At the U.S. Adaptive Open, the fight for golf’s future feels different

At the U.S. Adaptive Open, the fight for golf’s future is not about signing bonuses and private jets, but something far more meaningful.

The post At the U.S. Adaptive Open, the fight for golf’s future feels different appeared first on Golf.

At the U.S. Adaptive Open, the fight for golf’s future is not about signing bonuses and private jets, but something far more meaningful.

The post At the U.S. Adaptive Open, the fight for golf’s future feels different appeared first on Golf.

PINEHURST, N.C. — What does progress look like? What does it feel like? Stand around the U.S. Adaptive Open for long enough, and it’ll bowl you over.

Sometimes literally.

“This is James,” Jenny Bockerstette told her daughter, Amy, on the 9th tee box on Monday afternoon. “He came out here to watch you.”

Amy had spotted the two of us talking, and, Jenny said, she doesn’t like when her parents talk to strangers.

“You came to watch me?” Amy asked, her head cocked.

Yes, I did, I told her. I’d heard she was a pretty good golfer.

Amy’s face broke into a smile.

“Can I have a hug?”

Before I could respond, her father Joe interrupted.

“Amy, we have to hit our tee shot,” he said.

“Not now, Dad,” she replied. “I’m talking to someone.”

I flashed a smile at Joe, who shot back a father’s look of tested patience.

“Okay, I have to go. But you’re going to stay, right?” Amy asked.

Of course, I replied.

Amy reached out her arms and enveloped me in a hug.

Down the fairway, Jenny apologized.

“I bet you’ve never had that happen before at a tournament,” she laughed.

She was right. But there’d also never been another tournament like this one.

Amy Bockerstette swings driver at the U.S. Adaptive Open.

USGA

For three days in Pinehurst, the inaugural U.S. Adaptive Open was tonic for the soul. A reminder of all the things golf is supposed to be, and a distraction from all the things that have recently dominated its discourse. For those competing in the event, though, the week was something else entirely: an opportunity to rechart the course of a sport.

There were 96 players in the field at the Adaptive Open, each of whom suffered from some form of disability. Contestants were as young as 15 and as old as 80. They played from four different sets of tees, utilized various forms of physical assistance, and played by USGA rules modified to their disabilities. For the purposes of scoring, players were split into eight categories: leg impairment, arm impairment, multiple-limb amputee, intellectual impairment, neurological impairment, visual impairment, seated player and short stature. The event was 54 holes long and awarded two trophies: one to the low men’s scorer, Simon Lee, and one to the low women’s scorer, Kim Moore.

No golf tournament has ever looked like this, and certainly no golf tournament has featured ever featured a field as diverse. But for those in attendance, structure was ostensibly less important than existence. The Adaptive Open is not only the first such tournament staged by a major governing body, it is also one of the few adaptive events ever organized. Over their three days in Pinehurst, a shocking number of players shared a similar sentiment: before they were introduced to golf, they had no idea people with disabilities could play it.

amy bockerstette and joe bockerstette line up tee shot

What makes the U.S. Adaptive Open different? Everything … and nothing

By: James Colgan

This, of course, is golf’s reputation among so many marginalized groups in the United States. This week was an opportunity to rewrite some of that legacy not only for future generations of adaptive players, but for the future of the sport.

“I think it gives us a tremendous platform,” said Jordan Thomas, who lost both legs below the knee in a boating accident. “It shares our stories with the world in a huge way. It’s exponential growth this week.”

Exponential growth that goes two ways, his mom Liz contested — both in bringing Jordan to the world, and the world to Jordan.

“He’s not the only kid with a disability in this field, and he’s not out there because they need to check a box. These people are damn good,” Liz said. “I think golf is starting to rethink what it all means — and that’s a good thing.”

In Pinehurst, the power of inclusion was real, and perhaps most significant among those with no ties to the adaptive community. It’s difficult to ignore the skill-level of adaptive golf after watching someone stripe a center-cut, 260-yard drive … with one arm. Near the 8th green on Tuesday, a volunteer and a player chatted excitedly about the prospect of expanding the adaptive golf scene in Charlotte.

“I’ve run clinics before,” the volunteer told me. “But it’s time we bring an adaptive program to the city.”

These are the aftershocks that follow tectonic shifts; the fruits of years of labor.

“If people hadn’t believed in her along the way, she wouldn’t be here,” Jenny Bockerstette says of her daughter, Amy, who has used golf to become one of the national faces of Down Syndrome. “We’re advocates for inclusion. We never expect her to win. We just want her to be included.”

It’s expontential growth this week.

Jordan Thomas

What does progress look like? For the USGA, it looks less lonely.

“When we got into the Olympics all the way back in 2009, we talked about the Paralympics. And I think we learned from the Olympic folks that golf wasn’t as prepared to be in the Paralympics as we thought,” USGA CEO Mike Whan told GOLF. “There wasn’t any national championship, there wasn’t a qualifying process, their scores weren’t going into a handicap system, there weren’t even rules for adaptive players. I don’t think most people paid attention, but in the last decade, we’ve changed all that.”

Whan says he believes the Adaptive Open will bring golf to the Paralympics “in the near future.” After a week around the adaptive game, he says, it just makes too much sense.

“The coolest thing about this week for me isn’t the reaction of the athletes,” Whan said. “I knew that would be good. I knew they’d be appreciative. I knew their stories. I’m blown away by the response of my staff. My staff is moved this week in a way I’ve never seen. I sat with a guy who’s been with us for 25 years today in a golf cart. He said, ‘This is a top-two experience of my entire career.’ I said, ‘What’s the other one?’ He said, ‘I don’t know.’”

jake and brian olson line up tee shot

It’s incredible he’s playing the U.S. Adaptive Open. He’s ‘pissed’ he’s losing

By: James Colgan

“This matters, right? And nobody has to tell you that it matters. This is life-changing for my team. As a CEO, we don’t get to do much that really makes your group feel proud about the letters on their shirt.”

The Paralympics are a measuring stick, but Whan is smart enough to realize they’re emblematic of a bigger shift for the USGA; a shift away from talking about “growing the game” and toward actually doing it.

“It’s meaningless to spend my time working in a company that’s about the game if I’m not going to try to make the game bigger, broader and more inclusive in the long-term,” Whan says. “Why would I waste my time at the office if we weren’t gonna try to leave it better? This changes the way people think about our sport, and more importantly, it changes the way other disabled athletes think about our sport and the opportunities within it.”

What does progress feel like? On Wednesday morning at the U.S. Adaptive Open, it felt an awful lot like terror.

At least, it felt that way to Jordan Thomas, who entered the final round just a few strokes off the Adaptive Open lead. On Wednesday morning, he was playing in the penultimate group as the low scorer in the multiple-limb amputee section. He rose on Wednesday morning on a razor’s edge, keenly aware of what the day might mean, and even more fearful of what it might not.

It’d been a quiet week to that point for Thomas, whose interest in the national open had very little to do with proving his worth as an adaptive golfer. Rather, Thomas had joined the field in the hopes of earning a spotlight for his foundation, which provides prosthetics and mentorship to children suffering from limb loss.

“We’ve never turned down a single child who’s come to us,” Jordan’s mother, Liz, told me proudly on Monday morning.

“But every year, more kids need help,” she said, her voice trailing off.

Jordan Thomas hits a bunker shot at the U.S. Adaptive Open.

USGA

Jordan knew a strong performance would guarantee attention, and maybe — just maybe — a few more dollars for the foundation.

“More than 200,000 people saw the video [the USGA put up of Jordan’s swing],” Liz said. “If each of those people just donated a dollar…”

On the morning of the final round, she and her husband Vic tried their best to calm him down.

“You’ve already earned notoriety just by being here,” Vic said. “Today is just another game of golf.”

It was no use. Jordan stressed his way through his warmup before heading out to the first tee box.

Up at the tee, the starter announced his name.

“From Nashville, Tennessee, Jordan Thomas!”

Finally, it was Jordan’s turn to begin. If the pressure of the moment overcame him, he hardly showed it. He pummeled a tee shot down the right side of the fairway, his ball coming to rest in the right rough.

As he walked off the tee box, Jordan looked down at his legs — which cropped out from his beige shorts in a streak of metallic black. He looked back up and flashed a smile at his parents.

“I can’t wait to see my heart rate data later,” he said with a laugh.

And then he was off to compete. Off to finish his first tournament like this one. Everybody’s first tournament quite like this one.

It won’t be the last.

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