Fore! Don’t let disabilities keep you off of the links

A Sister Kenny golfer enjoys a day at the links.
A Sister Kenny golfer enjoys a day at the links.

Golf is a sport many people with disabilities can enjoy, thanks to adaptive equipment and people dedicated to sharing their love of the game. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Sister Kenny Institute’s golf league and the 26th year of its annual golf tournament. The Sister Kenny golf league started in 1979 with about half a dozen participants; now there are 150.

This year’s tournament for people with disabilities is at the Braemar Golf Course, Edina Aug. 21. Golfers may play nine or 18 holes. Teams are put together based on handicap, golf scores averaged throughout the season.

Golfers play at Braemar and as of June, at a new league at Island Lake Golf Course in Shoreview. “We provide lessons and adaptive equipment to participants. For people new to the game of golf, we discuss the rules of the game, etiquette and pace of play,” said Paige Safranski, coordinator of the Sister Kenny leagues and tournament. Play is at Braemar Mondays and Island Lake Thursdays.

“The nice thing about our league is that if you go on the course, you do not need to play all nine holes. Golf is not played solely on the driving range. We encourage players to go on the course even if it is for just a few holes,” Safranski said. At the annual tournament, golfers have the option of playing nine or 18 holes.

John Valliere, general manager of Braemar, understands disabilities as his father had polio. “If Sister Kenny was alive today, she would look down upon us all and probably say, “This is what I envisioned. My life’s labor, conquering polio and moving on,” Valliere said. “Personally, I remember all the wonderful people I have met with disabilities who demonstrated such fortitude, such determination when others would have given up,” said Valliere. “I remember the hours upon hours the volunteers and staff have helped these folks recreate and doing it all with a smile When the ball became airborne—it was a precious moment. You can never take that away from my heart.”

Greg Schulze, Island Lake Golf Course manager, said, “We were ecstatic to be involved with such a great league. This league means a lot to me. As a PGA professional and member of the Minnesota Growth of the Game Committee, it is our mission to bring the great game of golf to as many groups of people as possible. Our dream is not simply to increase the participation, but most importantly to increase the number of smiles and laughs of the league members. I hope they will continue with us as long as we are here.”

The Sister Kenny Golf Program was founded by Suzann Hagel. “We have a variety of adaptive equipment for people” said Hagel. “Whether it’s a mobility impairment, or sight impairment, we help people to learn what the techniques are to be able to enjoy playing golf”.

Safranski took over the program four years ago and Hagel became her assistant. Safranski and Hagel staff both league nights. Volunteers assist with lessons, driving golf carts and tracking golf balls for individuals with visual impairments.

Observing as the golfers play, it’s easy to understand their love of the game. Wally Hinz, who golfed prior to becoming blind, has participated in the Sister Kenny league and tournaments for about 12 years. “You don’t have to see the ball to play golf. It helps, but is not necessary,” he said. Terry Glarner, who was paired up with Hinz at the 2008 Sister Kenny tournament, said, “So Wally can get a feel for the distance, we walk off the distance. Seven paces, my pace is about a yard. He knows its 21 feet, for example. Or three feet. And then he adjusts how hard he hits the ball.”

If a golfer uses a wheelchair, Braemar Golf Course has single-person golf carts that are designed for golf. The course has single-rider golf carts, which are designed for somebody with a mobility impairment to sit on and play an entire round of golf. James Dodge uses a wheelchair because of his mobility impairment. “I had been a golfer when I was able-bodied, golfed a lot.” Now Dodge uses a battery- charged electric cart he drives across the golf course. The cart is about four feet long and two feet wide. The cart stays charged enough for eight hours. “It has a single-person rider. It has a long swivel seat you swing off of one side. The seatbelt holds you in place. You don’t fall off. It’s designed to go anywhere on the green. It opens up a whole world of opportunities for people who can’t stand,” said Dodge. ”The one I have has a little lift onto the seat. The swivel seat holds you upright…you can swivel all the way around and swing off of the back if you want, it’s a 360 rotation.”

Anyone interested in golfing or volunteering with the golf league can contact Safranski at (612) 863-5712 ext 2 or

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