Some swing the club with one arm. Others use special carts so they can hit from a sitting position. And still others hit the ball three times and then carry it the rest of the way to the next green. These are the new golfers -- people with disabilities who have taken up the sport for recreation and therapy.
Noel Jablonski, golf pro and co-owner of the Every Body Golf School in Oakton, has made a specialty of golf lessons for people with disabilities. She instructs people who have suffered strokes and brain injuries, amputees, accident victims, people with hip replacements or bad backs, a student with cerebral palsy, another with leukemia, autistic teens and people in wheelchairs.
"Golf is a perfect sport for a person with a movement disability, because the ball doesn't move," said Jablonski.
The golfing world, largely prompted by disabled activists and the Americans with Disabilities Act, is working on bringing more disabled people to the game of golf.
In September, the Ladies Professional Golf Association held its first program to train golf pros to teach people with disabilities. Working with health professionals, they learned how to give lessons and fit clubs for people with special needs. The LPGA hopes to conduct three more of these programs next year, including one in the Washington area.
"The recreational specialists and physical therapists are finding that golf is a huge asset to rehabilitation programs," said Betsy Clark, the LPGA's director of education. "The potential is there to have a whole group of people we were missing. Now [golf] is for everybody to play."
When Jablonski, a member of LPGA's National Committee on Accessible Golf and an instructor at the recent LPGA program, first became interested in such teaching she asked a physical therapist who golfs to help her adapt the game for disabled players.
The lessons are customized to the individual--but then so are lessons for abled-bodied people, Jablonski pointed out.
People in wheelchairs use a longer club at a modified angle to swing from a sitting position. Amputees have to practice a different balance. Stroke patients may hit with one hand. For some, they are learning a new sport that can help increase their physical fitness and range of motion. For others, it's a matter of relearning the game and regaining confidence after an accident or stroke.
Jablonski and her partner, George Danielson, opened up the Every Body Golf School at the Oak Marr Recreation Center in January 1998, and the school now has eight instructors. She teaches the golfers with disabilities, seeing perhaps three or four each week in addition to her abled-bodied students.
Jablonski "was one of the first to do" such work, said Michael Or-ing, executive director of FORE ALL!, a group devoted to creating golf courses that are fully accessible to disabled golfers. "There's just a handful" of golf pros offering such training.
Oring's group hopes to break ground next year on its first fully accessible golf course, to be located on 225 acres near Walker Mill Regional Park in Prince George's County. The organization has received state and local funding and has requested federal money for what it hopes will be the first of many such facilities across the country. The course will include specially designed cart paths, hazards accessible to people in wheelchairs, sound-emitting devices and audible descriptions of holes to help blind golfers.
Golf course accessibility is an ongoing issue for people with disabilities. Professional golfer Casey Martin, who has a leg problem that prevents him from walking long distances, went to court to gain the right to use a golf cart on the Professional Golfers' Association (PGA) tour. The PGA is appealing the case.
An obstacle for the more typical disabled golfer, however, has been concern about the effect their special carts might have on the turf at golf courses, especially the manicured greens. Special single-rider golf carts, with a seat that rotates to allow the golfer to swing while sitting, don't damage the courses any more than a footprint does, according to advocates for the disabled. Golf courses, especially public courses, are starting to acquire them.
Like other golfers, disabled players need to remember good golf etiquette, Jablonski said, such as not holding up players behind them. One way for those who can't hit the ball very far is to use the three-shot method: hit three times, then pick up the ball and take it the rest of the way to the green. Or they might start at a particular yardage marker rather than the regular tee. Those easily fatigued might just play a few holes and then quit for the day.
"Everybody has to find their own place about what makes them happy about playing golf," said Jablonski.
Golf is fulfilling a lifelong interest in sports for Sheri Teshak. When she was younger, Teshak "lived for sports," whether it was tennis, bowling, high school softball or playing team handball as often as three times a day. That all ended after she developed a rare muscle disease in her mid-twenties, a condition that leaves her weak and easily fatigued. She thought her sports days were over--until she started taking lessons from Jablonski.
"Golf didn't really catch me until I became sick," said Teshak, now 38. "Now I'm totally addicted to it."
FORE ALL! is holding a golf clinic for disabled players at the second at the Chevy Chase Country Club on Oct. 24. For information call, 301-881-1818.