Mulligan on wheels

As Dany Baker rides up to his golf ball in the fairway, his foremost thought is alignment. He's got to stop his SoloRider golf cart so that the front end points slightly left of his target and won't be in the way of his next shot.

Once the cart is stopped, Baker pushes against a handlebar to make his seat swivel about 45 degrees. Then, secured by a seat belt, he activates the electric-powered seat so that it tilts him forward until he's almost vertical beside the ball.

Using only his arms and the rest of his upper body, Baker swings and launches the ball toward the green. More often than not, he smiles.

"I truly feel like I've been blessed," he says. "To be able to play golf... I feel like I got a second chance."

For Baker, 46, golf has been a passion for 30 years. The first 20 of those 30 years he was able-bodied. Then he suffered a bruised spinal cord in a van accident in 1993 and lost the use of his legs. His wife, Kathy, suffered a broken neck in the crash but has since fully recovered.

Baker, who lives in Coffeen, Ill., about an hour's drive northeast of St. Louis, remembers lying in the hospital and thinking about golf.

"One of the first questions I asked was whether I could play again," he says.

About seven months after the accident, Baker tried hitting golf balls out of a wheelchair. The sound of the club meeting the ball pleased him and left him intrigued about what the possibilities might be.

"But I was kind of discouraged," he says. "I was almost positive there was no way I could play nine holes in a wheelchair."

That summer, some friends converted a golf cart for him, removing the top and installing a swivel seat. When he got to the green, Baker, in leg braces, would get out and use a walker to go to his ball and putt. Since then, Baker has played from a progression of carts, each one a little more advanced than the one before, until he started using a SoloRider cart in 1998. The SoloRider single-passenger adaptive golf cart, called a Club Car 1-PASS, is state of the art, made of such lightweight materials that Baker can drive onto a green to putt without leaving a mark on the surface — unless heavy rain has made the green exceptionally wet and soft, in which case Baker doesn't play.

If there was an epiphany for Baker, it was when he saw a disabled man named Dennis Walters hitting golf balls from a cart in an exhibition at a Golf Expo in St. Louis in the winter of 1994-95.

"He's the one who inspired me to continue to play," Baker says.

The sight of Baker driving a cart onto a green can be a shock for able-bodied golfers who've never seen such a thing in a sport where, under normal circumstances, driving a cart within 30 yards of a green is a golfing sin. But Baker always calls ahead before he plays to make sure the people who run the golf course aren't taken by surprise, and to make sure the greenskeeper doesn't have a heart attack.

He was a fine golfer before the accident, carrying a handicap in the 2 to 4 range, and he's still a competitor. His only concession to his disability is that he plays from the forward tees, "and I shoot anywhere from 75 to 85," he says.

He's also no slouch when it comes to snappy comments. During a recent round, when his playing partners were chiding each other about walking on each other's putting line, Baker chimed in and said, "I'd love to walk on somebody's line." When one of his partners, an old friend, claimed Baker had an unfair advantage by teeing off from the forward tees, he shot back, "I've got another one of these carts if you want to give it a try."

"There's still hope"

Baker stays busy off the course with various jobs. He gives golf lessons at Indian Springs Golf Club, a first-rate course seemingly in the middle of nowhere in central Illinois, about 10 miles north of Interstate 70's Mulberry Grove exit. He previously coached the golf team at his alma mater, Hillsboro High School, for seven years (with five trips to the state finals). His pupils included son Nic, who played professionally on a mini-tour in Arizona this past year.

Baker gives instruction to underprivileged children in the Make-It program in Litchfield, Ill. He offers adaptive golf instruction for people with disabilities through the Recreation Council of Greater St. Louis and at the University of Missouri in Columbia. He does fund-raising with several organizations, including the St. Louis Society and the St. Louis Wheelchair Athletic Association, and he's the marketing director for rehabEdge physical therapy in Hillsboro, Ill. Baker also represents a golf-cart maker, Battery Specialists and Golf Cars of Taylorville.

"My job, really, is to go around to different golf clubs and play and let the people of central Illinois know that there are carts out there, and for people who are disabled, there's still hope."

Carts such as the one Baker uses are available for disabled golfers at two golf courses in St. Louis County — Eagle Springs and Creve Coeur. To be in compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, Baker believes, golf courses eventually will be required to provide carts for disabled people. The carts also can be used by people who have had surgery or a hip replacement or any ailment that limits the use of the lower body.

Moving on

Although Baker's disposition on the golf course is relentlessly positive now, he says he went through a grumpy stage after the accident.

"For a year and a half to two years, I was upset about this happening to me, like 'why me?'€" he says. "That's pretty standard for people who were able-bodied. But people don't want to be around people who are miserable. I didn't want to drive my wife away. You have to move on.

"You don't find too many disabled people with bad attitudes. We're all fairly upbeat."

And, in a sense, they're all in this together. Helping other disabled people discover, or rediscover, the joys of golf is his mission.

"If I can help other people with disabilities... it's hard to explain," he says. "We're all like family."

(Reproduced from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch)