chief Championships Officer, had in 2016 with his former colleague, Sarah Hirshland, now CEO of the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee. The USGA planned to stage its first Adaptive Open in 2020, Bodenhamer said, but faced delays due to the global pandemic.

“The USGA exists to conduct championships, write the rules, govern the game, but also to grow the game and this was a community that was kind of left on the sidelines,” Bodenhamer said. “When we started our championship, there were seven events in the United States within the World Rankings for adaptive golfers. Today, there are 30. It is growing in leaps and bounds and it will continue because there’s so much inspiration behind it.”

Bodenhamer said the USGA, which is pushing to get adaptive golf into the Paralympic Games, sought the input of the adaptive golf community early in the process of planning its first national championship and soon discovered those competing had questions USGA officials had never considered.

“One of the first pieces of advice we got was from a gentleman, who said ‘Well you’re going to have a players’ dinner?'”

“We said, ‘We think so.'”

“He said, ‘Well, then are you going to serve steak?”

“We said, ‘Probably, we usually do.'”

“Well, you better give a second option.”

“We said ‘Why?’

“He said, ‘Well, if you have one arm it’s hard to cut steak.'”

What’s perhaps most striking to first-time observers about events like the adaptive open is the broad spectrum of people with disabilities, who not only excel at the game of golf but also play seamlessly with one another.

An April qualifying event for the U.S. Adaptive Open held in Haworth, New Jersey, included players such as 18-year-old Cassie Sengul, who has battled Cerebral Palsy since birth and was the only woman in the field, along with Paul McCormack, a retired New York City Police Department Commander, who lost his eyesight from exposure to chemicals during rescue efforts at ground zero after 9/11.

Stephen McDonald looks to qualify for the 2024 U.S. Adaptive Open. Mike Bollacke/ESPN

Stephen McDonald, 32, an Army veteran who lost his leg in an explosion during a 2012 deployment in Afghanistan, attempted to qualify along with Brandon Canesi, 32, the top-ranked golfer in the U.S. in the double arm impairment category. Canesi, who goes by the colorful nickname “Nubz,” was born without hands and yet is able to tuck an elongated club under his armpit and routinely drive the ball 230 yards.

Then there’s John Nicholas, 59, a software development engineer from Fairfax Virginia. At 21, Nicholas was paralyzed from the waist down after he fell off a wall. He credits Dennis Walters, who is widely recognized within the adaptive golf community as a pioneer of seated golf, for introducing him to the game.

John Nicholas credits Dennis Walters for giving him a part of his former life back. Mike Bollacke/ESPN

“For me, it’s the ultimate sport for inclusion,” Nicholas said. “Golf has a history of the handicap system. Golfers with different abilities can play against each other fairly. It’s saved my life in a lot of regards. It’s given me the ability to not lose my former life.”

To Walters, who inspired Nicholas and many other disabled individuals to take up the game of golf, the USGA’s involvement in adaptive golf brings “instant credibility.” What he hopes for next is more exposure for the sport. “If you look up the word diversity, it includes all persons,” Walters said. “My community gets left behind in almost all instances. That’s what I hope can come from this. This community exists.”

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