The Plain Dealer
Disabled get another swing at golf

By Mary Schmitt Boyer Plain Dealer Reporterr - July 3, 2006

Rick Bailer loves golf. He loves everything associated with it.

"The morning fog, the rabbits, the birds," he said, a smile spreading across his face.

Bailer, 54, who played on the Valley Forge High School team, almost had the game taken away from him after a car crash in his senior year in 1971 left him a paraplegic. He didn't swing a club for 20 years.

But thanks to the Golfers with Disabilities program sponsored by the Northern Ohio Golf Association, Bailer is heading out with his buddies in his Monday morning league at the North Olmsted Golf Club's 1,681-yard, par-30, nine-hole, executive golf course.

"It means everything to get back out here," said Bailer, deputy director of human resources for NASA.

Bailer first returned to the links at Edwin Shaw Hospital in Akron, which has a par-9 three-hole course. He started playing there in the early 1990s, and before he knew it, he was hitting shots and holding onto the side of a golf cart while his friends pulled him around courses in his wheelchair.

"They had no mercy," he said of his buddies. "If I hit a good shot out of a sand trap, they'd leave me sitting in the trap in my wheelchair."

Now, that problem has been alleviated by the SoloRider. It's a combination golf cart and wheelchair provided at the North Olmsted course as well as several other public courses in the area, including Shawnee Hills, Mastick Woods and Big Met in the Cleveland Metroparks. The SoloRider carries a set of clubs and has a movable seat that allows the golfer to turn and hit shots. As much as Bailer enjoys playing with his family and friends, he also loves the fact that he can golf alone.

But not on Mondays. Mondays are reserved for his friends in the Golfers with Disabilities league. The program started in 2002 as NOGA looked to expand its charitable wing. That was when Bob Wharton, executive director of NOGA Charities and Foundation, learned there were 56 million potential golfers with disabilities.

"They're a forgotten group," Wharton said. "We have to get them back."

Given that part of NOGA's mission statement is to promote the game of golf, it seemed like a perfect fit, and it has been. In an average week, about 50 golfers - ranging from stroke victims to Special Olympians to the visually impaired - will take part in the program, which moves inside in cold or inclement weather and runs 45 weeks a year.

Trevor Hazen is the golf pro in charge of the program, and Brian Metzger, assistant pro at Columbia Hills, volunteers. They said it was not unusual for potential participants to sit in the parking lot the first few times they drive to the course, trying to get enough courage to get out of the car and join the crowd.

"Once we get them out, they enjoy it so much they always come back," Hazen said.

"We call this our back-to-golf program, but it's really our back-to-life program. We've seen so many changes in their social habits. They come in every Monday morning for coffee and doughnuts, and sit and talk and solve the world's problems. Usually, we have it all solved by about 10:30 a.m. It gives some of them motivation to get up and shave instead of lying in bed.

"The important thing is, Brian and I have teaching philosophies that are very similar and stress individualism. We don't believe everybody has to swing the club the same way."

Fred Frost, a physician in physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Cleveland Clinic, has a couple of patients who take part in the program, and he endorse it.

"We're not just restoring their physical health, we want to get them back to their families and jobs and avocations," Frost said while watching the golfers warm up one recent Monday. "That's rehabilitation in the truest sense."

Added Jeff Ciolek, a physical therapist and athletic trainer at the Cleveland Clinic, "The thing is, they're not limiting this to one disability. All kinds of folks have arthritis or back pain, and this is exactly the kind of thing we want them to do."

"It's a great program," said Mike Emmerich, 77, a former member of Avon Oaks Country Club who has struggled to recover from back surgery, followed by blood clots and a staff infection. Emmerich used to play golf three times a week and carried a 12 handicap.

"I don't worry too much about my handicap now," said Emmerich, who rarely misses a Monday. "I hit a good shot from time to time . . . but I still want to score."

Ray Brow, 72, is a former captain and 28-year veteran of the North Olmsted Police Department. Hydrocephalus led to five brain surgeries in the past five years, but he is thrilled to be back on the golf course.

"It means the world to me," he said. "I like the camaraderie and I love the golf. Two years ago, I played four nine-hole rounds. Last year, I played 60, and this year I'm going for 100."

Jennifer Sherman is a recent graduate from North Olmsted High School, where she was captain of the golf team even though cerebral palsy limits her to playing with her right arm only. Sherman, who shoots in the low 50s for nine holes, is heading to Ohio Northern University, where she hopes to play on the golf team.

She loves the advice she gets from Hazen and Metzger before the start of each round.

"They're very good at figuring out ways to help you and explaining things to you in simple terms," she said.

Wharton stands back and watches as the golfers wind up their warm-ups and head off for their rounds.

"Everybody thinks we just run golf tournaments," Wharton said of NOGA. "But there's so much more to us than that."