U.S. Open did its best for older fans

Pierce County held a golf party at Chambers Bay and the world showed up.
In typical Pierce County spirit, over 4,000 volunteers joined in the welcome of the U.S. Open in June. I was among them, assigned to the 140-member Accessibility Committee for older spectators and individuals with disabilities.
The 25-year-old Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has made a dramatic impact. Inclusion is normal. But Chambers Bay Golf Course presented the United States Golf Association (USGA) with unprecedented challenges for both players and spectators – even more so people with disabilities.
The course is probably unlike anything most of the professionals see on tour. Most courses are by and large flat. Chambers Bay takes advantage of the landscape. It’s uphill and downhill and back uphill and back downhill, again and again. It’s a proverbial workout.
It was surprising and heartwarming to see so many frail and not-so-frail seniors and people with disabilities come out for the tournament. Part of it is simply that this international event drew an incredible field of talent that drew large crowds. But it’s also true that accessibility is normal. We take it for granted, even on a golf course. So those large crowds included people with mobility challenges.
Pierce County has the nation’s only golf course designed specifically for the rehabilitation of wounded and disabled veterans. American Lake Veterans Golf Course is an amazing testimony to the healing power of golf. Jack Nicklaus and his design firm donated design work for the course. The resulting layout has proven what can be done and raised expectations among golfers everywhere.
The USGA was reasonably prepared for this Open – like they are for their other tournaments. In hindsight, they could have done better. My experience was that the gravel paths and steep terrain were often too much. Driving the three-wheeled scooters was at times quite perilous. The four-wheeled versions were safer, but even then, drivers had to pay close attention and work at keeping their balance.
A fleet of golf carts was also available, including several that could transport wheelchairs. Driven by a cadre of volunteers from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., the offer was there to take people to locations along the fairways, grandstand viewing sections, restrooms, hospitality tents or bus pickup spots. The on-call service was the best I have ever seen.
Spectators soon realized that grandstand seating was the way to go at this U.S. Open. People needing space for their scooter or wheelchair obviously preferred this option. Chairs for companions were graciously provided. Planned or not, the space given for disabled seating was prime territory. Unfortunately, the demand for space far exceeded the allocated room. Many of the grandstand spaces were taken early on and people were not moving. Planners could have anticipated that this option would need to be expanded.
In the early morning, many spectators bypassed the offer of complimentary transportation. By late morning, those folks realized that the course was much more demanding than they anticipated. Of course, that was true of the more able-bodied, as well. Calls for transportation started coming in fast.
As the day progressed into afternoon, we were overwhelmed. Chambers Bay was taking its toll on all the spectators. Some seniors were walking with firm resolve. We tended to pick them up whenever we had a spare seat in the cart. They were grateful for the lift and admitted that getting around the course was tough. The average golf course is laid out over 74 acres. Chambers Bay uses 250 acres.
Transportation by way of golf carts was the safest bet. Driving those carts, we met people from all over the world, including Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Korea, Germany, Spain, Ireland, Mexico and Canada. Of course, they were deeply impressed with the natural beauty of the golf course, the setting and the community. They were universally delighted that the USGA was providing so much transportation on the course. Those who had been to other Opens seemed to remark that the service at Chambers Bay, while not always perfect, was the best that they had ever experienced.
Restrooms did n’t appear to be as much of a challenge as transportation. Accessible portable toilets and what seemed like hundreds of traditional ones were distributed evenly around the course. But there’s never one nearby when you need one, no matter what physical condition you might have.
In some respects, the USGA underestimated the demand for transportation for seniors and people with disabilities. The fleet of carts could easily have been doubled, especially in the afternoon hours as people tired. They might want to reconsider using the three-wheeled carts. They were dangerous. That could have been anticipated. But the effort the USGA put forth is to be commended.
The next time a major tournament is held at Chambers Bay, organizers will have the experience of the 2015 U.S. Open to draw upon. And they will look at more than just the topography of a very challenging golf course. They will also have to look at the spirit of accessibility that comes more naturally to people in Pierce County and the South Sound.
The funny thing about a golf tournament is that everybody shows up. And everybody means everybody.

Bob Riler, who wrote this article, worked as an accessibility volunteer at the U.S. Open. He

Thousands of fans lined the holes each day of the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay Golf Course. (The Dispatch)
Thousands of fans lined the holes each day of the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay Golf Course. (The Dispatch)

is a community outreach and education specialist for Pierce County Community Connections/Aging and Disability Resources.