Wembley Golf Course has quite literally gone to great lengths to ensure that every golfer feels welcome at their club. This has been recognised recently with Josh Madden, Wembley’s General Manager receiving the prestigious Greg Norman medal for the 2020 PGA National Management Professional of the Year. Huge congratulations!
After linking up with Empower Golf Australia to become one of their inclusive Hubs, the club went above and beyond the call of duty by commissioning a special set of Callaway irons that have been adapted – including longer shafts – for use with the all-terrain ParaGolfer, which enables its users to stand upright and swing a club in the conventional manner.
It is therefore no surprise that the club, located 5kms north-west of Perth’s CBD, prides itself on its inclusivity.
Having first formed an association in 2016 with Empower, which has so far introduced more than 10,000 Australians with disabilities to golf, one year later the club persuaded the Town of Cambridge (local government) to purchase a ParaGolfer. Fast-forward four years, and Wembley now hosts free clinics every fortnight where people with disabilities can access the revolutionary piece of kit.
Together with the modified Callaway irons and hybrids, which as well as extra length also have more upright angles plus softer shafts and grips than conventional golf clubs, the in-demand ParaGolfer enables golfers to reconnect with a game many feared had been lost forever to them.
“It’s a great thing to be a part of,” said Josh.
“We get to help out the community and actively encourage inclusivity, and our clients get to learn or re-learn this great game at one of the most user-friendly facilities in Australia.”
The accessibility features includes, ample space in each hitting bay, and the tees in the driving range are fully automated so the ball appears in the same place every time, meaning that once as a golfer is in position they can swing away freely without having to adjust their stance.
In addition to the clinics, golfers keen to make further improvements to their game can book in for one-on-one coaching with an All Abilities trained PGA professional or even head out with the ParaGolfer onto the course, which includes a specially modified hole.
“The people who come to the club to use the ParaGolfer or take part in the free clinics all have their different challenges and stories, but they are all inspiring in their own ways,” said Josh.
“Golf can be a hard game at the best of times, but it can also be a great release from everyday life so we really hope that every single person who comes to our venue to use our equipment and tries to improve their game takes something positive from the experience.”
Clinics are open to complete novices as well as people who have played golf before. They take place twice a month on Tuesdays. Family and friends are invited to come along and show their support.
All equipment, including clubs and balls, is provided but attendees are also welcome to bring their own.
Sam keeps it simple in his quest for coaching success
When he first got involved with Empower Golf, PGA professional Sam Newbrun was hoping for a fulfilling challenge but what he perhaps didn’t expect was the new perspective on life it would give him.
For the past 18 months the 30-year-old, who lives in Manly with his long-term partner Sabrina, has been using the power of the ParaGolfer, other adaptive equipment and his person centred approach to transform the golf games – and indeed lives – of the clients he coaches.
The ParaGolfer acts as a four-wheel-drive wheelchair, giving people with various disabilities the opportunity to get out onto the course, stand up and play the game they love.
Sam’s own love of golf was fostered from an early age, and after chasing the dream of becoming a tour professional for ten years, he now focuses all his energy on helping others to improve their game – while still striving to improve himself.
Since he and Sabrina returned from Vancouver – where he worked at Marine Drive, an exclusive private club in Vancouver – Sam has been coaching at Long Reef Golf Club, Warringah Golf Club and Terry Hills Par Three, all located in and around Sydney’s northern beaches.
One of the 35 plus ParaGolfers in Australia is in operation at Long Reef, so Sam readily accepted the challenge of persuading people living with disability that they could take up the game or, in some instances, re-learn the skills they thought had been lost forever.
As much as his clients benefit from Sam’s expertise, he derives as much – if not more – satisfaction from the improvements they have made, both on and off the course. Sam believes he has become a better coach as a result, not least as he tends to choose his words of wisdom more carefully these days.
“It’s been such a great journey for me personally and no doubt for the guys that I coach,” he said.
“Each client I teach is different and they’ve all got their own challenges and needs, but I love that aspect of my coaching. To see the improvement they’ve all made since they started coming to see me is really rewarding.
“My best mate’s Mum told me that working with people with disabilities would be really good for me, and she was absolutely right. I’ve learned a lot about other people but also about myself. You have to adapt to their different needs and come up new ways to help them improve, so you’ve really got to focus on the person and what you can do for them, rather than rely on tried and tested methods of coaching.
“These days I probably talk a bit less in lessons than I used to, and I’ve actually found that the less you say, the more people learn. Rather than crowding their minds with 10 different pieces of advice, if you can say one or two things which resonates with them and they can take that away from their lesson, that’s the best way to improve their golf which is then going to have the client enjoying the game more.”
The results speak for themselves, with Sam’s reputation growing to the extent that in recent months, he has taken on up to 10 new clients per week. In November alone, Sam conducted more than 50 lessons with his Empower Golf clients.
They include people who have suffered from brain trauma, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis, as well as people who have lost the use of some bodily functions.
To see how they cope with the difficulties in their lives has been an eye-opening and inspirational experience for Sam, and has certainly brought his own life into sharper perspective.
“Most people I know, especially in this country, have got pretty amazing lives and we often tend to take things for granted a little bit,” he said.
“But when you see the hardship some other people have gone through, it definitely makes you appreciate what you’ve got much more.
“I have to be constantly coming up with new ways and techniques to help them overcome their challenges. So that definitely keeps me on my toes, and I love it.
“Back in the day, I used to get a lot of people coming along to the club with a voucher for a half an hour lesson, then you might not see them again. But these days, I have established long-term relationships with all my clients, which really helps them improve and achieve their goals.”
One such relationship is with a client by the name of Sam Carrson, who suffered a brain injury in his mid-20s.
“Sam comes down twice a week with his family, and whilst he hits shots from one end of the range we stand about 100m away and try to take catches. It’s good fun, he’s got some great banter and it’s always a couple of the best lessons of the week.
“I coach a lady called Cath, who has fairly limited mobility and can only hit the ball around 80 metres. So we set up a mini course for her and she holed out from about 50 metres the other day, you should’ve seen how excited she was! We used to have to tee up her ball for every shot, but she’s improved so much and we managed to get her some arthritic grips, so now she’s hitting hybrids and three-woods nicely from off the deck.
“Another client I see, Anthony, had a brain injury around five years ago, and he had to learn how to walk and talk again. We play nine holes every couple of weeks, and in the four months we have worked together he is now able to play nine holes choosing and hit a range of different shots. He’s been making pars and has even beaten the pro – much to his delight!
“He said it’s completely changed his life, and now that he has achieved something he thought would be difficult even before his injury, the small things in his life don’t seem to bother him so much. When you hear that sort of thing, it really gives you a lift.”
As for the highlight of his own playing career, shortly after returning from Canada Sam entered a Pro-Am in Albury-Wodonga, on the border between Victoria and New South Wales; and whilst he didn’t card the winning score, he walked away – or perhaps more accurately drove away – with something altogether more valuable.
“We walked onto the 10th hole, it was a 178-metre par three and they were offering a brand new Mercedes as the prize for anyone who hit a hole-in-one,” he recalled.
“I’d never had a hole-in-one before, but I was very focused on the pin. One of my playing partners, Shane Cochrane, shouted out: “Halve the car with me if you hole it Sammy?” I said maybe!
“Then I hit perfect six-iron shot straight at the flag, we were all up on our toes but the ball looked as if it had stopped just on the lip – then it dropped in and I went absolutely mad! Fortunately the greens were lightning fast, otherwise it would’ve stopped just short of the hole.
“They offered me $58,000 or the car, I took the car then sold it shortly afterwards for $67,000, so it turned out to be a pretty good decision! I always said that if I got a hole-in-one I wanted it to be with the perfect shot, and that’s exactly how it played out.”
Whilst that shot was pure perfection for the most part golf is not, and indeed never has been, a game of perfect – as Dr. Bob Rotella attests in his book by the same name. That is perhaps one of the reasons why Sam has embraced a more simplified approach to coaching in more recent times.
“I try not to get too caught up in specific technical stuff when I’m coaching because I mainly want my clients to focus on their overall golf swing movement, and of course have fun,” he revealed.
“If your coaching gets too complicated, their head is going to be spinning, they’re not going to enjoy it and we won’t get the results we were after.
“Anyway, you can hit what you think is the perfect shot and then a gust of wind comes along and blows your ball into the bunker. There’s nothing you can do about it, it is out of your control once you’ve hit it so you just have to accept the outcome and move on with your next shot. In many ways, that’s a great metaphor for life.”
You get the sense that he is preaching to the converted – given the challenges they have faced in their lives, it is perhaps easier for Sam’s Empower clients to accept the ‘slings and arrows of fortune’ on the fairways than most golfers.
A chance encounter at the 2016 Australian Open changed the course of Katrena Raymond’s life.
Having suffered a stroke in 2013 – on Valentine’s Day, of all days – she naturally assumed her golfing days had been consigned to history.
Confined to hospital for the best part of a year, she had to learn to walk and talk again. Having lost the use of most of her right side, she also had to learn to use her left hand for everyday tasks.
“It took me about four years to pull my pants up properly,” Katrina revealed, proving the one thing she definitely didn’t lose was her sense of humour.
That’s just as well, as there’s little chance the members at Toukley Golf Club would have allowed her on the course half-dressed.
Before her stroke Katrena was an avid golfer, having been inspired to play after her two sons, Brandon and Corey, showed an interest in the game from an early age.
But after her stroke, she figured that whilst she could still watch others play the game she loved, swinging a club herself was beyond the realms of possibility.
That changed when Katrena met Empower Golf founder James Gribble at the Australian Open, and he suggested that she try out the ParaGolfer, a revolutionary piece of kit that raises the user into a standing position.
Fast-forward four years and, thanks to funding from the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), Katrena is now the proud owner of her very own ParaGolfer.
It’s probably fair to say that it wasn’t love at first sight, as it took a while to get to grips with the equipment – not least as she had to learn to swing the club with her left arm.
But with the assistance of son Brandon, who has been Katrena’s full-time carer since her stroke, she now tees up at Toukley at least once a week – weather permitting. And whilst her handicap isn’t coming down as fast as she would like, she still loves every minute of her time on the fairways.
“Brandon tees the ball up for me, and then the ParaGolfer does the rest,” she said.
“I play off a handicap of 45 so I’m not turning pro any time soon, and obviously I can’t hit as far as I used to, but I still have so much fun and it’s just amazing to think how far I’ve come since my stroke seven years ago.
“I couldn’t walk or talk or do anything really for months after my stroke, so it was pretty serious. I spent nine months in two different hospitals in total, and I lost the use of my right arm and most of the use of my right leg too, so I didn’t think there was any chance that I’d ever play golf again. But then I met James at the Australian Open, found out about the ParaGolfer, and the rest is history.”
As for the future, Katrena is keen to test herself in club competitions but “Brandon says I’m not ready for that yet – and he’s a much better golfer than I am, so I should probably listen to him”.
What she is well and truly ready for is her upcoming trip to the Hunter Valley with Brandon. They plan to play a round at the Crowne Plaza resort, before sampling some of the region’s famous wines.
So whilst the stroke has impaired her mobility, it hasn’t dimmed Katrena’s zest for life and sense of adventure.
“I’ve met some great people through Empower Golf, like me they’ve faced some difficulties but you’ve just got to try to get on with life and make the best of things,” she said.
“Getting out on the course and getting some fresh air is really good for me, it doesn’t matter too much what I shoot, it’s just nice to get out there and I always look forward to it.
“I’d like to get a coach, then hopefully I can get my handicap down and start playing in some club competitions. But if not, I’ll still be happy – life could definitely be worse.”
For many people living with a disability, what they really crave is a feeling of normality and inclusion. Shem Aitken, a 34-year-old insurance broker from the Gold Coast, found that feeling through golf.
An occasional golfer before he lost the use of both legs in a car accident in 2004, Shem is convinced the game has in many ways given him a new lease of life.
The relationship between mental and physical health is well established, and for Shem a round of golf is the ultimate endorphin boost.
He can feed his new-found passion for golf thanks to the ParaGolfer, a pioneering piece of equipment which enables its user to stand upright and fully swing a club.
It wasn’t an instant success, as Shem’s first tee shot – perhaps inevitably after a 15-year-absence from the fairways – ended up in the trees. But as he reveals, the quality of golf was of very little consequence that day – all that mattered was the joy and sense of freedom it brought him.
“Almost immediately, I found a passion I’d been looking for ever since my accident,” he recalls.
“I’ve played many different disability sports, but none of them resonated with me nearly as much as golf has. I’ve tried out wheelchair tennis and rugby, and I represented Australia in outrigger canoeing three years ago. Our team came away with the gold medal in one of the events, which was obviously a highlight but none of it has given me as much satisfaction as golf has. After that first attempt with the ParaGolfer, I was hooked for life.
“It was just an incredible feeling. Inevitably I sliced my first shot, but the feeling of normality and inclusion was priceless. Cruising round the course with my Dad and my brother, you couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. It was a moment I will never forget, and that happiness is replicated every time I play.”
Whilst Shem doesn’t get out on the course as often as he’d like – a situation not helped by the COVID pandemic – his last round of golf was a highly commendable effort as he covered the front nine at the Gold Coast’s RACV Royal Pines Resort in 45 strokes.
His playing partner that day was Ben Tullipan, the 2002 Bali bombings survivor who now runs the Queensland branch of Empower Golf, the charity which facilitates and promotes golf for Australians of all abilities. The pair, who have struck up a firm friendship since meeting through a mutual friend two years ago, now share a coach in PGA professional Ian Jones.
Shem has set his sights on reducing his handicap to 15, but the main goal is to compete more regularly in tournaments, including overseas events once international travel resumes.
His first taste of competitive action was certainly a memorable one as Shem, Ben and their two team-mates combined to win gold at the Masters Games in Cairns last year.
Shem takes up the story, saying: “The tournament was played in the Ambrose format, we were up against able-bodied golfers and managed to win, which was a wonderful moment.
“It was my first ever experience of travelling to a tournament and playing in a team environment, and we all had a lot of fun. The other guys on the team have their own challenges in their lives, but Empower Golf and the ParaGolfer brings people together and helps them overcome some of those challenges.”
Shem faced some very serious challenges of his own in the aftermath of his road traffic accident, which led to a 12-month stint in a Brisbane hospital.
But he was determined not to let it define him as a person, and as part of the healing process Shem visited schools to speak about road safety on behalf of Queensland Emergency Services.
Whilst it was perhaps a cathartic experience for him personally, Shem’s main satisfaction came from the knowledge that he might prevent someone else from going through the same pain and trauma he had experienced.
“I wasn’t that much older than some of the kids at the time, so hopefully they listened and if I saved even one life or prevented them from getting into a car with a drunk driver, then it was more than worthwhile,” he said.
“That was just my way of trying to give something back to the community. Often it comes down to a choice or a split-second decision, and I wanted to try to help these kids make the right one.”
Shem’s own decision to make contact with Ben and become involved with Empower Golf has certainly proved a shrewd one, and he is now keen to spread the word about the benefits of the ParaGolfer.
“I really believe in Empower and what they’re doing,” he said.
“It’s a wonderful organisation which really helps people not only with physical disabilities, but also intellectual disabilities too. It helps people rebuild their confidence, and the mental health impact can be huge.
“There are some downsides to living with a disability, and we should never shy away from or ignore that side, but if you can find an outlet like Empower which makes you feel good about yourself then your whole mindset improves out of sight. I would really encourage people to get out there and give it a go.”
Even though Ben Tullipan finished last in his first golf tournament as a double leg amputee, you couldn’t wipe the smile off his face.
Given that he had cheated death in the 2002 Bali bombings and subsequently defied all medical predictions that he would ever walk again, the fact that he shot 132 that day in the 2007 Australian Amputee Golf Open was pretty insignificant.
“I absolutely loved it,” Ben recalls 13 years on from his debut competitive appearance. “I met some amazing people who had some incredible stories to tell, and even though I came last it really didn’t matter to me.”
Now an 12-handicapper, Ben’s mission is to get down to 4 by next year, with the help of his coach Ian Jones. Given how much he has already achieved since that fateful night in Kuta 18 years ago, few would bet against him reaching his aim.
But it is not fulfilling his own goals that gets Ben out of bed every morning – it is the desire to help others via his work with Empower Golf Australia, a not-for-profit organisation that makes it possible for all Australians living with disabilities to play and enjoy golf by providing equipment, physical access and ongoing opportunities at golf facilities nationally and through coaching, course support and clinics.
Through his former role as the President of the Queensland Amputee Golf Association, Ben met the founder of Empower Golf, James Gribble, one of the only quadriplegic golfers in the world.
The pair hit it off from the start and Ben promptly offered to host a golf clinic on the Sunshine Coast for anyone living with a disability. It was such a success that Ben immediately decided to join forces with James, and he now runs the Empower Golf show right across his home state of Queensland.
One of the keys to his success – other than an infectious enthusiasm and glass-half-full outlook – is the ParaGolfer, an all-terrain wheelchair that raises even the most physically challenged user into an upright position, enabling them to fully swing a golf club.
It is no exaggeration to say that, for many people, this piece of kit and a raft of other adaptive equipment have proved life-changing.
“I’ve met some people who have never even stood up before in their lives, and they burst into tears when they use the ParaGolfer and can stand up for the first time,” said Ben.
“I absolutely love seeing their reactions, and the joy it brings them. It’s amazing to see, and I get a such a kick out of teaching them that it doesn’t really feel like work to me.
“We have over 30 ParaGolfers now in Australia, 4 in Queensland, and 15 fully inclusive golf facilities set up across the country. I travel around with 2 of the units and a trailer full of other adaptive equipment running golf clinics. I might be down in Coffs Harbour one week then up in Townsville the next. So there’s quite a lot of travelling involved, but I love getting the chance to meet people, hear their amazing stories and hopefully change their lives for the better.
“Empower is also now a registered NDIS organisation which can provide golf lessons, equipment and other services to disabled Australians.”
Golf has certainly changed Ben’s life, and helped him recover – both mentally and physically – from the horrific injuries he sustained in 2002.
He spent almost 12 months in hospital, starting in Bali before being airlifted to Darwin, then onto Concord in NSW for an extended stint until he was eventually transferred to Royal Brisbane and ultimately finishing his hospital rehabilitation on the Gold Coast.
It was another 12 months before he was able to take his first steps, and he spent the next two years learning to use his prosthetic legs with the aid of crutches.
Throughout it all, Ben’s sunny disposition helped him stay positive and he was determined to prove the doctors wrong when they told him he would never walk again.
“I was initially only given a 5 per cent chance of survival, so I managed to beat the odds there and then I was told in the hospital that I should get used to life in a wheelchair, because there was very little chance I’d ever be able to walk again,” he recalled.
“Your balance comes from your big toes, your stomach and your hearing. I don’t have any big toes (or ankles and shins for that matter!), only about 50 per cent of my stomach is remaining, my hearing is completely gone in one ear and I’ve only got 60 per cent in the other. So my prospects of walking again weren’t looking that great!
“But I was determined and I persevered, and eventually I was able to start moving again. It was pretty hard at first, but you’ve just got to keep going. There weren’t too many really low moments, I’ve always tried to focus on the positives in everything I do and I think that positive mindset helped with my recovery.
“Golf has also helped with my recovery. I’d never picked up a club before 2002, so it was all new to me. But it got me out and about and helped me stay active, and it also improved my balance and made my legs stronger.
“But the social side and the chance to meet people through golf is what I enjoy the most. There’s a guy I work with, Shem, who entered his first disability golf tournament last year and won a gold medal, which was absolutely amazing.
“I’ve also met Dave Sawtell, who holds the Guinness World Record for hitting the longest drive from a wheelchair; he’s an inspirational guy. And I’m just in the process of opening applications for our first disabled kids’ clinics that we’ll be running in October this year, so I’m really looking forward to that.”
Speaking of records, Ben has received a collection of awards big enough to fill any trophy cabinet – and having previously worked as a furniture importer, he could have a bespoke cabinet delivered in no time should any more accolades come his way.
The 2018 Service to Sport Award was just the latest gong Ben has received and he also featured in the ‘Love Hate Love’ documentary, which was executive produced by Sean Penn and opened the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival.
Not many people get to hang out with Robert De Niro in his apartment in downtown New York – “that was pretty cool,” admits Ben with typical understatement. But when asked what his greatest achievement is, he has no hesitation in nominating his family, comprising his wife Kerrie – whom he married in 2008 – and their two children Sheridan and Rory, aged 13 and eight respectively.
“I’ve come a long way since lying in a hospital bed in Bali not knowing if I was going to live or die,” he said.
“While I obviously had to do a lot of the recovery on my own, there’s no way I’d be where I am today without the love and support of Kerrie and the kids.
“My family is definitely my greatest achievement; I just love hanging out with them and going on holiday with the kids. Neither of them plays golf regularly, Sheridan is more into taekwondo and Rory loves his soccer. But whatever they want to do with their lives is fine by me. As long as they’re happy, I’m happy.”
Reflecting on the last six months, it’s amazing how the golf industry and its extensive community has adapted to change. With this in mind, I’d like to take the time to highlight some of the innovative measures introduced to ensure continued safe play and share my 5 Loves, Learnings and Lessons of Lockdown:
1. Simple Pleasures
As you may have guessed, Empower Golf is my passion and for me there is nothing more rewarding than sharing my love of the game than creating opportunities for disabled Australians to experience this brilliant sport. Never have we needed fresh air, wide open spaces and comradery more. With COVID 19 decimating societies, economies and livelihoods around the globe, focusing on life’s little things is surely the ultimate natural remedy. What could be better than the casual competition, friendly banter and dreamy green sanctuary of the local links? Not thought of golf as cerebral therapy, then maybe it’s time to start!
2. Golf’s Time to Shine
Who would have thought a global pandemic would be the perfect catalyst for golf to return to its former glory as the most popular sport in Australia. With two-week waiting lists for available tee times, brimming car parks and frantic fairways becoming the norm at most courses, let’s hope that his timely boost sparks new investment and further innovations to our favourite industry. Arguably golf is probably the best candidate for a naturally socially distant sport, however, not only has golf demonstrated fast adaptation to enforcing social distancing regulations, but also did a tremendous job of execution on course. Now, I hear you saying, isn’t golf the most traditional and antiquated sport going around? Historically maybe, but thanks to these innovative short-term measures like contactless scorecards, staggered tee-times and cart limitation to keep us playing, it has resulted in an unexpected upturn in coaching, tee times and no doubt memberships. Some of these have reignited long lost player connection with the game and overall have provided the perfect activity to engage socially in a world where it has become increasingly hard to do so.
3. Who Needs a Rake?
For centuries the final insult after negotiating your ball out of a sneakily positioned sand trap was having to perfectly groom the gritty gravel to the content of a lurching greenskeeper. Well say goodbye to constant combing as rake-less bunkers are here to stay. Similarly, contactless bunkers also mean contactless greens where now you can collect your ball from the hole without physically touching the surface area of the hole, safe, convenient, clever! I think so.
4. Getting the balance right
COVID restrictions implications for the disabled can arguably make one feel more inhibited and vulnerable than most. When we are not allowed to go about our daily lives as normal, especially in aid of our physical and mental health, things can easily become unsettling and now more than ever it’s important to keep the mind sharp. Golf provides the perfect vehicle to distract from the challenges within around us. When I’m on the golf course, focussing hole by hole, shot by shot…I forget my disability and nothing else matters. I always feel better after a round of golf!
5. It’s time to make time
Have these words ever come out of your mouth: I WILL DO IT WHEN I HAVE MORE TIME… My last but perhaps most important highlight, now is the right time. What we should learn from this pandemic is what’s important to us is to make sure we have the experiences we envision for ourselves, and do it soon. Really, with the handicap system, golf does not discriminate. So, what’s your excuse?