'First Swing' for Golfers with Disabilities

At age 13, Bud Sanders lost his right leg below the knee in a hunting accident. Even at that young age he suspected the injury didn't have to mean giving up all things he loved to do.

But that was 1953, and too many of his teachers and coaches thought the place for a teenage amputee was on the sidelines. "When I was in high school there was really nothing for me," he says. "I always thought that wasn't good, because I could do things."

Sanders refused to stay out of the games. He wrestled in college, became an accomplished skier, and through one of his fellow skiers he met a board member of the National Amputee Golf Association (NAGA). NAGA's "First Swing" seminars teach golf instructors and rehabilitation professionals how to introduce golf to people with disabilities. Bud watched one of the organization's clinics 15 years ago and was hooked.

"I fell in love with it," he says. "It's rewarding for everybody involved, because it's so neat to see people do things they didn't think they could do."

Recently, Sanders attended a daylong UW Health-organized First Swing golf clinic, organized by Kris Kravik, a recreational therapist for UW Health's acute rehabilitation team. Part of Kravik's job involves helping patients with physical or cognitive disabilities return to the activities they enjoyed prior to injury.

"We see many patients who would like to return to golf," she says. "But golf professionals often are unsure of how to handle some of their disabilities. And I know therapists are looking for resources to assist their patients, as well."

In the morning a group of 20 physical therapists and golf pros from the Madison area watched and listened as Sanders ran through the fundamentals of the game.

Lori Neilitz, a UW Health Sports Medicine physical therapist who assesses her own golf skills as "not very good," came to learn more about the game.
"I work with people who have injuries and are trying to get back to a sport," she says. "That sport might be golf. So I'm interested in helping patients adapt their games." With the help of golf professionals, the First Swing instructors (including Sanders) demonstrated the proper grip, stance and swing, and fielded questions that clearly highlighted the challenges of teaching such a mechanical sport to people with physical limitations.

"What if our patients only have one hand?" one of the physical therapists asked while learning about the grip. The key, Sanders says, is to find a compromise between the demands of the sport and the ability of the person who wants to play. "It's important to know each person," he says. "Everybody is different."

Later, the group returned to the driving range to apply the morning session's lessons. Two dozen patients of all ages accompanied them, some in wheelchairs, others leaning against sturdy braces. All had injuries or conditions not amenable to the customary golf swing, so the therapists worked with them to find a swing with which they could be comfortable.
"Our whole goal is to get them to hit the ball. We use the higher-lofted clubs so it's easier to get the ball in the air," Sanders says. “Everybody will feel success when the ball goes up in the air.“

One of the afternoon session attendees was Monica Kamal Rossa, the reigning Ms. Wheelchair Wisconsin. She sees First Swing as yet another on a growing list of "barrier-free" activities that allow people with disabilities to maintain active lives.
"I'm someone who wants to know the possibilities that exist for people with disabilities," she says. "That's why I'm here. So I can share the message. We did it before, when we were walking. Why can't we do it now?"