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New Sport Partnership Driving Special Olympics Golfers to the Game

The following is an article published by the International Sports Press Association (AIPS) on the growth and development of Special Olympics golfers and the sport of golf through Special Olympics’ partnership with Topgolf:

Woman hitting a ball with a golf club.
Special Olympics athlete Amy Bockerstette hits a shot at Topgolf’s El Segundo venue.

Special Olympics International

MADRID, March 27, 2024 - Golf is a long-time popular sport at Special Olympics but over the last decade the number of golfers with intellectual disabilities playing across movement has been steadily declining.

In just ten years, the overall number of Special Olympics golfers training and competing in golf with Special Olympics at local, national, and international levels has fallen by 50 percent, according to Special Olympics official census data for 2023.

Today there are an estimated 28,725 registered Special Olympics golfers taking to greens around the world, working with coaches at local and national level, and showcasing a more inclusive form of traditional golf. But just ten years ago that number was almost double with close to 55,000 Special Olympic golfers playing the game globally.

According to Jon-Paul Saint Germain, Vice President of Sport Development with Special Olympics International, the decline is down to a combination of factors, and golf is not alone with other sports facing similar challenges.

“Standard grass golf faces a number of daunting barriers to entry, including course access, weather, equipment means. It can also be time consuming, expensive, and physically strenuous. It is not always the obvious or easiest sport to take up and so that limits the opportunities for growing the sport of golf and reaching new players.”

Special Olympics is a global organisation that seeks to end discrimination against people with intellectual disabilities through inclusive sports with more than 1000,000 games and competitions every year. Golf is one of 37 Olympic-style individual and team sports offered by Special Olympics.

Now a landmark new sports partnership between Special Olympics and Topgolf is helping to tackle the problem of decline in Special Olympics golf.

Topgolf is a golf driving range game with electronically tracked golf balls first started in Dallas Texas in 2000 and has since rapidly expanded to include locations across the US and internationally, including the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, Mexico, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates.

Group photo.
Special Olympics Pennsylvania golf coach Andrew Fee with his players enjoying the Topgolf game.

In less than a year, the Special Olympics and Topgolf sports partnership has been great success with more than two thousand Special Olympics golfers, Unified playing partners, and 400 coaches driving their golf game forward at monthly training sessions and competitions across 80 Topgolf venues in the United States, England and Scotland.

In terms of direct impact being felt at the grassroots level, Andrew Fee, a golf coach with Special Olympics Pennsylvania says the Topgolf and Special Olympics partnership is helping to generate a lot of fresh interest in playing golf among the athletes he coaches and trains in golf.

“As an avid golfer and Special Olympics volunteer, the Topgolf program has changed the way I view the sport of golf in many ways. This program has allowed us to truly expand the opportunities for people of all abilities to try golf. It has also reminded me and others how much joy all of us get from playing and trying new sports. Topgolf has been an amazing addition to Special Olympics Pennsylvania athletes and is continuing to push the mission of inclusion
forward,” he said.

The partnership also sees Topgolf established as a sanctioned Special Olympics Unified event bringing together golfers with and without intellectual disabilities to develop their competitive golf game further. Starting this year the local organizing committee for any Special Olympics outing held across the U.S. or around the globe will have the option to include Topgolf as a global medaled event. This opens the door for Topgolf’s inclusion in future Special Olympics World Summer Games. It will be the first branded, medaled event in Special Olympics.

Three people standing together
Shaun Linsey (left), Riane Deaton (middle) and Heather Boyer (right) celebrate accomplishments from their first official Special Olympics Topgolf event.

According to Special Olympics Director of Strategic Partnerships Dalton Hill the response to the Topgolf game and sporting opportunities has been overwhelmingly positive.

“This partnership will provide more opportunity and access to the game of golf than we have ever seen across Special Olympics. It began with over 2,100 participants during our pilot season in 2023. Now in 2024 we are running the inaugural official sanctioned Special Olympics Topgolf sport season so things are going from strength to strength. Thanks to this partnership, Special Olympics see thousands of new individuals introduced to the sport of golf year after year."

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