Can the handicapping system used for golfers be applied directly to golfers with physical disabilities? This is what researchers from the University of Limerick and Stellenbosch University, South Africa have set out to test in a joint research project that explores the areas of sport vision and biomechanics in golf.
During the course of ten days, the researchers from the Sport Technology Unit of the Centre for Human Performance Sciences at Stellenbosch University, and the Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences at the University of Limerick tested nearly 50 able-bodied and disabled golfers with handicaps ranging from professional to mid-twenties.
The Centre for Human Performance Sciences is one of Stellenbosch University’s HOPE Projects through which research is put into practice to the benefit of specific communities. The golf project is an extension of the partnership between Stellenbosch University and the University of Limerick within the European Union’s Erasmus Mundus Masters in Adapted Physical Activity (APA).
The necessary precision testing and monitoring of the driving and putting abilities of these golfers were completed using the Tobii visual gaze tracking instrument, ultrasound-based technology of the Sam PuttLab, and FlightScope and Vector ball launch monitors. The data were collected by Dr Mark Campbell and Dr Ian Kenny from the University of Limerick at the indoor facilities of the Swingfit Performance Academy at De Zalze Golf Estate outside Stellenbosch.
While golfers were showing their form over a total of 20 6-foot and 12-foot putts, and 10 drives, 28 different crucial variables were measured. During the putting exercise each golfer’s visual gaze, swing pattern and point of ball contact were recorded. During the driving exercise, aspects such as the direction of flight of the ball, the spin of the ball, and the point of impact on the ball from the club were measured.
“It’s all about finding similarities and differences in the biomechanics and visual skills between an able-bodied and disabled golfer, and then comparing that information to their currently assigned golf handicap” says Shaun Surmon, Manager for Research and Development for the SU Centre for Human Performance Sciences.
Unlike Paralympic sports, in which athletes take part in various categories based on their specific disabilities, people with all types of disabilities play against each other in golf based on a golf handicapping system. According to anecdotal reasoning, the fact that people have a disability – be it deafness, blindness, cerebral palsy or an amputation – should not be a consideration in classifying them for golf competition. Their ability to play golf should be the only consideration in categorising them for participation in golf.
“With this research we want to test if this is indeed true, or whether it would be more ‘fair’ to modify the golf handicapping system when applying it to golfers with disabilities,” says Mr Surmon.
According to Dr Ian Kenny of the University of Limerick’s Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences, golf is set to become an Olympic sport again in 2016, which makes the chances therefore very good for it to also be included in the 2020 Paralympics. He says that once the research is published, recommendations based on their analysis of the results will be sent to the international governing bodies of golf as well as disabled golf to take into account when considering golf as a Paralympic sport event.
According to Mr Surmon, it’s not just the researchers who benefit from this project. “All participants received an easy-to-understand graphic report about their putting performance, as well as a video of their driving abilities which they can again use in conjunction with a coach to fine-tune their game. In their take-home feedback each golfer’s performance on our tests were compared to the performances of golfers playing in the European professional tournaments,” he explains. “These feedback reports are quite valuable for the continued assessment and further honing of each golfer’s game,” said Mr Dawie van Wyk of the Swingfit Performance Academy.