Rulebook: Golf Without Limits

Dennis Walters and his tall tee during The Dennis Walters Golf Show prior to the quarterfinal round of match play at the 2012 U.S. Women's Amateur at The Country Club (Ohio) in Cleveland, Ohio on Friday, Aug. 10, 2012. (Copyright USGA/Steve Gibbons)

With Rich McLean, Golf Canada Rules Official (@LobWedge)

To paraphrase the late great golf teacher, Harvey Penick, if you play golf, then you are a golfer. 

As a Referee and player, I’ve always been cognizant that golfers are golfers, regardless of sex, race, creed, age or ability. To this end, I was heartened to finally see official recognition in the rules with a section titled “Rules for Players with Disabilities”. An enhancement of our code designed to allow golfers with physical or intellectual challenges to compete and otherwise enjoy the game and rules that so many of we able-bodied players take for granted. 

My first encounter with a disabled golfer was in the 1980’s, seeing Dennis Walters (@dwgolfshow) on TV hitting trick shots while strapped to the back of his specially built golf cart. I also had the opportunity to meet him at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando a number of years ago. His warmth and generosity were on full display, which is somewhat ironic considering that it was a golf cart accident that had taken the use of his legs so many years before. A story of strength and perseverance that has undoubtedly inspired countless others with disabilities to take up the game. His efforts were recognized with the Payne Stewart Award in 2018, and induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame earlier this year. 

The subset of rules for disabled golfers provides assistance to those players who are blind or visually impaired, amputees and those who use prosthetic devices, those who use assistive mobility devices, and those with intellectual disabilities (such as brain injuries or reduced cognitive function), as well as any combination of these challenges. In many situations, players are allowed assistance in alignment, stance, dropping, entering and exiting bunkers and penalty areas, among others. Similar to the same duties regular caddies have for pros today (with a few exceptions) and things that many of the rest of us take for granted. The main idea is still for the “archer to be the archer” while allowing, as much as possible, these players to enjoy and embrace golf’s challenges and compete on as level a playing field as their able-bodied counterparts. 

Previously, rules for players with disabilities would have been either administered at the association level or even on an ad hoc basis. By 2019 It was high time for the R&A and USGA to unify and administer these rules uniformly and universally. And, like the regular rules, the Rules for Players with Disabilities are also up for regular review based on observation and feedback from officials and golfers. A vital part of our “living document”. 

If you have never had the opportunity to witness a tournament with or even a demonstration by disabled golfers, I invite you to do so. The competitive spirit and determination of these players are as inspiring as any other tour player you may see on TV from week to week and in many cases even more meaningful personally. 

Other notable champions for disabled golfers that you may know: Casey Martin (@McEnry), who back in the 1990’s challenged the PGA Tour and won the right to use a golf cart during events in order to help mitigate severe pain in his leg due to a debilitating disease. He’s currently serving as the head coach of the men’s golf team at the University of Oregon. Todd Kierstead (@gwagolf) is an able-bodied teaching pro, motivational speaker and trick-shot artist who works tirelessly to help disabled players achieve their life goals, both on and off the golf course. His specially designed prosthetic leg, that he uses for instruction, is a sight to behold. Most notably of late, he has been involved with HRH Prince Harry and the Invictus Games supporting competitive golf for disabled veterans on the world stage.

And locally, there’s Kurtis Barkley (@Barkleykurtis) who has most recently been competing on the European Disabled Golf Association tour, as well as racking up a number of wins and high finishes over the years in OVGA, Golf Quebec and Flagstick golf events. Any of us who have had the chance to either watch or compete against him will attest that regardless of any physical limitations he has, Kurtis has the game to hang with, and beat the best players around.