by David Shefter, USGA
It’s a damp and chilly November day in the Pacific Northwest, the kind of weather that chases even the heartiest of golfers indoors. But the partially covered driving range at Lake Oswego Golf Course in suburban Portland is teeming with children and young adults.
Virtually every stall is occupied, and the refrain of club meeting ball is constant. So are the smiles. Instructors offer swing advice as parents beam with pride.
Randi Jo Erickson, 19, was born without a right arm, but she makes solid contact swinging a club with her left arm. Next to her are Jeanine Cleary and Erin McWeeny, both of whom have Down syndrome. Farther down the line is Wade Chosvig, 17, who has endured more than 15 surgeries for spina bifida, but one wouldn’t know it watching him swing. Annie Wallington, 35, who is blind, gets assistance with her setup and stance from her father, James.
A few stalls from them, Byron Jahn, 29, who has cerebral palsy, hits several drives in the 100- to 130-yard range. Lorien Welchoff, 16, plays shots from her wheelchair. Doctors are revisiting their diagnosis of cerebral palsy due to the superior dexterity Welchoff exhibits with her upper extremities.
All these people share two traits: a passion for golf and some form of physical or mental disability. They are all participants in the Mobility Impaired Golf Association (MIGA), a 10-year-old nonprofit organization created by Mike Adams with the help of Derek Gemmert, the only PGA professional with cerebral palsy, and Casey Martin – the same Casey Martin who qualified for two U.S. Opens despite being born with a birth defect in his right leg that requires him to use a golf cart when he competes.
Drawing from Shriners Hospital, the Down Syndrome Network of Oregon, the Children’s Cancer Association, United Cerebral Palsy, Doernbecher Children’s Hospital and other organizations, MIGA is Oregon’s most visible program for disabled golfers.
“We believe in dreams,” said Adams, 71, who also serves as a volunteer instructor. “We believe in miracles. We believe the mind… is probably the greatest untapped resource in the world.”
None of the organizers are paid, although Adams occasionally pays a visiting instructor. This keeps the funds within the program and reduces overhead.
Private and public donations help defray costs, and this year, Adams landed a $13,000 grant from the National Alliance for Accessible Golf (NAAG), which is based in St. Augustine, Fla. Its grant program, which provides financial assistance and resources to help make the game more accessible to people with disabilities, has been funded by the USGA since 2010. In that time, more than 100 grants totaling more than $730,000 have been allocated. MIGA was one of 11 programs to receive a grant in 2016.
Click here to view grants allocated by the NAAG.
According to Steve Judd, its executive director, the alliance looks to help developmental programs primarily in the areas of equipment, instruction and transportation.
According to the alliance, of the 57 million Americans with disabilities, only 10 percent play golf. As with women and minorities, there is tremendous potential for the game. This is where the alliance steps in – its board includes representatives of allied associations, such as the USGA, who are advocates for inclusion.
“That’s our goal as an alliance,” said Judd. “How can we get to a point where the game of golf is inclusive?”
It starts with facilitating access to the game, as The First Tee has done in a handful of chapters, including Fort Smith, Ark., and Charleston, S.C., which are recent NAAG grant recipients. After all, the golf ball doesn’t know who’s swinging the club.
“You are still teaching the game of golf,” said Judd. “Just as any professional is going to first analyze their student… it’s no different [with a disabled golfer]. You just have to understand where they are and where they are coming from.”
Mike Adams was enjoying lunch while on vacation in Las Vegas in 2001 when his back suddenly gave out. Unbeknownst to Adams, a violent staph infection had infiltrated his bloodstream.
Adams returned to Palm Desert, Calif., where he owned a second home, but his condition worsened. He was losing the function of both legs and his fever spiked to 103 degrees. His illness – a spinal epidural abscess – which can be fatal, continued undiagnosed. Family members were called and last rites were about to be administered.
That was when Dr. Kim Wayson, a neurosurgeon in Portland, had Adams flown from California for emergency surgery. Adams was in a coma for several weeks following the operation and was paralyzed from the neck down. Doctors told him he wouldn’t walk again, but Adams refused to listen. He left group therapy sessions and began praying – a lot.
His prayers were eventually answered. Although he had to relearn almost all physical activities, Adams can now walk. He can swing a golf club. He can enjoy life again.
And that is why the former lumber-company owner formed MIGA.
“I believed that I would heal and the power of prayer is the greatest antibiotic of all,” said Adams. “So to a degree, I’ve been prepared for this job.”
He created the Mike Adams Foundation with his own financial resources, but he didn’t want to just write checks. He wanted to be involved. So he started MIGA, enlisting Gemmert and Martin, whom he met during sectional qualifying for the 1992 U.S. Amateur (they both qualified for that year’s championship at Muirfield Village). Disabled veterans were an initial focus, and Adams earmarked $100,000 for the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., to buy adaptive golf carts.
“I don’t exactly remember when we turned the corner toward kids,” said Adams. “We were just overwhelmed with kids and it just grew.”
Today, MIGA serves 400 golfers, 240 of whom have disabilities. Adams is very proud that he’s been able to integrate his program. Those without disabilities are taken aback at first, but when their parents encourage them to socialize, a newfound appreciation develops.
One common reaction: I never knew there were kids like this.
“They learn to have a greater appreciation of what they’ve been blessed with,” said Adams.
During the summer, the program meets weekly at Lake Oswego Golf Course, a municipal facility where they have use of the practice area and the 18-hole par-3 course. Newcomers receive an introductory course about golf before the fundamentals of grip, stance and swing are taught.
The goal is to create a positive atmosphere for the kids and their parents. Participants are also encouraged to attend social events. On Dec. 18, some 300 people are expected for the annual Christmas event, where each child will receive a gift and everyone enjoys a buffet-style dinner free of charge.
Practice Makes Perfect
When Byron Jahn first came to MIGA nine years ago, he could barely make contact with the ball. “I couldn’t hit the back side of the barn,” said Jahn, who was born with cerebral palsy.
Now he often makes his dad, Randy, jealous when the two play. Jahn, who also underwent major heart surgery to replace a valve and a small portion of his aorta in 2014, is one of the program’s many success stories, having transitioned from participant to mentor.
Jahn’s mom, Carolyn, said he has become a spokesman for both the Shriners and Doernbecher hospitals. He also works part-time for a physical therapist.
“There isn’t anything that he doesn’t think he can do,” said Carolyn.
Casey McCoy, one of the instructors brought in for MIGA’s November clinic, helped Annie Wallington bring the club back to give her the feeling of the proper swing plane. Being blind, Wallington processed the information and was able to make contact on her next swing.
McCoy took video of Jahn and promised to email it to him and his parents.
Before assisting Jahn, McCoy strengthened Chosvig’s grip by turning his right hand to the left and worked on shortening his backswing, which was far past parallel. Chosvig, who played two seasons on his high school golf team, quickly picked up the tip, especially when McCoy showed him side-by-side images of him against 2011 U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy. Chosvig’s shots straightened.
“It’s amazing seeing the smiles and seeing them enjoy this,” said McCoy, a former college and mini-tour golfer who now works out of two area facilities.
Chosvig’s spina bifida – a birth defect that hinders spinal-cord development – often goes unnoticed until you see a slight limp or the many scars on his body from the surgeries. But he won’t let his disability prevent him from enjoying the game.
“I’ve learned a lot here,” said Chosvig, who can walk 18 holes using a push cart. “Don’t give up. Don’t be lazy.”
Chosvig, like many others, discovered MIGA through the Shriners Hospital, having spotted golf on a list of activities. Last month, along with 21 others from around the country, he was chosen to represent Shriners Hospital at the PGA Tour stop in Las Vegas that bears its name. Chosvig carried a standard for two days, walking with 2011 USA Walker Cup competitor Harris English and 2016 NCAA champion Aaron Wise, among others.
“He fell in love with the game,” said Lauri Chosvig, Wade’s mother. “Mike [Adams] has given him this love for the sport that I would never have thought. I don’t play golf. Who would think that a kid who has trouble walking can do that? The coolest thing is it can show parents like me that they can do anything.”
Lorien Welchoff, a high school junior, also found MIGA through Shriners Hospital. Her parents, Erik and Zhanna, had bought her a plastic golf set when she was 5 to help with her balance. At the time, she could move a little more easily on her feet. Five years later, after surgery, Lorien was confined to a wheelchair, but not limited from athletic activity. She took up fencing, hand-cycling and golf.
When Welchoff won a turkey as part of the post-clinic festivities, her friend Chosvig was one of the first to congratulate her. She held the bird over her head as if it were a trophy.
Throughout the day, Welchoff’s smile and enthusiasm never wavered.
Adams and others provide hope. MIGA provides both an athletic and social component to their lives. Someday, Welchoff would like to be a graphic designer … and a recreational golfer.
“It gets these kids out,” said Zhanna Welchoff. “They are not home playing video games. One of the problems with being in a wheelchair at that age is you can get locked into doing homework. This program gives her a chance to be in the public eye and meet new people and new lifestyles. She has a healthy lifestyle.”
The golf coach at Aloha High was stunned when Randi Jo Erickson tried out for the golf team. Maybe he forgot that Jim Abbott once pitched in the big leagues with one hand.
“It’s fun to see people’s jaws drop when I do it,” said Erickson of hitting a golf ball.
Erickson came to MIGA seven years ago, and her game has progressed enough that she made her high school team.
Watching Erickson hit with her left arm is remarkable. The ball might not travel very far, but it flies straight with a slight left-to-right action.
“My golf coach tried to underestimate me,” said Erickson between shots on the range. “He realized when he gave me the [varsity] letter that it was a better idea.”
One of the last players to leave the range is Jeanine Cleary, a 20-year-old with Down syndrome. This is Cleary’s second trip to the course. After enjoying pizza and cupcakes, she wanted to hit more balls. Her tempo is perfect. Virtually every drive travels between 30 and 50 yards. She is focused. In the distance is a rainbow.
For Cleary the day could not have ended better. Her proud father quietly watches from behind.
“I love it,” she said after her final drive.
Adams said coaching and mentoring those with Down syndrome is one of his biggest challenges. He preaches patience because oftentimes people with Down syndrome forget things easily. But Adams is never discouraged. Seeing Cleary reinforces that notion.
Inside the clubhouse, parents and participants mingle. Some of the kids show off the turkeys they won in the raffle. Many won’t see each other again until the Christmas party in a few weeks. Adams can’t hold back his enthusiasm.
“Why are the social events important?” said Adams. “Based on my experience, these kids are basically isolated when it comes to being included with the general public. There are no birthday invitations. There are no after-soccer-game get-togethers.
“Inclusion is a big part of our program and that is something the NAAG promotes. We help to build friendships with these kids.”
That’s not all the program is building.
“[MIGA] sees each child as an athlete and a golfer,” said Teryl Figgins, the mother of 14-year-old participant Bryten, who has osteogenesis imperfecta, a condition that affects bone strength. “They see the ability, not the disability. In a world of medical challenges, having a place that sees the kids and the ability above all else is a true gift to us as parents.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at [email protected].