A Swinging Partnership

September 25, 2021


For 35 years, Good Shepherd and the Eastern Amputee Golf Association have been helping people with disabilities get back in the game.

It’s a bright and breezy day in May, and the driving range at Saucon Valley Country Club is bustling with golfers practicing their swing. This is not your typical group of golfers though. A closer look reveals many of them are amputees missing one or both legs, or an arm. Others have physical challenges resulting from stroke or spinal cord injury. Some are in wheelchairs or use a crutch to stand. All are having a good time learning from the pros, several who are also amputees, how to adapt their game.

For 35 years, the National Amputee Golf Association (NAGA) First Swing and Learn to Golf Clinic has been helping people with disabilities get back to the game they love. The clinic, thought to be the first of its kind in the country, stems from a partnership dating to 1986 between Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network, NAGA and the Eastern Amputee Golf Association (EAGA), founded by Bob Buck, executive director.

An avid golfer since he was 12 years old, Bob lost his right leg after a car accident in 1969. Determined not to give up the game he played his entire life, Bob grabbed his crutches, hobbled out on the course at Saucon Valley Country Club and, standing on one leg, managed to play a round of golf. “I knew that if I got a prosthesis I was back in business,” says Bob. “That was an impetus.”

The clinic not only helps people with disabilities improve their game, it also trains therapists and golf pros who want to make courses more disability-friendly by learning adaptive techniques.

“Gaining acceptance has been a slow process,” says Bob. “People with disabilities have been so apprehensive about getting on the course because we’re aware that the speed of play is important for other golfers and don’t want to slow them down. But with the progression of prosthetics technology and adaptive equipment, we’ve reached a point where we’re recognized as a potential integral part of the golf community.”

The clinic began with a vision shared by Linda Bollinger, Good Shepherd recreational therapist, Laird McCubbin, then head of inpatient recreational therapy, and Bob Buck. “As recreational therapists, we’re always trying to help people stay healthy by improving their functional skills and abilities and get back into the activities they love,” says Linda.

The clinic has come a long way in 35 years. It started with a rented tent, a borrowed grill for cooking up hot dogs and hamburgers, and therapists who had to get creative with their teaching methods. “It’s unbelievable how adaptive devices have evolved,” says Linda. “When we first started 35 years ago, we had to wrap tape around a golfer’s hand to hold onto the club.”

Improved prosthetics, adaptive golf clubs requiring less strength, a special glove that makes it easier for a golfer to hold on to the club and adaptive tees that sit higher off the ground are among the tools that have helped people with disabilities get their game on.

Another tool that has been a favorite at the clinic is the single-rider golf cart. “A unique feature is a swivel seat that literally has been a game changer. Someone who can’t walk the course can ride on the cart, then swivel in the seat to swing and hit the ball,” says Linda.

After years of use and repair, the cart finally reached the point of no return. Linda hopes a newer model called the SoloRider can eventually be purchased. “If we can acquire another cart, we can not only have it available during our clinic, but I’d like to see it used for practice sessions and build a program around that,” she says.

Bob Buck has emerged as a strong advocate for clinics like First Swing, the EAGA and other chapters that are helping golfers with disabilities gain wider acceptance. “In the last five years, we have formed the U.S. Adaptive Golf Alliance with nonprofits to develop golf for people with disabilities in the United States,” says Bob. “One of the offshoots is the creation of a U.S. Disabled Golf Ranking System.”

The system, similar to traditional ranking of golfers, scores and ranks participants in approved golf tournaments nationwide.

The partnership with EAGA and Good Shepherd is a natural fit and promises to be for years to come. “Introducing people with disabilities to golf through a rehabilitation hospital with a strong recreation and physical therapy program is the perfect avenue,” says Bob. “Their overall social well-being and self-esteem grows with knowledge and their ability to hit a golf ball, giving them confidence they can do this type of activity. Good Shepherd has been great in keeping the program going and thriving. We don’t want it to be a best-kept secret.”

Judging from the turnout at this year’s First Swing clinic, the secret is out.

Back on Course

Ed and Susan Ferry had their retirement all mapped out. Ed loved to golf. Susan was eager to take up tennis. So in 2005, the couple moved from Macungie to Callawassie Island off the coast of South Carolina, where they could pursue their recreational passions and enjoy the temperate climate.

All that changed in February 2018 when Ed had a stroke paralyzing his left side, leaving him unable to do anything on his own. Ed spent a month in an acute care hospital with very little therapy. When it came time to be discharged, he and Susan couldn’t find any place nearby that would give Ed the level of rehabilitation he needed. The couple turned to the one place they knew had the expertise and reputation they sought: Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network in Allentown.

A few phone calls was all it took for Ed to be accepted as an inpatient. A couple of days later, he was headed to Good Shepherd. Within hours of arriving, Ed was sitting at a table and therapists were working on getting him to feed himself. It was the start of more good things to come.

“Just the fact they had him up and sitting gave him hope and encouragement,” says Susan. “They pushed, with a capital P, but within a week we all noticed he was more alert and cognizant.”

Ed graduated from inpatient to outpatient therapy and continued to make progress at Good Shepherd. “It’s a first-class organization,” says Ed. “All the therapists are just great. They’re patient and understanding.”

Ed attended the First Swing clinic in 2019 and did something he never thought he’d do again: he held his own golf club and hit some balls. Good Shepherd’s single-rider golf cart, with its swivel seat adapted for people with disabilities, made it possible. “He had a wonderful swing,” says Bob Buck. “I was impressed with his ability.”

Good Shepherd and First Swing have given Ed back something he thought he’d lost. “It’s hope,” says Susan. “That’s the biggest word here and everybody feels it. Hope and possibilities, going beyond limits. That’s what it is.”

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