"Blind golf" an adaptation of the popular sport for people who are blind or have a vision impairment, was initially documented in the US sometime in the 1920s. One of the first known players, Clint Russell of Duluth, Minnesota, took up the game in 1925 following an accident in which a tire blew up in his face and left him without his eyesight. Gradually perfecting his game, Russell once shot an 84 on an 18-hole course less than a decade after he began playing.
An exclusive blind golf competition between a team of two Americans and two Brits, which happened prior to World War II, was the first of its kind. Shortly thereafter, the United States Blind Golf Association was created in 1947, validating the significant increase in participation. A half a century later, the International Blind Golf Association (IBGA) was established in 1997 during a conference in Perth, Australia. The Australian Blind Golf Association is one of a growing number of member organisation.
Blind golf is a unique sport, as it is one of the few in which the rules have hardly been altered to accommodate players with disability. Each player is assigned a "sight coach" who explains the various attributes of the hole to the golfer, including distance, direction, and terrain. Before the player swings, the coach will also assist with positioning the club in line with the ball. However, the player must rely solely upon their own skill from this point on. Besides a coach accompanying each player, there is one more adaptation to the rules; players are allowed to ground their clubs in a hazard (e.g. sand trap).
Blind golf competitors are divided into classes depending on the severity of their vision impairment. These divisions are the same ones used across the board in other blind athletic events. They include:
- B1 - lack of light perception in both eyes, or vague light perception combined with the inability to distinguish the shape of a hand regardless of the person's viewing perspective
- B2 - ability to distinguish the shape of a hand with a maximum visual sharpness of 2/60 and/or a field of vision below five degrees
- B3 - visual sharpness in the range of 2/60 and 6/60 and/or field of vision from five to 20 degrees
The IBGA presently recognizes 9 countries with blind golf organizations in Australia, Canada, England, Germany, Ireland, Japan, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and the United States of America. A world championship is hosted biannually by one of these nations. IBGA open tournaments are held throughout the golf season as well. Once every four years, when golf regulations are officially modified, the IBGA issues a recorded edition of the rules of the game for those with vision impairment.
Since 2004, there have been numerous holes-in-one achieved by blind golfers. The first was accomplished by Jan Dinsdale, a B2 level female player from Northern Ireland. This feat took place at Shannon Lake Golf Club in Kelowna, British Columbia during the IBGA Canadian Open on the 115-yard second hole. Most notably, in March 2005, American blind golfer Joel Ludvicek, 78, sunk a 168-yard hole-in-one off the 11th tee at Twin Pines Golf Course located in Iowa. It was quite a triumph for a man his age.
Although it has not quite taken hold the way blind golf has, there are golf leagues and tournaments for people with physical disability as well. People who use a wheelchair for mobility or who have a prosthetic arm or leg are now picking up the clubs.
In the spring of 2005, a wheelchair designed specifically for use on the golf course hit the market. The golf wheelchair, which runs on a tank battery, has the ability to navigate the hilly terrain of a golf course the same way in which a golf cart can. What sets this chair apart is its ability to rotate the golfer 90 degrees to the right or left in order for them to face the ball. Then, the wheelchair raises the golfer into a standing position and provides enough support to allow them to take a full swing at the ball.
This golf wheelchair was invented by Anthony Netto, a golf pro from South Africa. In 1995, an automobile crash left Netto with a fractured bone in his neck, leaving him temporarily reliant on a wheelchair during recuperation. Following extensive surgery and a lot of time spent recovering in the hospital, Netto was able to return to his golf profession by 1997. Unfortunately, by October of 2000, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, so used a wheelchair from then on.
Netto was determined not to let multiple sclerosis prevent him from doing what he loves. However, to continue teaching and playing golf, he would have to find a device that would provide this opportunity. That is what drove Netto to begin development of the golf wheelchair on his own initiative. After Netto started using his first working prototype, he returned to life on the course as trainer with the German national team of golfers with disability.
The golf wheelchair has just begun minor production, and due to the small numbers, it is still extremely expensive at approximately US$22,000. Once the chair goes into mass production, the price is likely to decrease substantially. The manufacturer of the golf wheelchair has actually stated that the company is willing to limit their own profit margin in order to be able to market and sell to a wider audience.
In addition to the golf wheelchair there are several suppliers of adapted golf clubs, including:
- Clever Clubs
- Golf clubs designed with a short shaft to be used from a seated position, over the side of a wheelchair. The range offers special sized irons, putter and wedge, plus ambidexterous 'shorty' putters, suitable for use on golf greens, carpet, or hard flooring.
- EZ putting aid
- An adapted putter designed for wheelchair users with limited or no hand function but with limited movement of one arm. The unit cand be used on the left or right side and mounts on the wheelchair arm with the two included Velcro straps. Once in place, the user pushes or pulls the swing handle with the wrist, arm, or hand to perform the putt.
- Tot' in Bonez Golf Clubs
- The ToT' in Bone'z Golf Clubs are wheelchair golf clubs designed for individuals with arthritis, or with limited mobility or balance. The clubs can be used from a seated position. They can also be custom-ordered to match the user's swing.
- A collection of adapted golf clubs suitable for a variety of individual needs and different disabilities.
Joseph is a strong advocate for disability rights and believes that athletes with disability should have the same opportunities to play their favorite sports as everyone else. Joseph has been using a wheelchair since 1992, when he broke his neck in a surfing accident in which he was paralyzed from the waist down. Despite the disability, he has still tried to maintain an active lifestyle, participating in wheelchair basketball regularly and just beginning to get involved with a local chapter of wheelchair golfers. Joseph hopes that sharing his story and the achievements of others with disability will inspire people of all walks of life. During his spare time, Joseph coaches a wheelchair basketball team for teens between 13 and 17 years old.
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