Golfer with disabilities finds niche on team

Kayla Craig, a junior at Genoa-Kingston High School, during a golf meet in at The Oak Club in Genoa on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2012.
Kayla Craig, a junior at Genoa-Kingston High School, during a golf meet in at The Oak Club in Genoa on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2012.

GENOA – It was a struggle for Julie Craig to get her daughter Kayla Craig, who has cerebral palsy, onto the high school golf team.

“She did the practices with them but she didn’t feel like she was part of the team,” Julie Craig said.

Kayla has played golf with Special Olympics for years, but her desire to play golf with the high school team put a strain on her, her family and the school. But Julie Craig’s persistence paid off, and this year, Kayla, a junior, is competing with her school’s team.

Kayla first got interested in golf about five years ago, when her mother suggested sports that were available to Special Olympics athletes.

“It is hard, but one day my mom said that golf was coming up so I thought I would give it a try,” Kayla said. She has been playing ever since.

“Each year we have grown and gotten better at understanding how to accommodate her,” Julie Craig said. Kayla’s left arm is weaker than her right arm, she has impaired vision and she has difficulty walking long distances. Julie Craig said that because of Kayla’s sight impairment, they looked for sports where the ball traveled away from Kayla and not toward her.

The first year of Kayla’s high school golf experience was difficult because Kayla had not golfed with, or competed against, non-disabled golfers before. The second year, the school only had one coach for both the boys and girls golf teams, and the coach could not give Kayla the personalized attention she needed.

This year, first-year girls golf coach Darrin LaForce has been able to give Kayla much-needed personal attention.

“It’s never a burden with her. It’s always a privilege,” LaForce said.

“This year has been her most successful year,” Julie Craig said. “Last week she was excited because she was able to play all nine holes.”

Kayla only plays as many holes of golf as she can comfortably, and her points are not counted toward the team’s official totals. She was granted special permission to use a golf cart with a driver during competition. Julie Craig said the school’s athletic director had to call other schools hosting the team to get their permission to use the cart.

“It’s no big deal,” LaForce said. “All the courses are accommodating about it.”

Disabled professional golfer Casey Martin filed a successful federal lawsuit in 2001 to be able to use a golf cart during PGA tournaments. Earlier this year, the Illinois High School Association authorized a non-sighted golfer from Lincoln-Way High School in Frankfort to have a spotter on the course with him.

“That’s why golf is such a great sport – it’s for everybody,” LaForce said.

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