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How Courses Can Be More Accessible for Adaptive Golfers

By George Waters, USGA

| Jul 14, 2022 | Liberty Corner, N.J.

Making courses more accessible for adaptive golfers can make golf more enjoyable for many other players as well. (USGA/Jeff Haynes)

The inaugural U.S. Adaptive Open Championship, being conducted on Course No. 6 at Pinehurst Resort and Country Club from July 18-20, is a historic opportunity to showcase the incredible talent, skill and determination of adaptive golfers. It’s also a great chance to highlight various design, maintenance and setup considerations that can make golf courses more accessible.

Adaptive golfers can face many challenges when it comes to getting around golf courses and enjoying the game – but they are not alone in that. Beginning golfers, senior golfers and many others routinely encounter obstacles on golf courses that make the game less fun, less safe, or that prevent them from playing golf at all. The good news is that awareness of these issues is growing and there are design and maintenance solutions that can help more people enjoy our great game. Let’s take a look at some ways to improve accessibility in key areas of a golf course.


Every golf hole begins at the tee, so accessible teeing grounds are critical. The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements state that the forward tee on each hole should be accessible by a golf cart unless the terrain makes compliance infeasible. If a hole has three or more teeing grounds, two of them must be readily accessible by a golf cart.

For drainage, visibility and presentation purposes, it is common for teeing grounds to be elevated above the surrounding terrain. However, minimizing the increase in elevation and keeping surrounding slopes gentle improves access for players who rely on mobility aids or anyone who has challenges walking over uneven ground. It also makes maintenance easier and helps teeing areas blend more naturally into their surroundings.

Accessible teeing grounds should be wide enough to easily accommodate a golf cart, with additional room for players who swing from a seated position to take their stance, address their ball and make a swing. Having at least this amount of width also helps the superintendent to spread wear around the tee, which is another example of how accessibility and maintainability often go hand in hand.

One reason why Pinehurst No. 6 was selected for the first and second playings of the U.S. Adaptive Open in 2022 and 2023 is because the course exceeds the teeing access standards of the ADA. This is important because four different tees on each hole will be used to accommodate the diverse field.

“We have both men and women competing, we have players with varying Handicap Indexes, and we have eight different impairment categories – all of which translates to a wide range of hitting distances,” explained Stephanie Parel, championship director of the U.S. Adaptive Open. “At Course No. 6, nearly all the tees are readily accessible, which gives us the flexibility to create an equitable challenge for the Adaptive Open. It’s also a great model for courses looking to enhance accessibility in general.”

The Green Complex

How green complexes are designed and maintained is an important part of accessibility. Offering plenty of room around the greens and multiple access points that avoid obstacles such as bunkers or steep slopes is an essential part of making golf fun and safe for people who have mobility issues.

Open approaches that allow players to bounce shots onto greens help with playability since some adaptive golfers have slower swing speeds or lower ball flights – even if they are highly skilled players. Open approaches also make golf courses more playable and enjoyable for many golfers outside the adaptive community – including beginners, senior players and anyone with a slower swing speed. Every hole at Pinehurst No. 6 offers an opportunity to bounce shots onto the green and there are wide areas of turf in the surrounds that improve access and playability. 


Every hole at Pinehurst No. 6 offers a variety of ways for players of all skills to reach the putting surfaces. (USGA/Russell Kirk)

In terms of conditioning, keeping greens firm enough to accommodate adaptive vehicles doesn’t typically require anything beyond normal golf course maintenance. Adaptive golf vehicles usually create less ground pressure than a golf cart or riding greens mower. As long as adaptive vehicles are used as intended, they will not damage greens under normal conditions. During the U.S. Adaptive Open, players will be able to drive adaptive vehicles or golf carts directly onto the putting greens at Pinehurst No. 6 without issue.


Bunkers can be among the most challenging course features for adaptive golfers to navigate because the abrupt edges and soft sand found in some bunkers limit safe entry and exit. Providing a relatively flat entry point into each bunker is an important design consideration for accessibility. Minimizing edge depth at these access points reduces the risk of players stumbling or adaptive vehicles getting stuck.

Shaping bunker floors to be flatter and using firmer bunker sand also improve accessibility and playability, along with simplifying maintenance. Bunker faces can still be steep and challenging, but it’s important to remember that some adaptive golfers have slower swing speeds so hitting high bunker shots may not be easy for them.

The American Lake Veterans Golf Course in Lakewood, Wash., is used almost exclusively by military veterans and their families, so course architect Jack Nicklaus was extremely mindful of accessibility in his design. Bunkers were used sparingly and were shaped to provide plenty of options for safe access and egress. The sand is firm and kept level with the grass on the low side of the bunkers to help golfers with mobility aids or balance issues play from the sand as safely as possible. The bunkers still add aesthetic and strategic value to the course, but in an equitable way that allows more golfers to safely enjoy them.

“A lot of our golfers have challenges, but they don’t want to feel that way,” said Randy Moen, American Lake’s golf course superintendent. “We want to give them a good golf course, but we also want to make sure we have accessibility. How we present the bunkers is a great example of that.”


Bunkers at the American Lake Veterans Golf Course are easy to enter and exit, affordable to maintain, and still provide plenty of challenge.

Accessibility was also a priority at the recently renovated Loop at Chaska in Minnesota. Course architect Benjamin Warren took an interesting approach to addressing the problematic nature of bunkers for adaptive players and many others – he eliminated them from the design entirely. There are no bunkers and no rough, so the course’s challenge and strategic interest comes primarily from contours in and around the greens, which offers an equitable experience for all players. This design approach also simplifies course maintenance because there are only greens and fairways to mow and no bunkers to rake, which will reduce costs and help to keep green fees affordable.

Accessible Routes

The ADA requires there to be an accessible route throughout a golf course, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be a physical cart path. Any route that accommodates golf cart traffic is within the standards – whether that is fairway or rough areas, prepared paths or any other surface.

The vast majority of U.S. golf courses meet this standard already because they accommodate cart traffic for routine play. However, there are some specific accessibility considerations to be aware of when it comes to traveling through the course. Cart paths commonly have curbs or other barriers alongside them to control traffic or direct stormwater. If a path is part of the accessible access route, there need to be breaks in the curbing or barrier “at least 60 inches wide at intervals not exceeding 75 yards,” according to the ADA rules.

“The continuous cart paths at Course No. 6 are certainly an asset in terms of hosting the U.S. Adaptive Open,” said Parel, “but it’s even better that the paths have very little curbing so they won’t create issues for players moving through the course.”

The Bigger Picture

The benefits of increasing accessibility in golf go far beyond adaptive players. Making golf more manageable and enjoyable for people with disabilities also enhances the game for countless other players who have slower swing speeds or mobility challenges. Accessible design leads to simpler and more efficient maintenance, which is critically important at a time when golf course superintendents are short on staff and facing rising costs for almost everything. Increasing accessibility also brings us closer to the ideal that golf should be inclusive and equitable – a game anyone can enjoy throughout their life.

George Waters is a manager of education for the USGA Green Section. Email him at

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