See how the USGA’s rules and ideals kept things fair for golfers with various challenges at the debut U.S. Adaptive Open

On the 18th hole of his final round at the 2022 U.S. Open at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, Matthew Fitzpatrick’s tee shot went left and landed in a fairway bunker, a few feet from the fescue-covered lip.

Walking to the ball, he talked with his caddie, then looked at the lie. After reaching into his bag and grabbing a club, Fitzpatrick dug his feet into the sand and addressed the ball. His shot got airborne quickly and landed on the green. After walking to the green, he bent down, placed a marker behind the ball, picked it up and then two-putted for a par that won him his first major championship.

The Rules of Golf clearly state several things Fitzpatrick had to do (and could not do) as he played that hole. He had to walk the hole, he could not ground his club or touch the sand in the bunker and he had to mark the ball himself. Fitzpatrick could not anchor his putter as he made a stroke, and his caddie could not stand behind him as he putted.

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However, at this week’s U.S. Adaptive Open at Pinehurst No. 6, many golfers were unable to do the things Fitzpatrick did playing that hole.

Some can’t walk, so they got around the course using specially designed vehicles, while others who have lost a leg used traditional golf carts. Some golfers were unable to see the ball because they are visually impaired or blind, and other golfers played with intellectual impairments. 

But these players at Pinehurst, North Carolina — from 29 states and 11 countries — played just like their able-bodied counterparts. Thanks to the Modified Rules for Players With Disabilities, developed by the U.S. Golf Association and The R&A with input from adaptive organizations developed in 1996, they were able to compete for a national championship for the first time — inspiring others like them to try the game.

As the organization tasked with developing and updating the Rules of Golf, the USGA wanted the Modified Rules for Players With Disabilities to create an environment where golfers with physical or intellectual challenges can play fairly with players with no disabilities, with the same disability or different types of disabilities. 


“Looking back to that time, this wasn’t [the USGA] looking at the Rule of Golf and trying to figure out how to create a new game,” said Craig Winter, the USGA’s senior director for Rules of Golf and amateur status. “This was trying to reach out to those communities and understand what adaptations are needed to be able to allow them to play the game of golf. And play the game of golf under a set of rules.”

That means considering many things able-bodied golfers take for granted, developing appropriate accommodations and then being open-minded and aware in the future to modify those accommodations as needed.

2022 U.S. Adaptive Open
2022 U.S. Adaptive Open

Sophia Howard looks at her options on the 10th hole fairway during the first round at the 2022 U.S. Adaptive Open at Pinehurst in North Carolina. (Photo: Jeff Haynes/USGA)


For example, Fitzpatrick’s eyes and experience allowed him to make judgments about how to play his bunker shot at Brookline on Sunday, but faced with the same shot, a blind golfer could not know how the ball rested in the sand, whether it was on an upslope, downslope or a flat lie and how close the lip of the bunker was to the ball.

“If you’re in a bunker, well, that’s a really challenging thing when you can’t see or you have very limited site,” Winter said. “And so there is an exception in [Modified Rules for Players With Disabilities] for players who are visually impaired, where you’re allowed to touch the sand before you you make a stroke out of a bunker. It’s more of like a practical set of exceptions.”


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In that way, the Modified Rules for Players With Disabilities acted as a set of common sense concepts that can help create consistency. They also allowed players to get special assistance from others while they play. 

Blind golfers used a coach (or guide), who was allowed to help them with alignment and who they were able to get advice from before playing a shot. They were also able to use a caddie, and a player’s caddie can do many things that non-disabled players often do for themselves, like mark a ball on the green, something that would have been challenging for golfers with only one leg or who played exclusively from a cart. A coach and caddie can be the same person, but someone designated as only a coach was not allowed to touch a player’s clubs, and golfers were only allowed to have one coach.

Intellectually impaired golfers were able to get help from an aide who followed a player and assisted with etiquette and getting around the course. 

While the Rules of Golf that non-disabled golfers play by is filled with specific instances and rulings, the Modified Rules for Players With Disabilities were intentionally written more loosely to allow officials to interpret situations on a case-by-case basis if necessary. Each golfer who played under the Modified Rules for Players With Disabilities could have different needs and challenges, so the rules need to accommodate them.


“Ultimately, we’ve decided to go to the simpler side, and there are many individuals that will say, ‘Well, that means they’re actually less fair,'” Winter said. “When you get really complicated, you’re trying to have a whole bunch of nuances. You know, this is for this and this for that, and it becomes just so difficult. Not just for players, but for rules officials too, to make sure that [each ruling is] right. So we went to the simpler side.

“We wanted the rules to be easy to understand and apply. That was the message that we have been sharing for some time that really carries the day. It does lead to what some might see being unfair. However, the rules are applied equally across the entire field. So there is a fairness element to making sure that if everybody’s playing by the same set of rules, everybody is, in fact, being treated equally.”

2022 U.S. Adaptive Open
2022 U.S. Adaptive Open

Cindy Lawrence hits her tee shot on the 12th during the first round of the 2022 U.S. Adaptive Open at Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina. (Photo: Jeff Haynes/USGA)


And that’s all the contestants at this week’s U.S. Adaptive Open were looking for, to be treated equally.

If there was a shortcoming concerning the Modified Rules for Players With Disabilities, it’s that they are not written into the Rules of Golf. Technically, they are only in effect when adopted through local rule by the person or group in charge of a competition. However, the governing bodies are looking for ways to ensure the game can be more inclusive, especially for players with disabilities. So, don’t be surprised if this is addressed in the next revision of the Rules of Golf in January 2023.

The Rules of Golf apply to every golfer, and they are an integral part of the game. As more players come to the sport, the USGA is working to ensure everyone has a chance to play and reasonably compete against one another.

Editor’s note: This is the third article of a four-part series explaining the mission of the United States Golf Association. The USGA, which governs the game of golf in Mexico and the United States, serves several functions. What exactly is the USGA? Why is the organization important? This series delves into these questions and others. This article looks at governance and how the organization that creates the rules of golf shapes them to make the game more inclusive and welcoming to players of not just every ability level but also those with unique challenges.