Golfers Overcome Disabilities to Compete in Unique Tournament

May 1, 2014, Department, by Matthew Kaiser

 A golfer takes aim at the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Combo Classic in Virginia, an annual tournament that pairs able-bodied golfers with those who have physical or cognitive disabilities.David Colwander loves to play golf. He enjoys being on the course and meeting new people. But he doesn’t take the game for granted. Years ago, Colwander sustained an injury on a construction site that, combined with undiagnosed diabetes, resulted in the loss of both his legs below the knees. He fought through two-and-a-half years of rehabilitation to get back to the game he loves. “Once I was comfortable with my prosthetics, I attended the next available EAGA (Eastern Amputee Golf Association) First Swing Clinic, and it all started again,” Colwander says. He now plays four to six times a year, including competing in Fairfax County Park Authority’s (FCPA) Combo Classic, an annual tournament that pairs able-bodied golfers with those who have a physical or cognitive disability. 

The first Combo Classic was held in 1990, when Cindy Walsh, then the FCPA’s therapeutic recreation coordinator, received a call from a golfer who was a regular at Jefferson Golf Course and a member of EAGA. He asked Walsh if her organization would be interested in hosting one of their tournaments. “My focus was always on mainstreaming, so I told him I would be more interested in a tournament where he could play with his father and friends, and other people with disabilities could do the same,” Walsh says. 

As FCPA prepares for the 24th Annual Combo Classic next month, Walsh, now the resources management division director, says she feels incredibly proud. “Every time I hear someone mention the name, I get a big smile on my face. But it’s really still in existence because of the great folks who have made a commitment to keep this going, and it’s a tribute to EAGA and the golfers who continue to support it every year.”

“It was a great idea,” says Bob Buck, executive director of EAGA. “For me, it was always the chance to meet a new amputee who was attending and encouraging him or her to continue with golf.” 

This year, the Combo Classic is being held June 6 and 7 at Twin Lakes Golf Course in Clifton, Virginia. It is the only tournament that pairs able-bodied and disabled golfers in a two-person scramble format. Golfers from up and down the East Coast come for the competition and the camaraderie that the two-day event provides. Pro shop manager Al Karman, who has managed the Combo Classic for more than a decade, praises EAGA for its tremendous help in organizing the tournament and says he is always impressed with the participants. “On one leg, on crutches, they hit the ball, hop around and continue playing. It’s really amazing. Boggles my mind the way they hit it right down the middle every time. They could whip my butt.”

Peter Furey, manager of FCPA’s Golf Enterprises, says, “I’ve witnessed some amazing golf shots. They are competitors; they want to win. The Combo Classic is an opportunity to catch up with their buddies on how they’re doing physically and emotionally. That’s a nice thing to see.”

John Nicholas, an advocate for adaptive sports, became paraplegic after a fall in 1985. He lost the use of his legs, but he didn’t lose his love for the game. Nicholas was unable to play in the first Combo Classic because equipment wasn’t available for seated players. He decided to change that. In the fall of 1989, his friends helped him modify a motorized golf cart. “It was a real beater. It didn’t even run when I first got it,” Nicholas recalls. They mounted a swivel seat and built a rudimentary hand-control system. Four years after his accident, he hit his first golf ball. Nicholas practiced at Jefferson District Golf Course after the last golfers teed off for the day. He got more comfortable, but he wasn’t putting back then, just driving and hitting from the fairway. A supportive site manager gave Nicholas permission to drive his custom cart on the greens. Later, staff added a provision to all future golf-cart contracts to include adapted carts based on Nicholas’ specifications for seated golfers. FCPA now offers more adapted golf carts than any other system in the country. Nicholas has played in all but one Combo Classic since then and served on the tournament’s steering committee.

Nicholas says the Combo Classic is important for two reasons: It helps to improve public perceptions and it builds self-esteem. He said perception affects employment and the acceptance of disabled people in mainstream life. “This tournament isn’t wheelchair-only. It’s just two guys playing golf in a nonthreatening environment. Public perception improves when you realize a [disabled] golfer is just another person.” Nicholas would like to see participation in the tournament grow and would welcome participants from the Wounded Warrior Project and other organizations for the disabled. 

With an eye on the 25th anniversary of the Combo Classic in 2015, FCPA turned to the Fairfax County Park Foundation to raise the event’s profile. Sponsors will help pay for tournament expenses, and proceeds will go to the creation of an Accessible Golf Instructional Program. The Foundation, Visit Fairfax and the Office of Public-Private Partnerships have secured a host hotel, event catering and prizes for players. Executive Director Roberta Longworth says, “The Park Foundation is proud to enrich this inspirational golf format while funding adapted golf clinics at Park Authority courses. For us, it’s not what participants can’t do; it’s what they can do — living life fully.” 

Colwander, the construction worker who became a double amputee, is looking forward to competing in his fifth Combo Classic, the fourth consecutive year he will be paired with his son. He shared this tip for new participants: “The eighth hole on the Lakes Course, a par-three over the water, is beautiful and rewarding — if you don’t drop it in the drink.” 

Matthew Kaiser is the Deputy Public Information Officer for the Fairfax County Park Authority in Virginia.