Still Swinging — An Inside Look at Adaptive Golf

Circa 2011

Not everyone plays golf quite the same way. Tiger Woods swings a club differently than Jack Nicklaus, and Jack Nicklaus’s game is nothing like Arnold Palmer’s.

Golfers with disabilities add their own twist to the sport: They use adaptive equipment that allows them to participate on the same courses, while following the same rules as everyone else.

solorider pitch to green
Solorider and a pitch to the green

For Tom Houston, learning how to golf has been life changing. He was paralyzed in 1980 after a 40-foot fall from a scaffolding at work.

Shortly afterwards, he became an advocate for disability rights, even designing a chair that could help an individual stand upright for such common tasks as reaching into cabinets or shaking hands. Houston then partnered with a manufacturing company to market the chair to physical therapists.

At the time, he hadn’t considered playing golf. But his children encouraged him to use his modified chair to give the game a try. Navigating a golf course in a chair was not easy, but he made it work by hitching himself to other players’ carts and getting pulled along the course.

On a work-related trip to Puerto Rico, he met professional golfer Chi Chi Rodriguez, and entered a competition in which everyday golfers are paired with professionals. Though initially hesitant to participate—given that previously he’d only played a few rounds with his kids—Houston soon found himself golfing alongside two major pros. He also played a practice round with Rodriguez, which later led to golfing with the legendary Palmer.

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“I told them that I had just started playing golf,” Houston said of the event’s sponsor, the Miami Project, a research group aiming to cure paralysis. They told him that it didn’t matter, and that as a high-achieving paraplegic, he fit right into their field of interest.

“The next thing you know,” Houston said, “I’m paired up with Arnold Palmer and the people who own Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. The next year I’m invited back to play with Lee Trevino. The year after that I’m paired with Gary Player, then Simon Hobday, and a host of other guys. Along the way, I started to get into golf.”

As Houston developed a love of the game, Palmer gave the blossoming athlete some “green” advice: Put wider tires on your wheelchair, re-tool the wheels, and reduce the pounds-per-square-inch footprint your chair leaves on the course’s delicate grass. Today, the adaptive golfer treads more lightly in his new and improved chair, which he uses not only for sport, but also to enhance his everyday mobility.

Unlike Houston, Annie Hayes was a lifelong golfer before becoming paralyzed in a 2006 mountain-biking accident. But her crash didn’t sideline her for long: By February 2007, the former triathlete was back to golfing, and had even purchased her own SoloRider adaptive golf cart, which is, as the name indicates, designed for a single user.

The cart’s seat swivels around, extends to an upright position, and allows the golfer to stand upright, be supported, and swing using both hands. Hayes can drive the cart onto tee boxes and greens without damaging the surfaces, and can even store her vehicle at her home course after the day is done.

“I don’t know what alternative there would be,” Hayes said. “There’s no way I would be able to play in a wheelchair.”

The golfer once drove the ball 200 yards or more from the tee, but after her accident her drives were only about half that far. Today, Hayes has recovered some of that lost ground, and gets up to 140-170 yards per drive. She’s found that her accident was a game-changer in other ways as well:

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“At the course where I play, there are probably eight holes that I can’t reach in regulation. But I’m still competitive with most of the women at the club.”

While Hayes and Houston both benefited from the help of coaches and professionals in recovering their respective golf games, Bob Wilson charged himself with relearning the sport on his own.

He had played since high school and, during his tour with the Navy, competed on courses across the world. Even after he lost his legs in a 1974 accident on the USS Kitty Hawk supercarrier, he managed to stay in the sport. And like Hayes, within months of his accident, he was back on the course, reading to give it another go.

As executive director of the National Amputee Golf Association (NAGA),Wilson developed First Swing, a program launched in 1986 to introduce more people with disabilities to the game.

“There was not too much out there in the way of lessons being provided to disabled people,” he said. “Back in 1964, people knew that amputees played golf, but no one had any idea how to teach them. First Swing teaches people who’ve never played before, that they can hit the ball and learn to love the game.”

Move it Forward (MIF), a recent initiative from the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) and the United States Golf Association (USGA), has helped reduce the physical strain golfers with disabilities often experience, by shortening the distance between holes. For Wilson, it’s an approach that simplifies the golfing experience without diminishing its appeal.

“You get around faster,” he said. “It’s a shorter game, and you probably have a little more fun, because you can get on the greens in regulation.”

Even with these accommodations, golf poses no shortage of challenges for athletes with disabilities.

“In the beginning, nobody wanted me on their golf course,” Houston said. “They said I couldn’t take anything with wheels within 30 feet of their green.”

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He wasn’t intimidated, and offered some push-back: “You drive a mower up there every day. You just had 500 people walking out there, chewing up the grass with their spikes. So yes, I’m going on your green.”

In an attempt to alleviate the concerns of course officials, Houston also altered his wheelchair to reduce its pounds per-square footprint on the greens. Today he uses a chair with wider tires and more evenly distributed weight, which has enabled him to golf in 48 states and on the Congressional course that hosted this year’s US Open, Beyond this country, Houston’s played golf in five Canadian provinces, on nearly every island in the Caribbean, and across England.

“Along the way, I’ve had thousands of awesome golf experiences,” he said. “It really is a sport that allows you to compete and socialize with everyday people. I play with a group of guys here in New Jersey in the summertime, and last year I won the club championship. A guy in a wheelchair won the club championship. That’s pretty cool.”

The challenges that Houston, Hayes and Wilson have encountered on the course have not only enhanced their abilities as athletes, but also as people.

“Every golfer—I don’t care if it’s Phil Mickelson or Joe Blow Hacker—sees that ball and tries to figure out a way to get to it and hit it,” said Houston. He finds himself using those same sporting skills when he’s off the course: figuring out ways to negotiate around the obstacles of life.

Hayes has found that being a golfer has instilled a sense of independence in her that she once thought she might never recover.

“I just show up at the course, wheel down to my cart, hop on and go golfing. I don’t have to ask anybody to do anything special for me. That’s awesome. And I don’t have to compete with other people with disabilities. I can compete with anybody on a pretty even playing field. All you have to do is hit the ball.”

two images of Annie Hayes playing gold and Bob Wilson
Annie Hayes could drive the ball 200 yards before her accident; now she’s recovering lost ground. Golfer Bob Wilson.


BOB WILSON first picked up a golf club in high school, when his best friend introduced him to the game as an alternative to football, baseball and basketball. Wilson caught on with ease and began golfing regularly throughout his time in the Navy.

Wilson’s travels took him all over the world. But after the accident on the USS Kitty Hawk supercarrier ship, which claimed his legs, he fell into a funk.

“I went through the pity-party routine,” Wilson said. “Then I got a hold of a magazine, and read an article about one of the National Amputee Golf Association (NAGA) championships. So I pushed myself through the rehab a little harder and played my first nine holes in June of that year.”

NAGA, supported by the PGA and USGA, has more than 2,000 members in the United States, and hosts national and regional tournaments around the country. But when Wilson was working with the Veterans Administration in California, he had a difficult time finding a West Coast NAGA branch.

“My neighbor worked at one of the local golf courses and asked why I wasn’t playing in the amputee tournament,” Wilson said. “About a week later I was playing my first amputee tournament in Sacramento.”

Wilson, who now lives in New Hampshire, is executive director of NAGA and developed First Swing Golf Clinics in an effort to help teach people with disabilities, who might think that golf is beyond their reach, or that their best days are behind them, how to get into the sport. He still plays the game on his own time.

“It’s all about enjoyment, camaraderie, and competition,” he said. “I’ve played all over the world. Every course is different and every setting is different. All you have to do is hit the ball.”

TOM HOUSTON’s kids wanted to spend more time with their father, and they were eager to nudge him into a lifestyle on par with the one he enjoyed before his accident.

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“They asked if I wanted to go play golf,” Houston said. “I told them, ‘Guys, I can’t play golf.’ They said: ‘You do everything else, so we don’t know why you can’t play golf.’”

Houston knew his children were right.

After he fell 40 feet from that scaffolding in 1980, and sustained a spinal-cord injury, he knew he could no longer continue at his chemical-plant job. Yet accepting his disability proved to be a struggle.

“I wandered around a couple of years and didn’t do too much,” he said. “When I became really frustrated with my wheelchair, I got into the wheelchair business. I wanted to make a small, maneuverable chair that allowed you to do all the things in life that you have to stand up for: reaching shelves, working, social events.”

When his kids asked him to join them on the golf course, he was busy on Capitol Hill, pursuing legislation for people with disabilities. With the aid of senators like Tom Harkin and Ted Kennedy, that debate led to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990.

Though Houston was active on the political scene, he had yet to get back into the swing physically. It was time to join his children on the golf course.

“Golf has been good to me,” Houston said. “I’ve put 20 years into trying to get people interested in playing, while also making it available for them to play.”

ANNIE HAYES remembers sitting in her room at Spaulding Rehabilitation Center, deep in thought. Though she wanted to get back her family and to her librarian job, it was golf that engulfed her mind.

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Once a triathlete, she was mountain biking in 2006 near her home in New York when she went over a bridge, crashed onto a log and became paralyzed.

“Before my accident, I loved golf,” Hayes said. “I was devastated that I didn’t think I was going to be able to play again.”

While she was in the hospital, her longtime golf coach—and Ladies Professional Golfers’ Association (LPGA) member—Kay McMahon visited with encouraging news: Hayes could recover her game by using single-rider golf carts with seats that allow a seated individual to stand and hit a golf ball.

“After that, I got myself a cart,” Hayes said. “I didn’t miss a season. My accident had been in August of 2006, and by May 2007 I was golfing again.”

Single-rider golf carts don’t come cheap. They typically sell for around $9,000 a piece. The burden of the expense on individual golfers has sparked ongoing debate within the golf community about whether courses should be legally mandated to make available a single-rider, adaptive cart. Although purchasing one would make a course compliant with ADA regulations, some course managers argue that smaller courses simply can’t afford the expense when demand for the carts is so low.

“I see both sides of the argument,” Hayes said. “These golf carts should be priced closer to what a regular cart is priced (roughly $5000). At the same time, you still have to accommodate people with disabilities.”

by Josh Pate

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