Paragolf Canada’s Plan


Three hours after went live Monday the visionary behind the groundbreaking adaptive online golf initiative, Todd Keirstead, received the following message:

“My spouse, an extremely avid golfer, recently became paralyzed from the waist down and feels will never be able to golf again. I am hoping by connecting with you the passion will be discovered and the opportunity to play again might again be achieved.”

They reached out to the right person. No one in this country is more capable of improving this individual’s quality of life in the wake of tragic circumstance better than Keirstead.

The globally recognized golf trick shot artist supplanted his career by becoming an advocate for the adaptive golf space and a leading voice for inclusion and diversity. The PGA of Canada member is currently working with individuals with physical disabilities and sensory disabilities, including vision impairment, plus those with spinal cord injuries, wounded veterans and first responders.

“It’s exciting to see someone who has taken the time, as Todd has, to adapt this game to anybody,” said LPGA Tour winner, Lorie Kane.

Keirstead’s vision is a simple one. Anyone can play golf, no matter what their circumstance. If you’ve seen one of his exhibitions or heard him give one of his inspiring talks his passion on this subject is infectious. What you also appreciate is his confidence. Keirstead believes in transcending personal boundaries for individuals with disabilities on and off the fairway.

And make no mistake about it: On the fairway provides a positive conduit for off the fairway.

Anyone wanting to actively engage with golf to derive its health benefits, enhance their quality of life, and better integrate into the social fabric of their community has a friend and advisor in Keirstead.

“It’s something that’s been important to me for a lot of years,” he said in an interview. “I think right now Canada is at a tipping point. Inclusion and diversity are hot-button topics right now.”

ParaGolf Canada is the culmination of Keirstead’s passion. What it does is provide a national structure for disabled golf. Despite some of the best disabled golfers in the world hailing from this country, a pyramid of influence, administration and support for it has never been put forward.

“With ParaGolf Canada we’ve developed pathways for Canadians of all abilities to advance in golf through grassroots and development programs, national playing and future level programs, and junior development programming,” Keirstead explained. “Those are three big pieces that aren’t happening right now in the golf industry for the adaptive game.”

Most critical to this initiative is what’s been done to classify by disability type. Doing so serves to minimize the effect of the disability, according to Keirstead, enabling adaptive golfers to not only participate equally but also fairly.

“When they’re competing in tournaments by classifying based on their disability it puts them on an equal playing field. Then from there we have a national ranking system and that’s based off their disability classification as well as their playing ability. So we’re using their actual golf handicap index and creating a benchmark for each individual person,” he said.

Keirstead provided a perfect example of why this is integral for adaptive golf in Canada.

“Because of their physical situation someone is thrilled they’ve shot a career round of 95 but they also know that okay, maybe I’m not the best golfer out there but with my classification I’m actually ranked as one of the best in Canada based on my classification,” he explained.

To that I mentioned my longtime friend Josh Williams, a former Craigowan Golf Club member. One of the best adaptive golfers in the world, the Kitchener, Ont., postal worker and golf club fitter plays to a low single-digit handicap. He was talented enough to nearly win the 54-hole club championship twice during his years as at Craigowan.

Williams is a below the knee amputee resulting from a boating accident when he was six.

“Putting Josh in the same event as a double-leg amputee or someone with Cerebral Palsy, or individuals in a wheelchair situation, just didn’t create a level playing field. Having these classifications is so important in giving everyone a fair opportunity to compete,” Keirstead added.

Williams had actually contemplated leaving competitive disabled golf because of the lack of meaningful organization for it in Canada.

“Over the last decade I’ve won multiple disabled national golf championships worldwide,” he said. “I was ready to move away from it until Todd told me about his vision of creating a Canadian national ParaGolf program. His goals of not only creating a support system for our elite athletes but also cultivating the next generation of athletes and grow the game at the grassroots level renewed my desire to stay active in disabled golf.”

Keirstead did not come up with the ParaGolf Canada programming on his own. A number of associations around the world are well ahead of where Canada is currently with adaptive golf so he reached out to them. What he wanted to know especially was what was working and why relating to the various classifications for disabled golfers.

“Take someone who’s been a lifelong golfer and they had a stroke,” said Keirstead. “Right away they might not think of playing the game of golf again because, you know, I had a stroke and the right side of my body isn’t functioning. But that’s when we show them that they’re not alone. We tell them there are individuals playing golf successfully in your situation and hey, successful can be just getting out on the golf course and hitting 10 shots but they’re out there enjoying their friends and the social aspects of the game for four to five hours. We’ll be modifying these classifications as the group of golfers continues to grow. The most challenging area is when we start getting into the neurological conditions and coordination. Someone who has a stroke for example with rehabilitation their improvement can get better whereas someone with Parkinson’s Disease is going to get worse as they get older.”

As difficult as it’s been over the years to garner the attention of stakeholders, the industry and the corporate community with respect to the financial constraints of programming and proper funding, adaptive golf in Canada has some loyal allies.

Adidas Golf Canada and TaylorMade Golf Canada were integral in the early days of Keirstead’s efforts and continue to be involved in the adaptive golf space. More recently ClubLink has aligned with Keirstead to bolster support.

“Leslie Hawkins (Adidas Golf Canada general manager) and Dave Bradley (TaylorMade Canada general manager) have been incredibly supportive of this since day one for me,” Keirstead said. “Having them backing the program has given it credibility. A couple of years ago ClubLink jumped aboard. Let’s call it what this is. A lot of people in adaptive golf programs are on limited fixed budgets. Golf being an amateur sport at this level, the players have to pay out of their own pockets to get to these tournaments to compete. Without the monetary support the programming we have to compete nationally and internationally just wouldn’t exist.”

What Keirstead requires for ParaGolf Canada at this early stage is for all of the stakeholders to buy in. For it to be a success long term the program needs recognition and affirmation from the national and provincial governing bodies in Canada. It also requires a different mindset when it comes to adaptive golf.

“When we look at somebody playing golf we need to get used to overcoming the stereotype of a disabled person and get them being golfers with disabilities and showcasing their abilities on the links,” Keirstead said. “Being inclusive requires raising awareness on best practices on what golf must be to get the most of out of it for everybody. Right now ParaGolf Canada goes all the way from grassroots introductory program all the way to selecting a national team. The best part about this is inclusion is a proactive opportunity and it’s a choice that golf is now making.”

Keirstead hopes it’s the kind of choice that alters adaptive golf from an occasional feel-good story in Canada into something the game and industry can get behind 365 days a year.

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