Weekend Wisdom: Courseward Mobility

by Vic Williams Reno, NV - Fairways + Greens Publishing

IN THIS GUY'S ALL-ACCESS WORLD, EVERYBODY CAN PLAY THE WEST'S BEST

In golf as in any other sport, records are meant to be broken. It's the same with barriers. Put one up and sooner or later someone with the determination, perseverance, talent and faith to knock the sucker down will show up with just the right weapon - a pair of gloves, a Louisville Slugger, a 460cc driver... whatever works.

You know the people I'm talking about. Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Lee Elder, Tiger Woods, Babe Didriksen Zaharias, Annika Sorenstam, Michelle Wie - whether you agree with how or why they've done what they've done, these world-class athletes (and thousands of others who've never made headlines) are standard-bearers for change in their chosen sports and society in general. Color or creed or sex or age didn't hold them back, and they kept pushing the barriers, finally breaking through. In the heretofore insulated and uppity world of golf, Tiger and Annika and Michelle continue to do so, and as far as I'm concerned, anyone who cares about the game's growth should keep pushing right along with them.

Richard Thesing certainly keeps pushing. And he might not look like an athlete at first glance, but he is. He's been one all his life, especially before a teenage diving accident at Lake Mead outside Las Vegas left him partially paralyzed. That was 50 years ago. Within three months, some feeling returned to his legs and he eventually walked with a limp. He took up golf, and it's been his sport of choice ever since - and the source of his barrier-breaking crusade to gain disabled access to every public and military golf course in America, including the Signature Series standouts visited in this issue.

"I'd played all kinds of sports and couldn't do those anymore," says the soft-spoken, warm-eyed Thesing, who grew up in Burbank, shares his college alma mater with fellow Stanford alums Tiger and Tom Watson, practiced law for many years and now runs a not-for-profit company called Mobility Golf out of his home office in Atherton, Calif. "The recreation department in Burbank had one of those group lessons where they get 20 people in a circle and someone in the middle showing them how to swing a golf club. And then I went to Griffith Park's nine-hole Roosevelt Course, and that's how I started learning. I could walk nine holes in those days."

Then his body betrayed him. Over the years, his legs atrophied and the pain in his hips became too much to bear. One cane became two canes, then a walker, then a scooter. He finally underwent surgery to allay the pain, but he could no longer walk. "Before that, I played golf with enough stability so I didn't have to lean," Thesing says. "I'd go next to the green with the golf cart, or whatever. I stopped playing when I had the pain, and after that, I didn't have the stability. I thought my golf days were over."

Then came the first good discovery, a possible hole in the first barrier. One day, after retiring from his law practice, Thesing was online and found a government agency called the Access Board, which was considering rules that would require public courses to allow cart access to tees and greens. He got right on it.

"I was appointed to the board by President Clinton for a four-year term. I was the only golfer on the board, and we did pass those guidelines in 2002 or 2003."

According to Thesing, the recommendations stated: "If you have two tee boxes, one has to be accessible by a golf cart; if you have three, two of them have to be accessible. And the forward tees always have to be accessible, as does the entire golf course. But it left open the question whether a course has to provide a cart or not."

He's not talking about just any old cart, but the SoloRider, a specialty single-rider vehicle with a seat that swivels and tilts up, putting Thesing into proper swing posture no matter where his ball is, including bunkers and greens - onto which the cart can safely venture with no chance of damage to the course. He plays the forward tees so he has a chance of reaching the short grass with his 110-yard-drives. If he's by himself, he uses an unwieldy retriever-like gadget to tee up his ball; if one or more of his many able-bodied golf buddies are along for the ride, he recruits a helper. "Usually I can go 18 holes, but if I get tired, I just stop," he says. "And I try to play in good weather. The cold is hard on me."

The SoloRider also includes a bracket on the front that puts every club in Thesing's reach. It's easy to maneuver and maintain, looks like a junior version of most modern two-person carts and moves along at a good clip. But at about $8,500, all but the smallest mom-and-pop tracks can likely afford to make a place in the barn for it. Then it's up to them to let their clientele know that it's available, charge a standard cart fee when someone takes it out and eventually get the return on their investment.

And there's the rub. To date, not many courses offer SoloRider or any other special-needs cart, including EZ-Go's Eagle, which Thesing describes as more of a multi-sport scooter without such golf-specific features as a tilt-up seat. "And a lot of places don't even know they have them in the cart barn; I've called courses I know have them, and they say they don't."

Despite making inroads at some of the West's most well-known golf resorts, including Pebble Beach, which shares two carts among its four courses (Pebble, Spyglass Hill, Spanish Bay and Del Monte, which is where the FG crew met Thesing for lunch in the grill and a round on the oldest 18-hole course west of the Mississippi), Thesing won't be satisfied until every public-access track in America is disabled-accessible. That's a tall order when you're talking some 16,000 courses, but he quotes documented numbers to back up his assertion that the industry has overlooked a big profit center.

"According to the latest census, there are more than 21 million Americans who either can't walk or have difficulty walking," he says. "Nine million of those use canes, crutches or walkers, and two to three million use wheelchairs or scooters. Generally about 10 percent of the population plays golf. That's [potentially] two million disabled golfers. Let's say it's just 1 percent; that's 200,000 golfers. Go to the National Golf Foundation and figure out what the average person spends on golf. It's a huge potential market. They'd need more than two carts per course."

Most course owners, including big resort companies such as Marriott - the defendant in a class-action lawsuit filed by Thesing and other disabled golfers earlier this year, which remained unsettled as of early winter - appear not to share his rosy view of potential business. But he believes that disabled folks are just as likely as anyone to embrace the game once they know there's a cart waiting for them wherever they go.

"It's going to take a while for the disabled population to learn the game and want to play. So send them out first in the morning. Or anytime there's a single, let them take the [special] cart. Golf course owners can rent them and get their money out of them. I could go course by course, but I'm more interested in making a national impact. That's why I chose [to sue] Marriott, which owns or operates 35 on-property courses nationwide. I've gotten a lot of publicity and made more golf course owners more interested than they have been in the past. Public opinion will follow suit. It takes advocacy to make change happen. It doesn't happen overnight."

Thesing has witnessed first-hand what golf can do for a disabled person's confidence, no matter what spurred his or her condition - an accident, amputation, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, IEDs in Iraq or Afghanistan - or how long he or she has dealt with it. He works with SoloRider to introduce not only their cart to his constituents, but also a stationary rehabilitation device that helps potential golfers get the feel of the swing and show them that, yeah, tackling a track without the use of one's legs is doable. He pulls out photos of three young men using the gadget. "These guys are all paraplegics within three weeks of their injuries," he says. "They're in-patients at a rehab hospital. One guy had been an in-patient several years before. They had all played golf in the past, and they were all so excited that there was a possibility they'd play again someday. They got the idea of it indoors in a therapy room with a Wiffle ball."

And the idea is spreading. "It turns out there's lots of cities with adaptive sports programs - wheelchair tennis and basketball - but there's been no crossover to golf. So we'll go into a recreation center and say, 'Hey, guys, would you like to see how this feels?' Then put this device on a driving range."

So far, adaptive sports programs in Utah, Virginia and Colorado are adding the machine to their rehab centers, and another program in Phoenix is looking at it. After a while working out on it and waking up those upper-body golf muscles, the transition to adaptive cart is natural.

"It creates demand," Thesing says. Where people are learning it, [SoloRider reps] go to the golf courses and sell them a cart. It's an effort to get people involved at the early stages [of an injury]. And psychologically it can mean a lot; if you're sitting there without the use of your legs, you can get pretty bummed out."

So what's the holdup with America's course owners, beyond the initial cash outlay for an adaptive cart? Some cite safety issues, though Thesing says SoloRider passes all tests. As for the Eagle - the choice of many owners since they already have contracts with EZ-Go for their regular cart fleets - Thesing would like to see the company redesign it with a tilted seat, which would raise the bar and create competition. "Golf is a game to be played from a standing position. If you tell some of those 21 million people that they have to play golf from a sitting position, they won't be interested. We need at least two really good carts [on the market]. If EZ-Go started marketing their cart, they and SoloRider would start leap-frogging each other with features, and prices would come down."

Thesing's quest for across-the-board accessibility doesn't end with civilian public courses. Citing the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 as precedence, he petitioned members of the Senate Armed Services Committee - among them Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Ted Kennedy - to retain Section 662 of House Resolution 5122, which provides a pilot project to outfit the nation's approximately 150 military tracks with adaptive carts. Congressman Sam Farr, who represents California's 17th District (which, not so ironically, includes the Monterey Peninsula) wrote the law, which sets a timetable for the Department of Defense to make adaptive carts available to the soldiers who need them. "If we can get some senators on board on this bill now in Congress so that military courses get the carts, we could get a lot of publicity," Thesing said in August. "Maybe get a couple of Iraq vets out there swinging a golf club."

It happened. The carts are on their way to a base near you. On Oct. 17, President Bush signed HR 5122 into law.

"This could not only benefit the disabled vet, but also anyone with a disability or mobility problem, if the golf industry understands the need to make courses more accessible," said Bob Wilson, executive director of the National Amputee Golf Association, who lost both legs in 1974 while serving on the USS Kitty Hawk.

According to the Paralyzed Veterans of America, six percent of its members play golf and 21 percent said they would play if the courses were accessible. Now they will be, at long last.

And throughout the legislative process, many retired soldiers supported the cause.

"One golfer is in his late 80s or early 90s, a retired major general in the Air Force," Thesing says. "He was a jet pilot for supersonic flights, and he has balance problems. He uses the cart. He built a course on a military base, was the club champion. He was an ace in WWII. He'd come back from one of those runs, and the course he played in Europe was an hour away. So he'd carry his clubs on his bike to the course, and play late in the day. He's a big supporter."

More supporters join Thesing's ranks every day. The barrier thins. Full accessibility ranks right up there with free speech and habeas corpus - how can anyone think otherwise?

"My goal always has been to have every course in the United States have an adaptive cart," he says. "I'm on a mission. And I'm suited for it. I'm retired, I'm a disabled golfer, I have a legal background, I was on the access board, I like politics. I figure I'm the guy to make it happen."

Next on the tee?

How about everyone. FG