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Program lets disables "gain" golf game

Adia Waldburger, of the Record staff

Golf, one of America’s favorite leisure sports is well on its way to becoming nationally accessible for disabled citizens and Utah is leading the charge.

Through a program called ProjectGAIN (Golf: Accessible and Inclusive Networks) Paralympians like Muffy Davis and Chris Waddell, as well as average disabled citizens, can finally discover a love of the links.

According to National Ability Center (NAC) Outreach Coordinator, Brooke Hafets, the program originally stared as a grant for research at the University of Utah to find a way to integrate people with disabilities into the game of golf. Three years later, the program, which is run out the Fore Lakes Golf Course in South Salt Lake continues to grow and thrive under the direction of PGA golf pro Richard Robinson.

"Golf was just an activity to get people active," Robinson said.

The program is growing by leaps and bounds. There are now 250 participants with a myriad of physical and mental limitations, making the Salt Lake program the No. 1 site in the country. Other sites are located in Sacramento, Calif., Chicago, Ill., Dayton, Ohio and Maryland.

"I’ve taught everyone from the mentally challenged to amputees, Robinson said.

Last summer, disabled Parkites that were not already involved in the program, had the opportunity to attend a clinic at the Park City Golf Course after Robinson worked out the details with course superintendent Craig Sanchez.

"It was fun to have it up there," Robinson said.

Hafets said that the NAC is making plans to hold this year’s clinic in the late summer.

GAIN and the NAC often collaborate as part of the Utah Adaptive Recreation Network (UARN).

"There’s so many elements with our mission that coincide with Project GAIN — inclusion, being outside, increasing self-esteem social skills and involvement," Hafets said.

Robinson has different equipment to help accommodate the participants. He has a single-rider golf cart for those unable to walk and a static teaching chair for practicing at the driving range. The carts have pneumatic wheels and can be driven onto the greens and the seats swivel 360-degrees to allow the disabled golfer to take their shot. He also uses a simulator to help students get a feel for the game. GAIN also uses specialists from different disciplines to help work through different disabilities. Robinson says that on staff, he has a dance instructor, physical therapist and orthopedic clinicians as well as others that often help.

"We have a large staff to draw from," Robinson said.

The adaptive equipment is a bit challenging to move from course to course, so Robinson generally holds his classes and clinics at Fore Lakes. He hopes, eventually, to have enough funding for the program or interest from other golf courses that the special golf carts will be at locations around the state.

"The more awareness we get, the more equipment will be available,’ Robinson said. " The goal is to make everywhere accessible."

Still, Robinson is willing to take his show on the road and run clinics at other courses. Hafets says that she hopes courses in Summit and Wasatch Counties that are will consider holding clinics for disabled participants.

A single rider golf cart is $7,000, and GAIN is continually raising money to purchase more equipment. An annual golf tournament is held in Salt Lake to raise money.

Both Hafets and Robinson agree that the best part of GAIN’s mission is that it allows people with disabilities to take part in a fun social activity that otherwise might separate them from their able-bodied friends. Disabled players can play right along with able-bodied friends and family.

"It’s a great way to have inclusion in a typically social sport with family and friends," Hafets said." Anytime we have people with disabilities being active with everyday life, that’s our goal.

Robinson also travels the state and country teaching golf pros how to work with disabled clients. He and Hafets are both hopeful that more pros will want to add that dimension to their repertoire.

"It one more thing they can put on their resume," Robinson laughs. "We try to give them an overall view of all types of disabilities and then how to function with that."

Hafets suggest that local pros attend the Park City clinics to observe how Robinson runs his classes.

In order to participate in the Fore Lakes classes, people just need to sign up. Robinson teaches beginners in 12-hour packages, with two, two-hour classes that meet twice a week for three weeks. He also has intermediate and advanced skill classes. The program is open to anyone between the ages of six and 89 and any level of ability.

"We adapt to any and all, but that’s what makes our program so unique," Robinson said.

Robinson says that once the disabled golfers get some experience they can golf whenever they want as long as they have the necessary equipment. Sitting golfers need specially made clubs, but Robinson says that they or no more expensive than regular clubs.

Thus far the program is only run in the summer months, but Robinson hopes to have the simulator functioning year-round in the near future.

Upcoming clinics include July 11 and July 18 and Aug. 10 and Aug. 17 from 8-10:30 a.m. at the Fore Lakes Golf Course, located at 1285 West and 4700 in South Salt Lake.

Those interested can register by email at richard.robinson@health.utah.edu call Robinson at (801) 230-9730. For more information, visit http://www.accessgolf.org . Interested pros can also contact Robinson to learn how to accommodate golfers with disabilities.

"We’re full swing. We can always have more," Robinson said.


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