November 07, 2000
By Chris Jenkins
For most sports fans, the words ''disability'' and ''golf'' bring a single name to mind: Casey Martin. But while Martin's case has made for great 19th-hole debates and is expected to reach the Supreme Court early next year, the Paul Wyllies have gone mostly unnoticed.
Wyllie, 37, isn't a tour pro like Martin. But he can shoot in the 80s on a good day, and he and his wife, Lori-Ann, won his home course's club championship tournament two years ago. Not bad for someone who is, for the most part, confined to a wheelchair because of multiple sclerosis.
''My motto all along has been, 'I'm disabled but look at what I can do,' '' he says.
But when asked to name the club where he and his wife play, Wyllie hesitates. That's because he believes Palmyra Golf & RV Resort in Palmyra, Maine, hasn't done enough to accommodate his unique needs.
Many disabled golfers across the USA are finding the same to be true at their local course.
Although the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been law for a decade, advocates for the disabled believe the golf industry has not done its part. ''I think it's been really slow to react, generally speaking,'' says Gary Robb, director of Indiana University's National Center on Accessibility.
Courses are clearly required to make their clubhouses, bathrooms and locker rooms wheelchair accessible, though some haven't made that basic accommodation. Beyond that, Robb says, what is ''a little less clear is, what does a golf course have to do to accommodate someone on the golf course?''
Opening up game
If courses were to offer new ''single-rider'' carts that are specially adapted to the needs of a disabled golfer, it could open the game up to millions. But not many do, and Robb says it might take an edict from the Justice Department to make that happen.
Wyllie first asked the Palmyra course to give him a discount on the fee to rent a regular cart; he can't drive it, but his wife can. Then he asked if he could buy his own single-rider cart -- they cost $3,000 and up -- and use it on the course. The course refused both requests.
Perhaps Wyllie should have to rent a cart like the rest of us, but why not let him bring his own? ''Because then everybody would be buying their own cart and using it here,'' says Brian Cayer, the course's general manager. Asked how much of the course's revenue comes from cart rental, Cayer says, ''It's very significant. I don't know the exact percentage, but it's more than 20%.''
Cayer says the course has ''looked into'' adapting some of its regular carts by fitting them with hand controls but hasn't committed to doing so. Wyllie plays from his motorized wheelchair, but that is a lot more difficult than it would be to play from an adapted cart.
''I've got enough problems of my own,'' Wyllie says. ''I can deal with that the best I can (and) try to live the best life I can. But definitely, something has to be done. Not just for me, but for all disabled golfers.''
Advocates for disabled access to recreation, plus companies that manufacture single-rider carts, have been waiting for the Justice Department to make it clear that the ADA requires any course that rents regular carts to also provide single-rider carts.
Thomas J. Schmokel, a disabled man who works part time as a consultant to companies that are trying to avoid ADA lawsuits, doesn't think the government should make courses buy special carts. For that matter, he isn't so sure Martin should be able to use a cart in tournaments. But, he says, ''If I go out and buy one, I'd damn well better be able to use it, or I'm going to be kicking some ass.''
Computer golf whiz
Wyllie had to quit the Army after he was diagnosed in 1996 with M.S., a disease that affects the brain and spinal cord and often causes shaking or numbness in limbs and severe fatigue. Unable to work, he spent his days playing computer golf against others over the Internet. Today, he's known as the ''Tiger Woods of computer golf'' and will play in the $100,000 Virtual Golf Association championship this weekend in Hawaii.
Wyllie's son Joshua, 8, caught the ''real'' golf bug three years ago after watching his father play computer golf and started taking lessons. Wyllie soon made a discovery.
''One day, I just grabbed his tiny little driver and said, 'Well, let me try to hit a ball,' '' Wyllie says. ''I'd played a little bit in high school . . . but that was it. I hit it, and (found out) you really don't have to make a lot of contact to make a ball go 100 yards. A couple of days after that, I went out and played my first nine holes.''
In spring 1998, Wyllie spent eight days in intensive care and nearly died because of complications. He was worried about his family, but he also thought, ''I'm going to play real golf. I'm going to compete.''
Today, Wyllie is doing just fine. He's still playing at Palmyra from a motorized wheelchair rigged to pull his clubs on a handcart. ''They're not going to get their wish and drive me away,'' he says.
The course's management is not unsympathetic. ''It's got to be tough,'' Cayer says. ''It's great to see him out there.'' But Cayer says he doesn't believe the course should have to buy single-rider carts and that Wyllie gets around perfectly well in his wheelchair.
Maine's Human Rights Commission, a state board that rules on ADA disputes, ruled in the course's favor in May. One member of the board called golf ''a walking game'' and another expressed concerns about the ADA being interpreted to mean that golf courses might have to take out sand bunkers and hills to accommodate the disabled.
Wyllie calls those concerns ''off the wall.'' He just wants to use his own cart.
Roger Pretekin, president of Solorider Industries -- one of several companies that manufacture single-rider carts -- says many courses won't act until somebody takes them to court or the Justice Department makes them.
The courses, Pretekin says, don't want to buy accessible carts before the government issues firm guidelines because they are worried they might end up owning carts that don't satisfy the guidelines. Pretekin says that might be a valid concern. Still, ''I think they're basically hiding behind that.''
Robb says a Justice Department lawyer promised him in July that guidelines were coming soon. Robb speculates they might be waiting for the Supreme Court to rule on Martin's case, even though the two issues are, at most, tangentially related.
John Wodatch, who heads the Justice Department's ADA unit, says the agency is ''looking into'' the issue.
There is a precedent. The major car-rental companies were sued a few years ago and now are required to provide cars with hand controls. Often, going to court is the only way for disabled individuals to get their way. ''Enforcement is an issue across the board,'' Robb says. ''There are no 'ADA police.' ''
Several disabled players have successfully sued courses. Pretekin says most courses know they'll have to deal with the issue eventually, but, he says, ''when they get sued, they look at it today.''
Saunders Dorsey, a Michigan lawyer who also is a disabled golfer, has settled suits with several courses and is suing American Golf, a company that manages more than 200 courses in the USA. Dorsey says Wyllie should sue his course to make it provide single-rider carts. ''Let them explain how that's an undue burden,'' he says. ''They can't.''
Wyllie says he is considering taking action after he returns from Hawaii. ''As soon as some of these things die down, I might go that way.''
How many disabled people play golf? Nobody really knows. ''It's a fairly well-kept secret at this point,'' says Nick Pike, president of Mobility Solutions Inc., another manufacturer of single-rider carts.
Among the disabled, wheelchair basketball is more popular. Robb says he surveyed 100 courses last year and most said the issue has never come up.
But, Robb says, there's no reason to think the percentage of the disabled who are interested in playing golf would be any less than it is with the general population. In fact, Robb says, ''it might be higher, because people with disabilities are looking for more activities they can do on their own.''
Golf is seen as a good sport for the disabled because it allows them to play alongside able-bodied players as well as the disabled.
''I think if D.O.J. (Justice Department) would ever come out with a policy'' mandating accessible carts,'' Robb says, ''I think you'd see (disabled golfers) out on a lot more courses.''
If that happens, Pretekin says, able-bodied players' misconceptions about disabled golfers might dissolve.
Recently, Pretekin played in a scramble tournament with three paraplegics
who had single-digit handicaps. They dominated. Pretekin says prejudices
''will soon go away when they find out that these people are just like
everybody else -- they just can't walk.''