Golf goals: Making room for athletes with disabilities

Cy Cyr/Courtesy of P4M Golf Management
Golfer Joakim Björkman hones his game at the Rio Pinar Golf and Country Club in Orlando, Florida, April 6, 2022. The Swede is one of many athletes from around the world who plan to participate July 18-20 in the inaugural U.S. Adaptive Open at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club in North Carolina.

Joakim Björkman, a professional golfer, credits the sport with saving his life.

When he was young, he was subjected to constant staring and taunts because of his short stature. Eventually, he was hospitalized with a panic attack. For two years, he stayed mostly at home – often leaving only to play golf. Inspired by Tiger Woods, he now wonders what his life would have been like without the game.

“When I was on the golf course, all the stress was gone,” says the Swede, now in his early 30s. “It was my sanctuary,” he adds during a recent interview at the Henrik Stenson Paragolf Challenge near here in June.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

The golf community looks different than it once did, in part because of athletes who have not always had a place on the links. How has their perseverance paid off in more equitable access?

Mr. Björkman is one of many athletes planning to participate in an important tournament for disabled golfers this year: the inaugural U.S. Adaptive Open, sponsored by the United States Golf Association (USGA), at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club in North Carolina.

There, from July 18 to 20, Mr. Björkman, who has won some 35 titles in competitions, will join 95 other elite male and female golfers from 29 states and 11 countries to compete on the resort’s famed course No. 6.

The tournament represents one way opportunities for golfers with disabilities are expanding. More chances to train and compete have opened up in recent years, along with calls to have golf included in the Paralympics. The increased inclusion is the result of perseverance on the part of the athletes and a push by the golfers and their allies for equal access to the links. 

“I see the social and competitive playing opportunities for individuals with disabilities only growing,” says Dave Barton, executive director of the National Alliance for Accessible Golf, via email. “The USGA getting behind this particular effort ... is setting a bar that will inspire so many players and, I believe, program growth.” 

“Golf saved my life”

The USGA first announced plans for the U.S. Adaptive Open in 2017, but it was delayed because of the pandemic. It joins other tournaments, like the United States Disabled Open, which was held for the fourth time in June. 

“Over our history, we’ve continued to add more ​championships for more demographics,” John Bodenhamer, the USGA’s chief championships officer, said in a statement to the Monitor. “We felt strongly that the adaptive golf community deserved that same opportunity: to showcase their skills on the grandest stage in the game.” 

Players are getting in line to participate in these specialized tournaments, and they often talk about their connection to the game. “I can’t even count the number of times I have heard an individual say to me, ‘Golf saved my life,’” says Mr. Barton. 

While his group has been around since 2001, others aimed at supporting golfers with disabilities have existed longer: the United States Blind Golf Association was founded in 1953, the National Amputee Golf Association in 1954.

Organizations like these, and more recent ones, are helping to increase the options for players – arranging tournaments, and offering training, funding, and local inclusivity initiatives.

Ross D. Franklin/AP/File
Amy Bockerstette practices at Palmbrook Country Club in Sun City, Arizona, Aug. 28, 2019. Ms. Bockerstette was the first person with Down syndrome to compete in a national collegiate championship. Now graduated, she and her family recently started a foundation to support golfers with intellectual disabilities.

For example, the U.S. Adaptive Golf Alliance, founded in 2014, provides “competitive pathways” for disabled golfers through its 40 grassroots member organizations. It holds instructional clinics and golf tournaments throughout the country (more than two dozen tournaments this year alone), and its members have recently provided as many as 10,000 lessons for disabled golfers annually.

“There is growing evidence of golf’s positive impact on health and well-being,” writes Dr. Bern Bernacki, president of the Golf Heritage Society in Pittsburgh, in an email.

Aided by dedicated instructors and advances in technology, golf provides important therapeutic benefits to countless individuals with disabilities around the world, he adds.

The Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) has said that adaptive golf is one of the game’s next great growth opportunities. Some PGA pros – like Gary Woodland, the 2019 U.S. Open champion – are lending support.

Mr. Woodland recently befriended Amy Bockerstette, a former collegiate athlete in her early 20s who will compete this week at Pinehurst. The two went viral in 2019 when Ms. Bockerstette, who has Down syndrome, played a hole in a practice round with Mr. Woodland and fellow pro Matt Kuchar at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. She made par, repeating along the way the encouraging phrase, “I got this.”

That same year, Ms. Bockerstette and her family established the “I Got This Foundation” which provides grants of up to $5,000 to groups and organizations that offer golf instruction and clinics to individuals with intellectual disabilities. The foundation also organizes tournaments and other events for disabled golfers.

“I become more confident through golf,” she says in a video from the PGA Tour. “I help people. That means a lot,” she adds.

Getting the message out

Internationally, there is momentum as well. Earlier this year, EDGA (formerly known as the European Disabled Golf Association) and the DP World Tour, one of the main pro tours in Europe, agreed to provide financial support to disabled golfers and to host additional tournaments through the G4D (Golf for the Disabled) Tour. EDGA is hosting more than two dozen tournaments for disabled golfers in Europe, Canada, and South Africa in 2022. The organization is also among those advocating for golf to be included in the Paralympics. 

Here in Sweden, Henrik Stenson, a six-time PGA Tour winner and the 2016 British Open champion, has taken the lead in hosting and promoting tournaments and other programs for Swedish golfers with disabilities.

This year for the second time, Mr. Stenson offered the summer paragolf challenge that bears his name. Next month he says he will sponsor seven golf camps around the country for 7- to 15-year-olds “who can come out and give it a go and see if this is something they want to [pursue].” He also provides special equipment for disabled golfers throughout the country.

In an interview at the paragolf tournament in June, he says he has focused on “trying to get new players interested [in the game] and supporting the ones that already play and compete.” 

But he adds that more needs to be done to “get the message out” to the wider public about adaptive golf and what it offers. The USGA-sponsored tournament at Pinehurst this month, he says, should help do just that. 

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