A New Lease On Golf

By Mick Elliott -The Tampa Tribune - May 11, 2006

Tampa's Monroe Berkman tees off from his SoloRider golf cart during a tournament at Westchase.
JAY NOLAN / Tribune

TAMPA - Monroe Berkman, 66, is playing in a charity scramble golf tournament at Westchase, and his three partners have already hit from behind a greenside bunker - with varying degrees of mediocrity - in an attempt to get up and down for par.

"Monroe," encourages teammate Barry Smith, the former Florida State and NFL receiver, "it's, uh, fourth-and-goal."

From behind the ball, Berkman studies the 45-foot shot that will require a feathery lob to drop just beyond the sand, then moves to his address before sending the little white sphere flying gently to the green, where it trickles to within 6 feet to set up the team's par save.

Not bad for a man who cannot stand without the aid of crutches and plays out of a specially designed single-rider golf cart.

"I just feel that too many people are sitting on the couch vegetating," Berkman says. "And when you vegetate, everything dies - the body, mind, everything. You get people out there in a golf environment, in the fresh air with friends, it changes everything."

Berkman knows of what he speaks. The South Tampa resident and polio survivor is a living, breathing, golf-playing endorsement for the physically challenged, and he wants to tell you that his SoloRider golf cart is what makes it possible.

"About six years ago, I was in Seattle playing golf with a group of friends and on the first hole I fell the wrong way and broke my only half-decent leg," he says. "It was like my golf life flashed in front of me. But a few months later, someone mentioned the SoloRider to me. I called the founder of the company who was going to be in Orlando for the PGA Show. I met him there and bought one on the spot."

As satisfied customers go, you have to rate Berkman high on any list. Four years after buying his SoloRider, the former communications company executive came back and bought the company.

Now Berkman is pushing golf, a game he calls "my passion," as a sport for the physically disabled. He also is pushing the SoloRider as the vehicle to make it happen, attempting to convince golf courses to add his cart to their traditional fleets.

"It's a good idea because seniors leave the game," he says. "All of a sudden they can't play for one reason or another - a knee problem, a hip problem. They give up the golf. With this cart, it's a source to continue playing. Look at me. I've been playing for six years when I shouldn't be able to."

What's different about the SoloRider is a turf-friendly design that makes it safe for a player to drive on tees and greens, giving the golfer access to the entire course except for inside bunkers. To allow shots, the cart's hydraulic seat swivels and positions players in an number of positions.

Strapped in, Berkman uses the handlebar controls to swing the seat out and away from the cart, and then raises himself into a standing position similar to someone leaning against a wall.

"Looking at Monroe, it's unbelievable how he is able to play," said area teaching professional Larry McGrath, who works with physically challenged golfers. "That thing is a wonderful idea. People who cannot play golf any more all of a sudden can. It's an open door for a lot of people who still want to play golf."

Monroe, however, suggests not everyone is nearly as supportive. While no public-access golf course management that knows the American Disabilities Act from a backhoe is going to turn away a disabled patron and his SoloRider, Berkman says only a limited number of courses have shown interest in having his cart available on-site.

Apprehensions range from concern for damage to greens and tee boxes to pace of play.

"I don't think he slows down play," said scramble partner Eric Land, the Bucs' chief operating officer. "Actually, he's hard to keep up with."

And as far as course damage, the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America doesn't have a problem.

"Under normal conditions, those vehicles are fine," said GCSAA spokesman Jeff Bollis from the group's offices in Lawrence, Kan. "The only issue is if a course is doing any re-seeding or there was excessive moisture. But for normal situations, they do not cause any appreciative damage that a superintendent would be worried about."

To Berkman, that leaves only one explanation.

"The biggest problem is they don't want us," he says of physically disabled golfers. "Golfing is a good ol' boy network. Anything that has been thrown at us as a reason not to endorse the golf cart, we defeat because a golf course can't tell us anything we can't overcome with this cart."

So far, the Tournament Players Clubs network and Pebble Beach are SoloRider's most high-profile customers.

In the Tampa Bay vicinity, according to Berkman, in addition to the TPC, The Claw at USF had a SoloRider donated to its cart fleet and plans to order another. As you might expect, The Villages retirement community is an interested customer.

"Golf courses discriminated against groups of people because of race or religion by having restrictive membership qualifications in the '50s and '60s," said the Bucs' Land. "Now, golf courses that do not have carts like this practice the same kind of discrimination."

Carts like the SoloRider, however, could be golf's best chance to reinvent itself as a recreational pastime.

Seniors 60 years and older represent 17 percent of U.S. golfers. Golf 20/20, a consortium of the golf industry's leading organizations, estimates that if 1 percent of seniors leaves the game each year, golf loses at least 4,000 players and 250,000 rounds, an annual $10 million to $15 million loss.

"It's phenomenal to think of all the people this could give access to golf," Smith said. "And it's remarkable to just watch him play."