Hi-tech cart lets stroke survivor continue golfing

By BILL BRYANT, Special to the Daily News Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Photo by David Ahntholz / Daily News
Bill Hefferon warms up before hitting on the driving range at Pelican Marsh Golf Club Friday morning. Hefferon helped develop the SoloRider golf cart, which has allowed him to continue to play golf after having a stroke in January 1999. With the aid of the cart to move around the course, Hefferon continues to play golf three to four times a week.
Bill Hefferon had just finished his latest round of golf, a disappointing 103, 31 shots over par.

“I think my ego got the better of me a few times today,” he said. “I tried to go for a few shots I shouldn’t have.”

But the 69-year-old Naples resident wasn’t complaining. After a stroke seven years ago threatened to deprive him of the game he loved, Hefferon is just glad to be back on the golf course.

For that, he has his own determination and a specially designed golf cart to thank.

“I tell everybody that this golf cart changed my life,” Hefferon said.

The golf cart that Hefferon uses to get around the Pelican Marsh Golf Club, and others in the Naples area, is specially designed to accommodate players with physical disabilities and seniors who have limited mobility. The single-passenger cart was engineered to make it safe to go on tees and greens without damaging the turf, reducing the amount of walking required of players. An electronic seat lifts and turns to put players in position to play their shots without leaving the cart.

An avid player while he was running an insurance agency in Binghamton, N.Y., Hefferon moved to Naples in 1997 intent on playing more golf and lowering his 17 handicap. The plan was working until Jan. 23, 1999, when a cerebral hemorrhage left him paralyzed on his left side. At the same moment, he also lost a reason to live.

“After the stroke, about all he did was sit in his recliner and watch Fox News,” said Marilyn Hefferon, his wife of 46 years. “It was very sad to see his whole demeanor just go like that.”

It was about a year later when Hefferon heard about the new electric golf cart from a company named SoloRider. He flew to the manufacturing facility in Centennial, Colo., and after consulting on the design of the hydraulic seat, bought one of the carts for himself. He spent the next year relearning how to play the game, often working by himself after everyone else had left the course. He would drive the cart near his ball, grip his custom-made clubs in his right hand and swing with his right arm. “I started at the 150-yard marker, and when I thought I could play from there, I’d move back a few yards,” he recalls.

“He was determined, that’s for sure,” said Rick Rainville, head golf professional at Pelican Marsh. “Before you knew it, he was back playing 18 holes.”

The transformation in her husband’s outlook was dramatic, Marilyn Hefferon said.

“It was a miracle,” she said. “He couldn’t wait to get to the golf course.”

Hefferon now plays three or four times a week at Pelican Marsh, where he says he’s the fastest player. He’d like to play more, especially when he travels to visit family and friends, but most courses still don’t offer the special golf carts that Hefferon said makes playing the game safe and enjoyable for players with physical disabilities.

Two years ago, the Department of Justice announced it was considering requiring golf courses to make at least one, and possibly two, of the specialized carts available to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1991. But the DOJ has been slow to act.

“I can’t tell you how frustrating it is,” Hefferon said. “I can’t play golf unless I have this cart, and putting my cart on a trailer and dragging it all around just isn’t practical most of the time. If courses would just realize that they could be keeping more members and increasing their rounds if they had one or two of these carts, they’d be all over them like a cheap suit.”

Rainville says: “You see people all the time who have given up the game because playing is physically exhausting or painful for them. There’s no question in my mind that a cart like this would allow many more people to enjoy the game a lot longer.”

Meanwhile, Hefferon has become an ambassador for the carts and for players who want to stay in the game, but who need a little help getting around the course.

“Without golf, my wife wouldn’t want to leave me alone, and I would feel guilty,” he said. “Now, we lead independent lives, and I just can’t tell you how important independence is to someone with a disability.”