In The Media | 19 December 2014

An advocate for accessible golf

An advocate for accessible golf – Off Track – ABC Radio National (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

Monday 8 December 2014 10:46AM
Ann Jones


You could be in a fairytale setting: the soft green grass looks perfect for a picnic and a miniature castle wreathed in foggy clouds wouldn’t seem out of place under the pines.

When I had my accident a number of years ago, [golf] was taken away from me in a heartbeat and I always wanted to get back into golf.

James Gribble

Instead, there’s a golf buggy with two people in polo shorts, teeth gritted and bum cheeks clenched as they go around the steep edge of a sand trap. Over to the left a frustrated man with a seven iron is fossicking for his ball under the trees.

Welcome to the golf course. There are thousands like it—places of freedom, places of frustration.

This particular course is Moore Park Golf, a green oasis on the edge of Sydney’s CBD, a part of the Centennial Parklands, the site of perhaps more frustration and more freedom than most courses in Australia.

James Gribble is a lovely young man in his thirties.

He’s wearing a collared shirt and chinos, he’s worked in the finance industry and he is exactly the sort of bloke you’d expect to find on a golf course.

However unlike most golfers, James Gribble has to strap himself in for a round of golf.

‘Golf has always been a massive part of my life, it’s enriched my travel experiences, my corporate experience even, and a lot of my friends are golfers,’ says Gribble.

‘When I had my accident a number of years ago, it was taken away from me in a heartbeat and I always wanted to get back into golf.’

‘I was a young guy and I went travelling in Africa after losing my job in London, and after only being there for about a month I managed to fall backwards off a stool I was sitting on after a long run and broke my neck and damaged my spinal cord, rendering me a quadriplegic … I literally had no movement from my head down, and I embarked on a long journey back to physical recovery focussing on trying to get back to walking, [and] get back to life.’

After four years of hard work in rehabilitation, Gribble was able to stand up on crutches and take a few steps.

‘Once I could stand up, I went, “Well hang on, I can play golf again.”’

In his early attempts to reclaim a sport he loved, Gribble stood up on his crutches, discarded one, and asked a friend to strap an iron to his hand and let rip.

It was an ugly sight.

‘Even though I managed to connect a couple of times, it wasn’t safe for me or anyone involved really,’ he says.

Things have since improved, and Gribble has acquired a new machine which helps him stand up to swing.

‘I started looking around, and finally I found this amazing piece of equipment—the ParaGolfer, which replicates golf as well as I’ve found and has pretty much given golf back to me, which is obviously one of the most amazing things that has been part of my recovery.’

The machine is like a beefy electric wheelchair. The golfer is strapped into it around the waist and the knees, and has the ability to move backwards, forwards, and turn tightly.

It’s all-terrain and differs from the most bulky of wheelchairs as it stands the golfer into an almost upright position and supports them there. That way, they’re able to swing without worrying about toppling over.

‘I think being out and about on a golf course is a pretty powerful thing,’ says Gribble.

‘You’re using muscles that you probably weren’t using as much before, you’re standing up, which for anyone who is paralysed and can’t stand up themselves is very good health wise, from your breathing to your general functionality—it’s pretty paramount.’

‘Similarly, a lot of people with spinal cord injuries lose their bone density in their legs and their body, so really keeping that sturdy is a massive upside for people.

Beyond the health benefits, Gribble says it also helps to connect him to those who frequent the course.

‘One of the key things about being out on the golf course is accessing the community that every golf club is,’ he says.

Gribble now devotes much of his time to spreading the word about golf, and has started an organisation called Empower Golf, which advocates for players of all abilities, organises come-and-try days and works to develop golf infrastructure with local and international organisations. Empower Golf is also lobbying to have golf included as a Paralympics sport.

Moore Park Golf, in the Centennial Parklands in Sydney, has a ParaGolfer available for public use and they’ve recently upgraded their driving range to have automatic tees, eliminating the need for a helper to place the ball on the tee for the swing to take place.

This makes the club one of the most ‘accessible’ clubs in Australia, an achievement that Gribble wants to see repeated all over the country.

‘Unfortunately, in society people in wheelchairs have a lot of barriers: barriers with access and barriers with communication,’ he says.

‘It’s very empowering for others … [to see] someone who has pretty much no movement from his chest down standing up and hitting golf balls on the golf course. It’s a pretty powerful thing.’

‘The game itself is almost like a metaphor for life. It takes you on a rollercoaster every time you play, from missing a short putt to an amazing drive. It’s probably one of the most challenging and psychological games you can play.’

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article referred to James Gribble as a paraplegic. This has been amended to quadriplegic.