PGA professional Craig Thomas coaches Derreck Sheridan at Celtic Manor. (EuropeanTour)
The first lessons of a ground-breaking initiative to help more blind and disabled golfers receive coaching were delivered today at Celtic Manor, the host venue for the ISPS Handa Wales Open from May 31-June 3.
PGA professional Craig Thomas, the first to be trained on the programme, coached four golfers, including Celtic Manor club captain and amputee Richie Willis, as part of the ISPS Handa PGA Academy Programme which is equipping PGA pros with the skills to specialise in giving high quality coaching sessions to golfers with disabilities.
"It's wonderful to see an initiative like this bringing more disabled people into golf," said Willis, who wears a prosthetic leg as the result of a road traffic accident 12 years ago.
"I've only had one golf lesson in my entire life so it's great to know specialist tuition for disabled golfers will now be made available.
"I used to be a keen footballer and love my sport so it has been very important to me that I have been able to continue playing golf to a reasonable standard. It keeps my competitive fires burning and I would encourage other disabled people to take up the game."
Also receiving instruction were Ron Tomlinson, who is totally blind and started England and Wales Blind Golf 30 years ago, alongside Camarthen Golf Club’s Chris Evans and Derrick Sheridan from Wargrave near Henley on Thames – a member of Badgemore Park and Castle Royale golf clubs.
Tomlinson, who gave up golf after losing his sight before being inspired to start again by an American blind golfer, benefited from some advice from Thomas.
“I was leaving the club face open so Craig worked on turning the club face by physically taking me through what I was doing,” said Tomlinson.
“It was very good, as you’ve got to depend on feeling and he was spot on.”
Sheridan added: “The ISPS Handa PGA Academy Programme is a great initiative. We want more visually impaired people to join us at England and Wales Blind Golf and we always want more players, particularly younger ones.
“Having the correct tuition from the start is essential. For a blind person, particularly for those who have been blind since birth, they have never seen a golf swing and, as we know, a golf swing is idiosyncratic so you need the right tuition.”
The academy programme is being backed by leading Japanese philanthropist Dr Haruhisa Handa whose long term ambition is for golf to become a Paralympic sport.
As part of its support of the academy programme, ISPS will also be enabling new trained PGA professionals to provide a thousand free golf lessons for blind and disabled golfers to encourage them to think about either taking up the game of golf, or continuing to develop their golfing skills.
The first stage in this programme has been to train a number of PGA professionals as tutors to deliver the training workshops that will be rolled out over the coming months.
Dr Handa, who has been supporting blind and disabled golf for more than 25 years, was delighted to see the first lessons being delivered in the name of the ISPS Handa PGA Academy Programme.
He commented: “As we are well aware, blind and disabled golfers face a number of challenges in developing their game and to be able to provide them with greater access to specialised coaching is something we are very proud of.”
Dr Handa also appreciates that the skill and expertise of PGA professionals like Craig Thomas would be a major asset in helping blind and disabled golfers enjoy the game to the maximum.
Thomas from The Golf Academy in Wolverhampton said: “The ISPS Handa PGA Academy is the first step in increasing awareness of coaching opportunities for people with disabilities.
“It is an opportunity on two levels – to raise awareness among disabled golfers and also PGA professionals that there are demands for more coaches to deliver their skills.
“And, as we have seen today disabled golfers can play to equally as good standard as many ordinary golfers.