Adaptive golf is not some new trend sweeping the game
Gianna Rojas grew tired of the same routine. As her husband notched countless rounds of golf with mutual friends, she gradually went through mundane Pavlonian conditioning without realizing it. Several hours would pass and she would receive the familiar phone call that would alert her to meet them at the country club for a post-round meal.
So it went. For years.
About nine years ago Rojas had enough. Feeling left out, she was famished for more than just dinners. She desired a challenge.
After all, challenges have defined her life from the days when she was the March of Dimes’ Florida poster girl between 1972-76. Little did she know then, when she met Arnold Palmer at age 8 – clueless to who he was - how golf and her life would one day intersect.
Born without fingers on her left hand Rojas, now 57-years-old, told her husband she wanted to play. Learn and adapt. Adapt and learn.
“I blame him. He was always playing,” said Rojas, laughing, about her husband of 33 years, Raymond Rojas. “I’ve figured everything else out in life, so why not golf?”
Rojas soon met Hank Haney at a New Jersey golf convention and asked for pointers. She could only use one arm on her swing and knew with her left — minus the fingers that affected grip — she gained more distance but less control. And vice versa with the right arm. Haney told her to do what felt natural. (She became a righty).
After getting laid off from her March of Dimes community director position a couple years ago, Rojas decided to devote her time to helping other golfers with disabilities.
There are few days now when Rojas, who founded a 501c3 non-profit called Adaptive Golfers and launched AdaptiveGolfers.org, doesn’t breathe the game. “The One-Handed Lady Golfer,” her nickname, casually mentions the six clubs she’s staring at in her living room during the phone conversation, drawing a huge can-you-believe-this laugh.
All that said, Rojas epitomizes the growing movement of adaptive golfers. The term isn’t a misnomer, or is it mutually exclusive to any one group. Amputees, paraplegics, deaf, blind, cognitively challenged or those who have any form of a disability have long been encouraged to play. Either for therapeutic reasons or simply for the love of the game.
In various cases, the joy of playing for some came to a crashing halt due to horrific car accidents, war injuries or physical tragedies, for example. Others, born with some form of disability, struggled to find courses to play or felt misplaced.
According to a 2015 study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), one out of five people in the U.S. had a disability. That equated to about 53 million people three years ago. Today that number is slightly inflated based on about 327.2 million people in the country. There are no concrete numbers on how many of the 53 million are golfers.
Know this: Adaptive golf isn’t a new phenomenon. In the late 1930s, when Ben Hogan and Sam Snead were becoming household names, clinics and demonstrations for disabled golfers were held in conjunction with tournaments.
Since then, in spite of myriad efforts, adaptive golf’s position has been more aligned with being on the periphery than inclusive. The reasons? Mainly due to proper training and funding.
To borrow from Bob Dylan, the times they are a-changin’.
There is plenty of evidence that adaptive golf won’t be golf’s latest trend du jour. A seismic shift in awareness has been bubbling like a rapidly-rising tide.
Besides Rojas’ efforts, the Georgia State Golf Association (GSGA), the United States Disabled Golf Association (USDGA) and, more recent, the U.S. Golf Association (USGA) are dedicating innumerable resources toward adaptive golf. They have grabbed the reins among numerous other groups and organizations that are cropping up.
“Accessibility was, and still is, the No. 1 goal with respect to theadaptive golfers and those with impairments,” said USDGA founder Jason Faircloth in May.
Added Rojas: “What people tend to forget is that adaptive golf is not an ‘it;’ Adaptive golf represents a person. As someone who can offer a voice, and not someone selling a product, I want to stop people from being a victim and empower them to change their mindsets from saying, ‘Can I do it?’ to ‘How can I do it better?’”
Few understand this better than David Windsor, GSGA Director of Adaptive Golf and part of the Adaptive Golf Association. It wouldn’t be a mistake to label Windsor the preeminent expert on the subject.
In 2000, while Windsor was running a Sarasota, Fla. golf club, physical therapist Paul Goodlander approached him and said he was operating a weekly program. Would he be interested in opening the course to weekly clinics?
Windsor’s first couple of years were spent dealing with players who suffered strokes or lost limbs. Then he started seeing more people with brain injuries, ADHD, cerebral palsy, autism and those wounded in war. Injuries aren’t always on the outside, he said.
Word spread. Windsor, a PGA Professional, started getting inquiries from other surrounding course officials. They wanted to know if Windsor’s clinics could help a member in post-stroke recovery, or an amputee trying to rediscover the game. They wanted to see single rider carts in action.
After six years, Goodlander, who died in 2014, and Windsor developed more formal educational clinics held all around Florida with sponsorship help.
In 2006, under the auspices of the Adaptive Golf Association, Windsor launched the Adaptive Golf Academy. Its purpose, or mission statement, has been focused on training and consulting golf professionals, therapists, organizations and caring individuals desiring to become a coach and develop a recurring program for anyone with a physical, cognitive and/or sensory impairment.
It caught the attention of the GSGA.
“Someone in Georgia was tuned in,” said Windsor. “They said, ‘We have the Masters here … how come we don’t have the best adaptive golf program? It seems like it’s a model impacting lives.’”
The GSGA soon reached out to Windsor. He only joined the association full time last year. It helped that funds from “an angel donor” were critical in ascending the GSGA’s adaptive program. It’s been nothing short of satisfying.
“You live vicariously through others and, for me, I can look at [those challenged] and say, ‘You don’t know what you can do yet. You wait,’” said Windsor. “I can find them a level of success. Sometimes you have to be more creative, but it’s pretty neat.”
Faircloth has cerebral palsy and has been impressed by his friend.
“His teachings are more than just how to hit a golf ball,” said Faircloth. “Communication is also the key when you interact with different groups ofgolfers. How you say something is probably just as important as trying toget the club on plane. No two golfers are the same, just like no two impairments are the same.”
Disabled golfers are able to enjoy the game through such amenities as accessible golf carts. [Photo: Adaptive Golf Academy]
Almost four years ago it was nothing short of monumental when Faircloth almost single-handedly got the USDGA off the ground. He had been bullish on making it all materialize.
His is a remarkable story. Doctors originally said he wouldn’t walk, but he did by age 5. It was suggested he forget about playing golf at 12, but he wound up playing on his high school team. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise when he was the first U.S. citizen to compete in the 2011 Disabled British Open at East Sussex National Golf Resort & Spa in the United Kingdom. It dawned on him there that there wasn’t an Americanized version of the tournament.
When he got back to the U.S., he shared a cogent vision for a U.S. Disabled Open Championship as the USDGA’s foundation. He wanted golfers with varied disabilities to be the championship’s bedrock.
For his efforts, the first U.S. Disabled Open Championship was conducted last year at Eagle Creek Golf Club in Orlando, Fla. Nebraska’s Ryan Brendan won the two-day event in a playoff. Forty-eight golfers representing eight countries competed, all with differing disabilities.
Last October it was announced that the second championship will be played at Independence Golf Club in Midlothian, Va., in 2019. The inclusive event is open to players with physical and intellectual impairments and golf handicap indexes not exceeding 30. The USDGA is partnering with Richmond Region Tourism, 288 Sports and Powhatan County Economic Development in holding the event.
“It’s nice that some people see the event as what it issupposed to be: a major,” said Faircloth, who intends to play in the event again.
Even the USGA has put all of its toes in the water. There are plans for a national adaptive golf championship, announced at the 2017 Annual Meeting, to join its stable of competitions. More discussions were had at the 2019 Annual Meeting in February, but concrete details were still being worked out.
To that end, USGA CEO and Executive Director Mike Davis said golf’s governing body is committed to the endeavor.
“The USGA has passionately sought opportunities for individuals with disabilities to experience and enjoy golf – through our championships, in how we govern the game, and by promoting accessible and sustainable golf courses,” he said via email. “In elevating this work as a strategic priority and pursuing the creation of a USGA championship, we hope to inspire new audiences to try the game and to love it for a lifetime.”
The USGA rolled out a new set of “Modified Rules for Players with Disabilities”that was released concurrently with golf’s new Rules on Jan. 1, according to the USGA’s John Bodenhamer, Senior Managing Director, Championships & Governance.
“Similar to the full set of Rules, the modifications [underwent] a thorough and fundamental review to ensure they support and promote today’s adaptive golf community, and the greater golf community as a whole,” said Bodenhamer.
The review included input from leading adaptive organizations in the golf community, he added.
If championships aren’t enough to show commitment, then a new World Ranking for Golfers with Disability should. Officials from the USGA and R&A administered a global ranking, beginning this past January, and there are separate rankings for men and women, run in tandem with the World Amateur Golf Ranking.
“I think it’s going to be great to finally get to see golfers with disabilities being recognized on a world stage. The disabled community should embrace this with open arms,” said Faircloth, adding that he’ll try to “sneak in” on the ranking.
All in all, it’s positive times for adaptive golfers. Windsor will continue running the Adaptive Golf Academy. He said thousands have come through who want to make a difference in someone’s life. His goal is to be able to deploy teams – those he’s met through the academy curriculum – throughout various regions in the country.
Right now, Windsor and Bob Thibodeau, GSGA Outreach Coordinator, receive about seven to eight national inquiries a week from those interested in playing or helping. It’s been a strenuous effort. Since 2015, Windsor has helped grow a once-a-month clinic in Georgia into being presented in 40 different locations.
It’s all worth it.
“You see less with your eyes and more with your heart, and you can say you are now making a difference and giving back,” said Windsor.
Asked to illustrate success, Windsor paused.
“Being a success is about overall communication and collaboration among the PGA of America, the USGA, all the allied groups,” he said. “It’s better in some states than others. It’s at different levels. One main thing is if there was an adaptive golf director at every allied group.”
Rojas learned from Windsor. It’s how she’s been able to run her New Jersey-based clinics. She was able to disseminate tools and apply her knowledge based on having a disability. “I don’t keep a handicap,” she said, timing her effect. “I have one.”
Her actions earned recognition by the LPGA Woman’s Network for helping spearhead a revolution in golf. She’s currently working on a campaign to empower girls who may have a disability, to focus on confidence.
Rojas acknowledge that money is tight, especially when she’s trying to help in so many ways.
Yet, there is no giving up.
“We are all integrated together, we all love and support each other, we all show up to help each other and we are all in this together,” said Rojas of her relationships with Faircloth, Windsor and adaptive golf groups.
Windsor echoed her thoughts, but put it even more succinctly.
“It’s easy to reflect and say, ‘Wow, look at how far we have come. Look where we are,’” said Windsor. “I don’t often look in that rearview mirror. I am keeping that windshield clean and thinking there is so much more to accomplish and so many more travels.”
Ken Klavon served as the U.S. Golf Association’s online editor for 12 years and previously covered golf for Sports Illustrated.