October 27, 2022

Tips from 28 Years of Adaptive Golf Experience

By Joe Grohman, PGA

I first got involved in adaptive golf in 1994 with a weekly outpatient stroke victims golf class. Expecting three or four able-bodied students on the first day of class, I had 21 students who had suffered a damaging stroke, along with 21 caregivers and several family members. They all came to class every week for the next three years. And unless tragedy struck, nobody missed a class, which I initially found unusual.

Even one of the students who was in the worst physical condition, never missed a class. Her hands were stuck in an immobile position – she couldn’t walk or speak, but always appeared happy to be there. For this particular lady, I would tee the ball up, place the club in her hands, walk behind her wheelchair and, using a gait belt (a belt that has handles in the back), lift her up a little so she could wave the club at the ball. She only had one wave at the ball before the club would fall out of her hands. We would repeat the process over and over with the goal being to simply knock the ball off the tee. When she would finally knock the ball off the tee, the entire class would erupt in cheer. It was a beautiful thing.

One day I mentioned to her caregiver how it was surprising to me that she never missed a class, noting that it was obviously very difficult for her. “Oh no Joe, she loves this class! This is the only thing she leaves the house for each week, other than doctor visits. This is what’s keeping her going. When it’s class day she lights up like a Christmas tree!”

That was the moment the lightbulb went on for me. That’s when I realized the impact and therapeutic value these adaptive golf classes were having on the students, as well as the potential and power the classes could have for the less-fortunate across the board. From that day forward, it was off to the races organizing and hosting over 600 adaptive golf clinics for a broad spectrum of students. Without delving too deeply into it, the following are some tips and ideas you can use in your adaptive golf classes that I’ve learned along the way. They’re easy to incorporate and can add value to your programs and events.

  • Know and appreciate that the only time many of your students leave the hospital or their house every week is to come to your class. Understand, respect and appreciate how precious those few hours of being with you and your team in your class are to your students. Plan accordingly and bring lots of care, concern and compassion.
  • If possible, help instruct at an adaptive golf clinic (and/or attend PGA HOPE training) before you have your own program. You will better understand what to expect, and it will teach you invaluable networking tactics. Ask the lead instructor for his or her advice on setting up your own program. They will have valuable insight and can introduce you to organizations, instructors and volunteers who are at the event, as well as organizations and groups that are involved in adaptive golf in your area. I highly recommend this being your initial move if you are serious about getting involved in adaptive golf.

  • Make sure the clinic is staged before the registration starts. You’ll want to be in a position to warmly greet each student as they arrive. It’s a seemingly small, but very important part of the event. Running around setting up while the students are arriving is a missed opportunity and doesn’t present a professional look. Have chairs at registration and on the range, and have water available.
  • Have a manned registration/check in table and name tags for every class. If it’s a military event, be sure to put the branch of service on the name tags. This is a priceless ice-breaker. Name tags are an easy way to know who is a part of the clinic, especially if the practice facility is being used at the same time by club members or the public. In addition, everyone will see the other participants’ names – it’s never fun to suddenly forget a name several weeks into the class.

  • Once registration is complete, call the group together. This is where you’ll introduce the instructors, explain the outline of the clinic, assign stations and cover any other housekeeping items you want to discuss. Explain that the clinic is really all about using golf as therapy and having a great time, with a little golf instruction sprinkled in. And as part of the therapy aspect of the clinic, you are going to go around the class and have everyone “check in.” Students can say their name, golf experience, what they’d like to get out of the class or anything they’d like to share with the group. You’ll want to lead the sharing in order to warm up the crowd, so to speak. Give yourself plenty of time for this portion of the clinic, as you’ll want to give everyone the opportunity to introduce themselves. As the weeks go by, the class and camaraderie will grow before your eyes, predominately from everyone “checking in” at the start of each class. I can’t overstate the importance of this part of the clinic. On that note, have enough chairs out so that everyone can sit down. It can get lengthy. The check-in area will often double as the same place that you’ll have the lunch after the clinic, so enough chairs for everyone is important.
  • Occasionally, some students want to be there with the group, but don’t want to necessarily hit balls or actually participate. This is called a near-golf experience. You still want to include them and make them feel part of the group as much as possible. At one veteran clinic years ago, Tom, a Marine veteran from WWII, who was at the battle of Iwo Jima and was now dying from stage IV cancer, came with the Long Beach VA Hospital veterans. He had recently had a leg amputated and didn’t want to try golf – he just wanted to be there and bask in the camaraderie. I partnered three active-duty Marines from the 5th Battalion 14th Marines stationed at Seal Beach with Tom. It was wonderful to hear his stories and see the incredible day he had with those Marines. He was so grateful at the end of the day that he had tears in his eyes. It was a classic near-golf experience. Tom never made it back to the clinics but I will never forget him.

  • As far as the instruction is concerned, talk to each student and find out what he or she can and cannot physically do, and if they have any golf experience. From this and some good old-fashioned evaluation, you can quickly ascertain where to set the bar of success. Make sure to individually set the bar of success so each student can reach it. And when they do, make them feel like they just won the Masters! In many cases just making contact with the ball is a huge win, and worthy of a green jacket celebration. Contact, air, direction is a good mantra. If they can make contact consistently, then the next goal would be to hit the ball in the air. If they can do that consistently, the next goal would be to hit the ball in a consistent direction or at a target, and go from there.
  • You are responsible for maintaining the energy level of the class. Smiling and high energy are incredibly contagious. Make certain your volunteers are aware that it is about having a great time with the students first and foremost, and be aware of any instructors going down rabbit holes of confusing golf instruction. Keep it simple, joy-filled and fun – it’s therapy, not golf instruction. Know what is going on throughout the entire class. Sometimes a participant will need an infusion of smiles and positive energy. You need to be the person keeping the event uplifting and fun. Try to spend a little time with every student and let them know that you are glad they are there. Smother the participants with the three C’s – Care, Concern and Compassion.

  • At the end of the clinic portion, make sure to wrap up as a group before heading over to the lunch. This is the time to take a group picture, say some positive messages, say thank you and close the clinic, if there is no lunch. It’s also a really good time to have your guest speaker say a few words to the group. Have them speak there or during the lunch. Also, before breaking for lunch or ending the class, have everyone bring their hands in and do the old “One, Two, Three Golf!” or whatever word you want to throw in there. It’s a little thing to bring hands in, but helps solidify the camaraderie and team feeling, and I challenge you to do it without a smile on your face!
  • Lastly, if possible, have some type of social luncheon after the event. This will allow all the participants to cement the bonds of friendship forged during the clinic. It might take a little leg work and logistics to pull off the lunch, but you can do it. It is definitely a great end to a great day, and totally worth it.

To those who have doubts or fears about hosting an adaptive golf clinic, fear not. If you build it, they will come. Once you set a date for the event, everything will begin to fall into place. Just do what you can with a big smile on your face and joy in your heart, and it will be a great day!

Joe Grohman is a PGA Professional with 33 years of experience in golf operations and instruction. After winning many Patriot Awards in the Southern California PGA Section, he earned the National PGA of America Patriot Award in 2021. Joe has earned several other PGA Section awards, hosted hundreds of golf clinics for wounded veterans over the years and served on committees and the Board of Directors of the Southern California PGA Section. He founded the Joe Grohman Golf Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit, in 2012.