I first met James Gribble at The Australian Open in November, 2016. I was standing at the 2nd green, taking photos and tweeting, when a guy asked if he could run something by me. He showed me his most recent tweet and asked what I would give it out of ten. I said six, and explained it could have had another hashtag or @ mention someone.
We then exchanged greetings and James introduced me to Lachy who works with him. They run a nonprofit called Empower Golf, which supports disabled people in the playing of golf.
They showed me a ParaGolfer, which is an all-terrain mechanised wheelchair which can raise the user to a standing position so they can make a full golf swing. James was strapped into one, he was made a quadriplegic in 2008, and Lachy was just sitting on one. They gave me a go, but when I tried to control it, I nearly drove through the greenside ropes! I decided that perhaps the golfers playing through might appreciate me being nowhere near the ParaGolfer.
We spoke for hours, talking about social media, golf around the world, and all the while, watching amazing golfers play past us. James and Lachy also talked with interested spectators about the ParaGolfer. It really does provide the opportunity for everyone to play golf regardless of physical ability.
I had seen a lesson using a ParaGolfer, last year when I was at Newcastle Golf Club, and I was very impressed with what I saw. So to meet James and have a good golf chat was wonderful.
James and Lachy then had an appointment on the range with Jarrod Lyle and Robert Allenby, who were going to try hitting balls from a ParaGolfer. I went with them. Jarrod turned up, but Robert was still on the putting green, so I was despatched to see if he was joining us. He said nobody had told him about it, so I left him there.
While James and Jarrod had a great conversation about the health issues each has experienced, Lachy strapped Jarrod into one of the ParaGolfers. I was so impressed with the adaptation of technology to enable James to golf. He also has a modified glove that is attached to his clubs to ensure he has the best connection possible. James can sure hit a ball! He made them fly straight down the middle.
It took Jarrod a few shots before he found his groove. It seemed to be easier using one hand instead of two because you can’t move your hips. I would find it very difficult (I am yet to use one). James and Jarrod then had a competition, with James coming out on top! While this was going on, I took photos and videos to help Empower with their social media.
Empower was putting on a clinic at Long Reef Golf Club a couple of weeks later, and they invited me to come along, so that is exactly what I did.
It was a very hot day. 36 degrees Celsius. I headed to the range and found Lachy with Long Reef's President, David Costello, and Empower volunteers, Pete Williams, Lynne Clayton, and Roger Poinand.
Long Reef and Empower have been working together for a while and Long Reef is a ParaGolfer "hub." This means there is a machine available for use should any local golfer wish to come and play a round. Volunteers are also available to help tee up the balls for the player and assist them in their round.
I also had the pleasure of meeting and chatting with the disabled golfers who were using the ParaGolfer, Jacqui, Chester, Cathy and Prue. After the lesson, everyone congregated in the clubhouse for a celebratory end-of-year drink.
Empower Golf started after James broke his neck and he couldn't find any way to return to the game he loved. It was baffling to him that nobody was teaching disabled golfers how to play. So in 2013 he founded Empower to do something about it.
James told me the majority of their funding comes from three high net-worth individuals who love what he is doing. They also fundraise through golf days, crowdfunding and auctions. James’ dream is to eventually get Empower to be a fee-for-service model with equipment hire and paid lessons such that anyone with mobility issues can learn and enjoy golf.
With five staff, Empower has a permanent presence in WA, QLD and NSW. So far they have eight hubs for disabled golfers with full access to clubhouses, ranges, courses, carparks, toilets etc. By the end of 2017, they would like to have 30 hubs in operation, which would represent two percent of Australia. It would mean most of the population would be within a 90 minute drive from a hub.
Empower also wants to be a leading international player in disabled golf. They are lobbying for golf to be included in the Paralympics, and with James at the helm I think they will do everything they set out to achieve.
I feel Fairways and Empower have a lot of synergy. Lachy came to the Fairways Launch to show his support for us, and I will be supporting them as they work to make golf accessible to all.