Golfers with disabilities enjoy a breakthrough of their own

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Competitive golfers with disabilities are a hardy group by definition, and like their able-bodied counterparts they play without limits. Well, except for one. They’ve largely competed without unified governance, instead relying on a variety of disparate associations, nationally and internationally.

That will begin to change on Wednesday, when the first World Ranking for Golfers with Disability will be introduced. It is a joint project of the USGA and the R&A, and will be administered by the World Amateur Golf Ranking (WAGR), with separate rankings for men and women. The governing bodies announced their involvement last November.

“I think as it relates to the Veteran Golfers Association, we’re excited about any platforms between the USGA and the R&A that help promote disabled golf, especially as it relates to veterans,” said Joshua Peyton, CEO of the VGA.

It already has resulted in a cohesive enthusiasm among various factions, Peyton’s response echoed by Mike Tinkey, president of the National Alliance for Accessible Golf. “I think that’s a wonderful thing,” Tinkey said. “The Alliance exists to spread awareness and education and for people of all abilities to play golf, as a tool to be included in society. The USGA is doing an excellent job in taking the lead there.”

The USGA, meanwhile, intends to add another national championship to its roster, this one for golfers with disabilities, probably starting in 2022.

“We want to be able to serve as a facilitator for everyone,” said Beth Major, Senior Director, Championship Communications for the USGA, and its point person on this endeavor. “There are so many different groups running a variety of tournaments and events and with different priorities. For us able to put some structure in place from a governance perspective is what we do.

“We want to make sure we’re creating things that assist them as well. The World Ranking [for Golfers with Disability] is a big part of that, a structure where you’re able to identify who the top players are. If you look at WAGR, anyone can look at the list and identify clearly with some research-based data who the top [amateurs] are.”

A points system for golfers with disabilities has been in place in Europe, administered by the European Disabled Golf Association (EDGA), which also includes Australian golfers with disabilities.

The Australian All Abilities Championship recently was played alongside the Emirates Australian Open, the former featuring 12 golfers with disabilities from eight different countries, none of them the United States.

“Right now, all the other countries, Australia and Europe, have that. They have that points system for tournaments,” said Adam Benza, an amputee from Hellertown, Pa., who has a handicap index of 1.5. “We in the States don’t have it. They had 14 or 15 people go to Australia. You’ll hear players from the States say that we should be included in that, phenomenal players that should be included. To finally get on that stage with them would be awesome.”

It is a sentiment shared by others considered among America’s best golfers with disabilities, including Kenny Bontz (shown above). “When they had that tournament in Australia, I wondered why I wasn’t in it,” he said. “It’s because of the points system they have over there.” The ranking, he said, “is what they [the USGA and R&A] need to do.”

It is a substantial undertaking and as such will be a work in progress, according to John Bodenhamer, Senior Managing Director of Championships for the USGA.

“It is a work in trying to identify all the parameters,” he said. “That’s part of what makes this complex. It’s a wonderful thing, but for it to have credibility, integrity, all of that, clear delineations have to be made. That’s one of the challenges, who qualifies [as a golfer with a disability] and who doesn’t. We’re leaning on the EDGA to help us.”

Major said she’s observed events with 16 classifications of disability. “It’s a great opportunity and a bit of a challenge for us to get through,” she said. “The notion of disability is so broad. We’re trying to do our due diligence.”

There is an National Amputee Golf Association that holds a national championship, for men and women, with flights for above knee and below knee and above elbow and below elbow amputees.

Brenden, an amputee from Norfolk, Neb., plays to a handicap index of 1.5, and is expected to be among the top players when the new rankings are introduced.

“When I play in it, we see a lot of these different folks [from various associations] show up,” Ryan Brenden, an amputee from Norfolk, Neb., said. “We see the factions that have their own tournaments. I think ultimately, whatever it takes to get somebody to formalize a group and get something going will be great.”

Brenden lost his right leg to amputation when he was 3 and uses a prosthesis. He plays to a handicap index of 1.5 at Norfolk Country Club, and is representative of the quality of the higher ranks of golfers with disabilities. So is Bontz, who is working toward an attempt at PGA Tour Champions qualifying.

A USGA national championship for golfers with disabilities will represent the pinnacle of this joint effort with the R&A, bringing the best players with disabilities in the world together.

“We’re targeting either ’21 or ’22, though it will probably be along the lines of ’22,” Bodenhamer said. “There are a lot of different factors that play into that. It depends on the time of the year we roll it out, host sites. We have a really good level of support of input from the adaptive community, which fueled a nice framework that we’ve built. But we do have some more work to do, to build this ranking and build a framework of exemptions into it. We’d like to have the ranking feed the national championship.”

However it all pans out, the effort will send a powerful and inspirational message to all those with disabilities.

“I think it’s phenomenal,” Bontz said. “It’s going to show people that no matter what your disability is you can either sit down and let life pass you by or you can do what normal people do.”

“It doesn’t matter what happened to you,” Benza said. “You can get up and do this. To be able to get people out there and do it is awesome.”

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