Disabled Golf - An Interview with Ashley Harris @enablegolf

I had the pleasure of interviewing disabled professional golfer Ashley Harris recently. He is the man behind the Instagram account @enablegolf and we had a great discussion about his journey and the world of disabled golf.

Ashley watched his younger brother’s golf lessons but said he found them dull and uninteresting - he felt he’d rather be sat in a maths lesson! However, when Ashley was 13 and was halfway round the local par 3 golf course that he was playing for his brother’s birthday, he got that bug that every golfer knows and loves. By that stage, he was a very high-level rugby player and played badminton and volleyball for South West England. Golf was just another sport but from the age of 14 he played that par 3 course more regularly and got into golf with a first handicap of 16 or 17 following soon after. This led to Ashley applying to do a golf management degree at Kingston University in order to develop his golf as far as it could go and get onto the mini tours (he acknowledged at that point he knew he had left it too late to get onto big tours and was not up to the level he needed to be for them).

A life-changing moment occurred a year and a half into university when he was caddying for Thongchai Jaidee at the Welsh Open and he began to have pain in his knee. Doctors thought he had torn a ligament, but Ashley came out of surgery to discover that he had rheumatoid arthritis which would eventually spread to other parts of his body. Without doing any research, Ashley continued his normal everyday life but soon found things were more serious than he had thought, and he needed proper medical help.

What followed was the need to drop out of university, months where he couldn’t get out of bed, dark times with regards to his mental health and a gambling addiction. A failed suicide attempt led to Ashley opening up to a psychiatrist and “being 100% honest for the first time in years.” He then began to seek further help both physically and mentally with techniques such as mindfulness and meditation. It was in late 2015, in the process of trying to improve himself that he thought, “there must be some kind of golf for someone with a disability” and that’s how a quick Google search led him to find The Disabled Golf Association. With events beginning on the 7th March the following year, Ashley borrowed some clubs from his uncle and had time to practise and get back into golf.

Ashley describes that first event on 7th March 2016 as one of the most humbling experiences he has ever had as a person and a golfer. He looked around and saw people filing in with one arm, one leg, a blind golfer with his wife guiding him around the room and nobody was moaning about their issues. He said that day will forever stick in his mind as one where he realised things go on that are a lot worse than his “hidden disability” and he felt grateful for his limbs, his sight and all the things you take for granted. The people in the room became his friends and golf was their therapy.

I was quite naïve to the world of disabled golf. I followed Ashley’s Instagram account (@enablegolf) a year into my golfing journey and was inspired myself through seeing the variety of people with a range of disabilities who were still playing the game we love. I was interested to find out about how disabled golf works compared to the standard golf we know.

Ashley is part of EDGA (European Disabled Golf Association) which is “essentially The European Tour of disabled golf” with 42 tournaments a year and is self-funded. There is a world ranking system that is run by the R&A. The R&A have a set of rules for disabled golfers that are altered so that they are not penalised. The rules depend on the individual’s disability e.g. if you hit the ball in the bunker and use a power assisted wheelchair or cannot get in and out of the bunker unassisted, then you can drop out of the bunker and take a one shot penalty. Courses are chosen so that golfers of all disabilities can play and tees may be moved further forward for some golfers.

Men and women play together in disabled golf competitions. The field is sorted by handicap with the best players playing first. Those with a handicap under 12 play in a gross competition, up to an 18 handicap play in a net competition and anyone with a handicap over 18 play the stableford format. There are also events where disabled golfers can go out with the European Tour within their own competition.

I asked whether many people who had disabilities later in life (rather than being born with one) took up golf for the first time with their disability. Ashley said most people played golf before their disability citing the example of Welshman Mike Jones. Mike was a 2 handicap golfer before losing his leg in a motorbike accident. After a lot of hard work and recovery he is now back down to a 9/10 handicap. Ashley talked about how once you’ve begun to deal with the trauma, you then have to train your body to get around the golf course but the swing itself may not have changed. However, a different example is Manuel De Los Santos from the Dominic Republic who also lost his leg in a motorbike accident which destroyed his dream of playing professional baseball in the USA, so he took up golf and has become somewhat of a “poster boy” for disabled golf.

Ashley is inspired by a Spanish disabled golfer called Juan Postigo Arce. Juan was born without much of his right leg and no knee but plays without prosthetics, instead using crutches to get around the course.

The interview was inspirational but one particularly interesting aspect that I’d not given much consideration to before was that of blind golf. We spoke of golfers who have very little vision and can only see small shapes and silhouettes. Blind golfers have an aide who takes them around the course and lines them up to the ball so there is a huge level of trust and learning between the golfer and their aide. Apparently, these golfers are often asked if they benefit from not being able to see the lakes and other hazards and therefore not affected as much by the same fear factors as other golfers. However, they still have to find the golf ball with their golf club and that of course is something that takes a lot of time to learn for a blind golfer.

More awareness is needed about disabled golf events as the public could come and watch them and this in turn could drive more support for organisations that would benefit from additional funding. Ashley has been trying to get more involved with the ladies side of golf over the last couple of years and has noticed the self-esteem issues that I also see outside of the disabled golf world.

Ladies disabled golf does not have any specific disadvantages compared to men’s disabled golf as the leading female gets a prize no matter where they come in the field but it is lacking a female role model that is top of the field although Ashley says this is beginning to change with ladies such as Daphne van Houten, Jennifer Sraga and Aimi Bullock for example.

Ashley mentioned a whole range of organisations targeting different age groups and different disabilities across the UK such as The Golf Trust which brings together people from all areas of life to play; England & Wales Blind Golf; The Society of One-Armed Golfers; On Course Foundation (which helps injured and sick service personnel and veterans get into golf). EDGA has a primary aim to get 500,000 new disabled golfers into golf.

Ashley’s aim is to gain more acceptance of disabled golf in the wider golf community, grow the game, travel the world and be able to make more golf content. If any disabled person wants to find out more about the best association and route for them to get into golf Ashley recommends you contact him directly as he is happy to help. His Instagram profile can be found here.

A big thank you again to Ashley for being so open about his journey. It is a touching story and was humbling for me as well because I realised how much some people have had to overcome to play the game we often take for granted. I took those thoughts into my first game after lockdown and just remembered to enjoy the game!