An Invitation Is a Powerful Thing & An Opportunity That Cannot Be Ignored

By Rich O’Brien, Alliance Board Member and Operations Manager for PGA HOPE Program, Charleston, SC

As a golf writer, for many years, my colleagues wrote stories suggesting that the game of golf was dying because it is too difficult for new players to learn. They often have cited as evidence that the number of new players learning the game is about equal to the number of players leaving the game. The theory was that new players would become interested in the game and then quit when they became frustrated because it was just too hard to play well. 

As a member of the Board of Directors for the National Alliance for Accessible Golf, I believe that this type of superficial overview of the numbers does not paint an accurate picture of what is really happening. If you take the time to dig a little deeper and actually analyze the numbers on more than a superficial basis, you begin to see that each year hundreds of thousands of golfers, many of them avid players, suffer an injury, illness, or challenge that causes a lapse in their participation either on a temporary or permanent basis. 

Research from about 25 years ago by the National Center for Accessibility indicated that approximately 57 million Americans (19%) have some form of disability. It also revealed some eye-opening statistics that suggests that there is a strong desire to play golf among people with disabilities. Here are some of the highlights from that study: 

  • 10 percent of disabled Americans are currently playing golf;
  • 35 percent of individuals with disabilities are interested in learning how to play golf;
  • 22 percent of individuals with disabilities played golf prior to becoming disabled, but are no longer playing because of their disability.

The study also identified some key reasons why the individuals that were interested in golf are currently not playing the game:

  • 38 percent stated a need for lessons specific to their disability;
  • 36 percent said that they needed a better understanding of the fundamentals of golf;
  • 33 percent felt uncomfortable about playing in front of others;
  • 31 percent believed that the course staff did not know how to assist them.

Although the research by the National Center for Accessibility is now dated, it suggests that there is the opportunity to substantially grow the game of golf by working with individuals with injuries, illnesses, and challenges and helping them stay in the game (5.7 million) or by giving them back the gift of golf (12.54 million). It also suggests that millions of new players may enjoy the benefits of the game if we offer them the gift of adaptive/accessible golf (19.95 million).  Combined these numbers indicate that 67% of all individuals with disabilities were interested in playing golf. 

A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that the number of adult Americans with some form of disability has increased by over four million the past decade and now is over 61 million. The CDC’s report estimated that 26% of all Americans have one of the following disabilities: mobility disability (13.7%); cognitive disability (10.8%); deaf or have serious difficulty hearing (5.9%); or vision disability (4.6%). Additionally, 2.8 million children have a disability bringing the combined total to about 64 million people.

From a revenue standpoint, the situation for the golf industry is further compounded by the fact that when an individual becomes disabled it typically greatly affects those around them including their friends and family.  So, when an avid golfer becomes disabled, not only are the number of rounds that they play substantially reduced, but the members of their household and regular playing partners also tend to play significantly less (50%) golf too. It is also important to note that there is a relatively limited window of opportunity of about three years to invite these “lapsed” players back to the game before it becomes increasingly unlikely that they will ever play golf again. For that reason, I think it is imperative for the golf industry to adopt a sense of urgency to help as many individuals as possible adapt, improvise, and overcome the challenges they are facing that are causing their lapse in play. 

When taken as a whole, the cumulative effect of a golfer becoming disabled and no longer playing has far reaching implications to the health of the game. In fact, it appears to be a critical situation that the golf industry MUST address because millions of golfers, tens of millions of potential rounds, and billions of dollars of potential revenue are available if steps are taken to make the game more accessible.  

An Opportunity That Cannot Be Ignored

One of the projects that the National Alliance for Accessible Golf is currently working on is updating the research originally conducted by the National Center for Accessibility and providing up to date numbers for 2020 and beyond to improve our focus going forward.  This new research project should also point the way to positive and proactive steps that the industry can take to make the game more accessible and grow the game.  This new research should bring into sharp focus that injuries, illnesses, or challenges are a much more accurate explanation for the stagnant growth the game has experienced for much of the past decade. It should also create a sense of urgency in the golf industry that golf is a great form of therapy and an easy way that we can help keep as many players as possible enjoying the game. 

According to Steve Jubb, PGA, the Executive Director of the National Alliance for Accessible Golf, “The mission of the Alliance is to not only increase participation of people with disabilities in the game, but also to create and promote awareness of the benefits of accessible golf.  Through golf, individuals with disabilities become actively engaged in the social fabric of a community and derive health benefits that improve the quality of life.”

Golf truly has the power to change people’s lives. I am very proud of what our team in Charleston, SC and the South Carolina Lowcountry has done to make the region the model community for accessible golf.  In the process, we have been able to improve the quality of life of veterans and others with injuries, illnesses, and challenges. We would like to challenge every community to follow our lead and strive to have a similar program in their area. Think of the impact that these new programs could have if everyone gets on board and rows in the same direction. Personally, I cannot think of a more worthy cause than that to lend my time, talent or treasure to than to help wounded Veterans and others get back in the game of life.  

As a good first step in making the game more accessible for everyone, I believe that it is critical for EVERY PGA and LPGA Professional to receive training in adaptive golf as it will provide access to the game of golf for millions of potential golfers that previously did not believe that they could play the game of golf. 

According to Joe Grohman, PGA HOPE National Trainer: “As the Head Professional at a military golf course for over 20 years and the Southern California PGA Diversity and Inclusion Committee Chairman for the last 12, I have extensive experience working with Wounded Warriors, Disabled Veterans and the disabled through golf. In my experience, there is no greater rehabilitative therapy than the game of golf. But don’t take my word for it. Go to an adaptive golf clinic and see for yourself!” Grohman added, “As golf professionals, it is our call to duty to make a difference in their lives the best we can with camaraderie, support, and encouragement through golf.”

Steve Jubb added, “Disability crosses all segments of society.  Through education, training, and awareness, golf course operators, program coordinators and other interested parties can bring the joy and benefits of golf to individuals with disabilities. So, when the golf industry talks about growing the game, the population with disabilities provides one of the greatest opportunities to do so.” 

Sadly, the golf industry has largely ignored this opportunity for decades, but I believe that the time has come to provide these programs for individuals with disabilities. In that way, accessible golf could be on the threshold of being the next great growth segment in the game of golf. I also believe that it could also potentially be the greatest public relations campaign that the game has ever known.

About the Author

Rich O’Brien is the Operations Manager for the groundbreaking PGA HOPE Charleston Program. A former college golf coach he utilized his training in sport psychology and exercise science to help him endure and recover from a complex polytrauma while using golf as therapy; a recovery that took four years and 12,000 hours of rehabilitation. He currently also serves as a member of the Board of Directors for the National Alliance for Accessible Golf.

The National Alliance for Accessible Golf is a charitable organization working to ensure the opportunity for all individuals to play the game of golf. The Alliance is represented by major golf organizations in the United States, organizations that provide services for people with disabilities and other advocates. Through GAIN™ (Golf: Accessible and Inclusive Networks) and other programs, the Alliance promotes inclusion and awareness to the golf industry, golf instructors, and the public. For more information about Alliance programs and resources including Best Practices for Courses and Programs and the Toolkit for Golf Course Owners & Operators, please visit accessgolf.org.  

Edited 10/7/2020

About National Alliance for Accessible Golf
The National Alliance for Accessible Golf is a coalition of recreational, therapeutic, and golf organizations committed to the inclusion of people with disabilities through the game of golf.

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