Golf: An Update on the Movement Toward Full Inclusion of People with Disabilities

by Jennifer K. Skulski
with contributions from the National Alliance for Accessible Golf 

" I love the game of golf. I'm probably going to play it for the rest of my life."
--Andy Lamb, Project GAIN participant

Talk to any golfer about their golf game, a new club, their favorite course, or the best round they ever played, and undeniably you will witness an enthusiasm from their voice and a sparkle in their eye illustrating their true immersion within the sport. This is the difference between simply participating in sport and becoming one with the game. While the game of golf has a rich history with hundreds of thousands of people worldwide learning to master the sport, the inclusion of people with disabilities within golf is still on relatively new teeing ground. This monograph will discuss the issues facing inclusion of people with disabilities within the game of golf, recently released accessibility guidelines for golf courses, policy issues, new initiatives encouraging participation of people with disabilities in golf, and resources for golfers with disabilities and golf course operators.

People with Disabilities Want to Play Golf 

According to the National Golf Foundation, 26 million people played golf in 2002. In a random sampling survey of people with disabilities by the National Center on Accessibility and Clemson University, an estimated 10% of people with disabilities play golf; while 22% of people with disabilities not currently playing, played golf prior to acquiring a disability. The same survey showed that 35% of people with disabilities not currently playing, would like to play. The potential of 35% translates to several million new golfers.

Not only do golfers with disabilities want to play golf, they have specific expectations of their golf experience, like:
  • Quality customer service from golf course staff that are sensitive and knowledgeable about the needs of people with disabilities;
  • Use of golf course facilities that are architecturally and programmatically accessible;
  • Modification of golf course policies to permit accommodations for disability-related needs such as adapted equipment and assistive devices;
  • Instruction from professionals willing and eager to make adaptations in technique and teaching style to the individualized needs of each golfer's ability;
  • Opportunity to play with friends; or
  • Walk-on as an individual and be placed in a foursome where the individual will be accepted and fully included with the other non-disabled golfers in the group.

Susan Deis is a software engineer for Verizon Wireless in Philadelphia. She has been a wheelchair user for 25 years, briefly played golf as a teen prior to her injury, and was reintroduced to the game by a friend about three years ago. “I've had the great good fortune of adding golf to my life. It has been a wonderful sport for me. I saw from the beginning how quickly big improvements came with each golf practice or game. I'm told that my experience is not unique and it sure has been fun. And I am having great fun playing with my folks and friends. It has opened up a new world for me. For the first time my folks and I can spend a day outside sharing in a sport we really enjoy together.”

Deis has played city, county and public golf courses in the Philadelphia area and comments, “The thing that impresses me most is the initial response I get when first coming to the course. The golf staff can respond in such a welcoming way to say, ‘welcome, hello, we have been waiting for you, this is what we have available….’ The total awareness of golfers with disabilities from the golf pro’s, the rangers and groundskeepers is so welcoming, as if they are happy to see me. And they want feedback on how they are doing. It makes me want to golf at their course.”

On a personal level, Deis also comments on the benefits of golf socially and in terms of her own health and fitness. “Whereas I was not able to golf nine holes in the beginning, I now have the stamina and energy to play nine and to pull a golf cart with ease. I can easily play 18 holes with energy to spare. When I go back and play courses that I haven't played in a while, I compare how well I played and the differences in ease
of play, energy-level and the score are incredible to me and my family. Improvements include upper body strength, stamina and coordination over the last 3 year and continue to get better. Of course this crosses over to my work and daily activities. I've really reached another level physically.”

“I've felt more agile and comfortable socially since starting golf. Being in the clubhouse, interacting with other golfers gives me a wide diversity of opportunities to interact with people outside of my normal day to day interactions. I feel more confident with myself within a greater array of social settings. Golf has given that to me.”
From these expectations it is clear that successful inclusion of people with disabilities in the game of golf starts with golf course staff well-trained on the needs of golfers with disabilities.

Inclusion of Golfers with Disabilities is Good Business for Golf Course Operators

In a recreational sport struggling to maintain and grow the number of new golfers, disability advocates are trying to prove to the golf industry that people with disabilities should be considered as a viable new market. Market research through the 1980’s and 1990’s concluded that there would be an infiltration of new golfers and that there would not be enough golf courses to meet the need. Unfortunately, the 1990’s golf course building boom has not seen the record number of new golfers flock to the courses. In fact, the number of golfers looks to have stabilized. A 1999 study by the National Golf Foundation and McKinsey & Co. showed that golf was losing about as many players each year as the three million or so it managed to attract. Thus, for golf course owners and operators, holding on to existing golfers and attracting new golfers will be the difference to how many rounds a golf course can successfully record for an upcoming season.

As the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 requires public accommodations to be readily accessible to and usable by people with disabilities, many business owners over the last 13 years have been fixated on the “unfunded mandates” of the legislation rather than the financial opportunities to making their business accessible to people with disabilities. Of the 54 million Americans with disabilities, this untapped market is estimated at having $214 billion in disposable income. Collectively, the segment market of people with disabilities had an income of $1 trillion in 2001. The affinity market of family and friends holds even more purchasing power. Typically, similar to people without disabilities, people with disabilities participate in recreation, go to movies, dine out, travel and shop with family and friends. Thus, the $214 billion in disposable income can be exponentially extended beyond the 54 million Americans to also include the disposable income of family and friends. That’s quite a few rounds of golf. Let’s do the math:

This is a chart with the words '54 million Americans with disabilites' listed in a blue square with an arrow pointing to a yellow triangle with the words '35% or 17 million people with disabilities want to play golf' listed inside.  Next to the yellow triangle is a green circle with the words 'If just 50% of the 17 million potential new golfers played one round of golf, they would purchase $344 million in greens fees & cart rentals' listed inside of it.
*There are 54 million Americans with disabilities. If 35% of people with disabilities are interested in playing golf, an estimated 17 million people, and 50% or a little over 8 million actually begin playing golf and play one round, it would create more than $344 million in greens fees and cart rentals. The NGF estimates the average greens fee at $28 and the average cart rental at $12.

 
Golf course operators that are not only well trained on the needs of people with disabilities but have also addressed those needs through physical access to the course and modifications to policies stand a much better chance of attracting the untapped market of golfers with disabilities.

New Accessibility Guidelines Define Access from the Clubhouse to the 18th Hole

As a means to provide physical access to golf courses, the U.S. Access Board released the Final Rule for Accessibility Guidelines for Recreation Facilities in September 2002. The new guidelines define the accessibility requirements for recreation facilities such as swimming pools, sports facilities, amusement rides, boating facilities, fishing piers, miniature golf courses, and including golf courses and golf practice facilities. The new guidelines apply to all golf courses covered by Titles II and III under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Eventually the new guidelines will be adopted by the U.S. Department of Justice for incorporation into the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines. The major provisions addressing golf courses and golf practices facilities include:
  • A required accessible route connecting the accessible elements and spaces within the boundary of the golf course.
  • The accessible route is modified to 48 inches in width to permit continuous passage on which a motorized golf car can operate. While a golf car passage must be usable by golf cars, it does not necessarily need to have a prepared surface and may be part of a golf car path.
  • Where curbs are provided along golf car passage openings of 60 inches minimum are required at intervals not to exceed 75 yards.
  • The forward teeing ground for each hole must be connected by an accessible route or golf car passage.
  • Where one or two teeing grounds are provided, at least the forward teeing ground must be accessible.
  • Where more than two teeing grounds are provided, at least the forward teeing ground and an additional teeing ground must be accessible to allow for various skill levels.
  • Each putting green must be designed to allow for a golf car to enter and exit the green.
  • Weather shelters must have a minimum 60” x 96” clear floor space and allow for the entry and exit of a golf car.
  • At driving ranges, both stand alone facilities and those that are part of the golf course, at least five percent, but not less than one, of the practice teeing grounds must be accessible and provide space for a golf car to enter and exit.
  • The driving range must provide an accessible route or a golf car passage connecting the accessible teeing stations with the accessible parking spaces.
The new accessibility guidelines for golf courses and golf practice facilities address the physical design and access to the spaces, unfortunately policy and procedure issues still remain as barriers in terms of full inclusion of golfers with disabilities. Lack of clear guidance from federal enforcement agencies has left many golf course operators wondering how to address issues such as:
  • How to provide access to automated systems for tee-time reservations for persons calling via TTY or relay service?
  • What are reasonable pace of play policies?
  • What are reasonable modifications to other types of policies such as taking golf cars into the parking lot?
  • Is staff required to provide assistance with personal equipment?
  • What guidelines or criteria should be used to allow for or disallow devices on the greens?
  • Are single rider golf cars required under the ADA and whose responsibility is it to provide single rider cars?
  • What guidelines related to weather and turf should be used to determine the appropriateness of allowing single rider golf cars or other devices on the golf course?

Alliance Among Golf Industry and Disability Advocates Encouraging Inclusion

In an effort to address some of the policy issues, increase awareness and encourage participation of people with disabilities in the game of golf, the National Alliance for Accessible Golf was created in July 2001. The Alliance brings together leaders in the golf industry, representatives from disability organizations and golfers with disabilities. The Board of Directors consists of members from organizations such as the PGA of America and the PGA Tour, the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), the United States Golf Association (USGA), the Club Managers Association of America, the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, the National Golf Course Owners Association, Clemson University, the City of Las Vegas, the University of Utah, the America Therapeutic Recreation Association, the University of Missouri, the National Therapeutic Recreation Society, the University of Chicago, the First Tee, and the National Center on Accessibility at Indiana University. Some of the member organizations first began meeting to discuss the inclusion of people with disabilities in the 1990’s through the series of National Forums on Accessible Golf co-hosted by Clemson University and the National Center on Accessibility/Indiana University. A call to action was made as a result of the sixth meeting in 2000 to form a National Alliance for Accessible Golf that could make significant inroads for the inclusion of people with disabilities in golf.

The Alliance vision is such that through the game of golf individuals with disabilities become actively engaged in the social fabric of a community, and derive health benefits that improve quality of life. The driving forces behind the Alliance are the beliefs that:

  • All individuals are entitled to play the game of golf regardless of their ability, socio-economic condition or experience.
  • Golf contributes directly to social inclusion in the fabric of a community.
  • The game of golf must be accessible and affordable for all.
  • Direct health benefits are derived from playing golf.
  • Information about the benefits of golf for persons with disability and the golf industry must be constantly shared with the media, public, health, rehabilitation, recreation and golf professionals.

Since the creation of the Alliance in 2001, the newly formed collaborative effort received start-up support through a Memorandum of Understanding with the University of Utah, Clemson University and Indiana University. The Alliance has also incorporated and become recognized as a non-profit with 501(3)(c) status. The Alliance is physically located at the National Center on Accessibility on the Indiana University-Bloomington campus.

The Alliance is concentrated on increasing the opportunities for people with disabilities to play golf, increasing awareness of the needs of golfers with disabilities amongst the golf industry, advancing the scientific understanding of the benefits of golf for people with disabilities, and providing technical assistance. One of the first initiatives of the Alliance was the creation of a Tool Kit for Golf Course Owners and Operators. The tool kit provides answers to frequently asked questions regarding the application of the Americans with Disabilities Act to golf courses. Also in the works are tool kits for rehabilitation professionals and golfers with disabilities.

Deis confirms she has benefited from the work the Alliance is doing to increase awareness of the needs of golfers with disabilities. “I have seen the information the Alliance is putting out. The network and communication is definitely working. It’s easier to overcome the physical barriers if the social barriers aren’t there.” Deis reports that she has received great benefits from playing golf. She feels much happier. She has been able to strengthen relationships with family and friends through the shared golf experience. She enjoys the opportunity to participate in an activity that gets her outside. And she enjoys the interactions she has been able to have with staff and other golfers at the various courses she has played over the years.
 

A New Model: Project GAIN (Golf: Accessible and Inclusive Networks)

Golf is a sport that is much easier to learn with someone who is experienced than simply trying to learn on your own. Aimed at encouraging people with disabilities to play golf, many local communities host golf clinics or lessons either through the parks and recreation departments or physical therapy or rehabilitation programs. Many clinics are 1-2 days in length and teach potential new golfers the fundamentals of stance and swing, while perhaps also giving information on adapted equipment and additional resources. Unfortunately, for many participants their actual participation in golf only lasts for the duration of the clinic or lesson program and never ventures out onto the golf course itself. The potential new golfer’s experience becomes limited to the practice facility where the clinic takes place. In addition, individuals with disabilities participating in these types of programs rarely come back to the course after the program concludes to actually play golf.

Project GAIN (Golf: Accessible and Inclusive Networks) is the second major initiative of the National Alliance for Accessible Golf. The national research and development project is designed to set up community-based models of inclusive networks between golf professionals, golf course operators, parks and recreation departments, therapeutic recreation and rehabilitation specialists, advocacy organizations, and individuals with disabilities. According to the Alliance, the purpose of the project is to provide opportunities for people with disabilities to become involved in the game of golf – not just through lessons on how to hit the ball, but by involving them in the social and community aspects of the game as well. GAIN is also a research project examining the potential of the game of golf as a medium to maximize opportunities for inclusion of people with disabilities into the fabric of the local community. The project is funded by the United States Golf Association Foundation, the PGA TOUR and the PGA of America Foundation.

Project GAIN has been launched in four cities since November 2002: Salt Lake City, Sacramento, Baltimore (County), and Chicago (Highland Park). Approximately 100 golfers with and without disabilities will participate at each site. During the project, the golfers are screened and golf skills assessed. They participate in a series of lessons and, as a break from the traditional model, golfers with and without disabilities will also participate in social inclusion activities. Participants may be partnered with mentors where they may work together during the lessons, but more importantly, keep in contact in between lessons. They may call or e-mail each other to talk about the latest championship tournament and how well Tiger or Sergio played, they may go out to the driving range together to practice or even take in a round of golf.

Salt Lake City was the first site to launch Project GAIN under the coordination of Dave Compton at the University of Utah. With more that 120 participants, Compton describes some of the GAIN activities designed to facilitate inclusion through golf, “We have had a number of inclusive activities throughout the course of the year ranging from a BBQ at a local driving range and putting/chipping contests. We planted flowers and cleaned up the garden at the golf course that hosted our GAIN lessons. We were successful in obtaining nearly 400 Weekly Grounds passes to the Nationwide tour stop here in SLC and gave the largest number of those to our GAIN participants, mentors and their families. As well, we participated in the Champions Challenge golf outing hosted by Johnny Miller. We were able to bring a number of our GAIN participants out to run a putting contest to raise money for GAIN. At the tournament Mike Weir, Jack Nicklaus, Billy Casper and Jim Furyk dropped by to see our display, pose for pictures and sign some autographs.”

Compton adds, “We are seeing a significant change in attitude of the local golf frontline staff. As well, there is system change with new policies, anticipation that we will be seeing more adapted equipment, and clear support of the Utah Section PGA, Utah Golf Association and the local media.”

In the short time Project GAIN has been underway, several success stories have already been recorded. Constonsa Alexander, the Chicago Project GAIN Coordinator reports, “My favorite story is that of a family whose daughter brought a long time friend as a mentor. Both enjoyed having this time together to learn something new. They have begun to go to the practice range together and to play outside of class sessions. The participant, mentor, and parents are all excited that it has bloomed into something great.”

By the time Project GAIN has wrapped up in all of the cities, the community-based network model will be evaluated for effectiveness. From this evaluation, further guidance should emerge for other cities interested in developing similar models.

The Uproar Over Adapted and Single Rider Golf Cars

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, public accommodations are required to provide auxiliary aids and services “necessary to ensure that no individual with a disability is excluded, denied services, segregated or otherwise treated differently than other individuals…” The U.S. Department of Justice regulations give examples of auxiliary aids and services to include qualified interpreters, written materials, assistive listening devices, open and closed captioning, Brailled materials, larger print, “acquisition or modification of equipment or devices; and other similar services and actions.” So the question as it relates to golf: Where an individual needs an adapted golf car to play golf from, are adapted golf cars and/or single rider golf cars considered auxiliary aids under the Americans with Disabilities Act and therefore required to be provided by the golf course? While golf course operators have argued since the passage of the ADA that use of these types of devices on the greens would damage the playing area, no research data has substantiated this claim. Inasmuch, the issue continues to be decided in the courts through litigation. Two notable settlement agreements to date include the City of Indianapolis and Sun City Summerlin Community Association, Inc.

In Indianapolis, a complaint was filed under the ADA where a golfer alleged that the city-owned Eagle Creek Golf Course violated the ADA because it did not have an adequate number of accessible parking spaces, the clubhouse was not fully accessible, and Eagle Creek did not provide an accessible golf cart. The Department of Justice investigation expanded to include other golf courses owned by the city. As a result of a settlement agreement, the City of Indianapolis Parks and Recreation Department agreed to make modifications to improve access to its courses and also purchase two different models of golf cars to aid golfers who need to play from a seated position. According to a statement issued by the U.S. States Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana, “one device has a fixed seat that rotates on a fixed pedestal allowing full turning for golfers. One device has a seat that not only pivots 360, but also mechanically raises and lowers for the golfer with a disability who needs to adjust the height on the cart for his/her swing. The mobility aid devices are to be housed at two different courses, but will be available at any of the thirteen city courses upon advance request. The mobility aid devices will be rented for the same price as a regular cart. The Agreement requires the City to maintain records reflecting the usage of the devices, and, if at the end of the 2003 golfing season, the number of requests exceed the availability of the individual golf mobility aid devices, the City will purchase additional devices to address the needs of its golfers with disabilities.”

In Las Vegas, a golfer filed a complaint against the Sun City Summerlin Community Association, Inc. According to the settlement agreement, the complaint alleged that the Association refused requests to modify rules restricting golf cart use to allow persons with disabilities to use accessible carts that would permit them to play on the course. The policy had restricted access to the greens and other areas of the course. Under the settlement agreement, the association has agreed to adopt a new policy to prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability to permit power carts on paths, walkways, and greens formerly restricted to pedestrians whenever the cart is necessary to permit a qualified individual with a disability to play the course.

Even if the courts and DOJ agree that golf courses must provide adapted golf cars, applying the remedy is not that easy. Not all adapted golf cars, also known as single rider golf cars, are alike. Currently there are at least seven different models on the market all sold by different manufacturers. Each has their own unique characteristics, swivel seats, hand controls, front-mounted bag attachment, rear-mounted bag attachment, canopy, etc. Because of the wide variety of features and the individualized needs from golfer to golfer, golf course operators have little information as to which devices are preferred and most effective for the widest population of users. More research is needed in this area and as a result the National Alliance for Accessible Golf and the National Center on Accessibility will collaborate to conduct a research study reviewing the features, usability and effectiveness of each of these models in comparison with user needs and preferences.

Conclusion

People with disabilities want to golf and golf course operators need new golfers to continue to be financially sustainable. However, the supply and demand is not so easily matched up until the customer and service provider come to a more closer understanding of each other’s needs and wants. First, golfers and potential new golfers with disabilities must become informed of their access rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. But more importantly, they must develop a greater understanding of the access issues facing golf course operators, physical access issues, policy issues, and programmatic modifications in order to be effective advocates from the clubhouse to the 18th hole. A golfer with a disability is a much more effective advocate with golf course management when they come into the clubhouse informed and prepared to give solid advice or recommendations to golf course staff on improving access, rather than flying in on the long-arm of the law threatening legal action for non-compliance.
On the back nine, golf course staff need too to be educated on the needs of their potential new customers with disabilities and the structural or procedural modifications required to provide full access. Golf course staff know the many benefits--physical, social, and spiritual, that the sport has to offer. Herein lies the opportunity for them to introduce the benefits to potential new golfers while at the same time facilitating inclusion within the golf community.

Resources

Publications

Organizations

    National Alliance for Accessible Golf
    2805 East 10th St, Suite 190
    Bloomington, IN 47408
    (812) 856-4422 (voice)
    (812) 856-4421 (tty)
    www.accessgolf.org

    National Center on Accessibility
    2805 East 10th St, Suite 190
    Bloomington, IN 47408
    (812) 856-4422 (voice)
    (812) 856-4421 (tty)
    www.ncaonline.org

    The United States Golf Association Foundation
    Resource Center for Individuals with Disabilities
    www.resourcecenter.usga.org

About this Monograph

This monograph was produced by the National Center on Accessibility under a collaborative partnership with the National Center on Physical Activity and Disability, with funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

About the Author

Jennifer K. Skulski is Director of Marketing and Special Projects for the National Center on Accessibility.

Special thanks to Gary Robb, Executive Director of the National Center on Accessibility and President of the National Alliance for Accessible Golf, for his review and editorial contributions to this monograph.

 Citation for this article is:

Skulski, J. (Fall 2003).  Golf: an update on the movement toward full inclusion of people with disabilities. Bloomington, IN: National Center on Accessibility, Indiana University-Bloomington.  Retrieved from www.ncaonline.org.