Making Golf More Inclusive

With the help of his daughter, Genoa Lakes Golf Club PGA Head Professional Chris Detsch has given a deaf youngster the opportunity to play the game

Just 25 minutes east of Lake Tahoe on the California-Nevada border sits Genoa, the first permanent settlement of Nevada (1851) and a town ripe with historic charm.

Although Genoa is a fairly small dot on the map, it’s also a very tight-knit community – one that has embraced PGA Professional Chris Detsch and his ideas for making golf more inclusive with open arms.

In 2015, Detsch accepted the position as PGA Head Professional at Genoa Lakes Golf Club, a picturesque 36-hole facility with views that may be among the best in the country. However, Detsch noticed something missing at Genoa Lakes that was catching fire everywhere else around the country: PGA Jr. League.

“When I got to Genoa Lakes, there was no program,” remembers Detsch. “I helped start PGA Jr. League in the Reno area at Hidden Valley Country Club and knew this was some- thing we should have at Genoa Lakes. It’s a special program.”

So Detsch came up with an idea of how to market PGA Jr. League to the community, and started getting youngsters of all backgrounds involved. The women’s league at Genoa Lakes Golf Club also came to the table with a sponsorship program for underprivileged youth, covering the program fees of four participants and buying them each a set of clubs.

One of those youngsters was Harley Smith, who Detsch’s daughter Abbigail met in the fourth grade. The two became fast friends, and Abbigail even introduced golf to Harley, who was instantly yearning to learn more about the game.

Except, she’d never had the chance – Harley is deaf and came from a difficult upbringing, her grandmother serving as a guardian.

Those obstacles didn’t really seem to concern young Abbigail, though, who learned sign language immediately after meeting Harley and is now fluent.

“She wanted to learn because of Harley,” says Detsch. “It meant a lot to her that Harley was included and sign language was the way Abbigail could involve her.”

The next step was getting Harley proper golf instruction during PGA Jr. League team practice. At first, Detsch relied heavily on Abbigail’s fluency in sign language to make sure Harley was in the loop on everything – after all, she was just another team member practicing with her teammates.

“Abbigail interpreted for practices, and Harley was pretty good at under- standing instruction right away,” says Detsch. “We had to educate the other players of Harley’s ‘safe zone’ that we assembled with baskets, and once she was inside those baskets, it was her turn to hit. If the players wanted her attention, they would turn to Abbigail or stand in learned sign language to communicate with her, which was really amazing to see.”

For matches, Detsch realized he and Abbigail would be pre-occupied, so he reached out to the Northern California PGA Section and the PGA of America to help with sponsoring an interpreter.

“I didn’t want to hamper my daughter’s golf skills or Harley’s golf skills, and explained the situation to the Section,” adds Detsch. “They understood and, along with the PGA, were able to offer funding for a local interpreter. I could then relay instructions to the interpreter, who was introduced to Harley and Abbigail prior to the match, and Harley could be in the loop at all times. It was seamless.”

Detsch has also tried to foster an environment of inclusive- ness at Genoa Lakes for those who are unaware of how to interact with a deaf individual. Instead of applauding good shots, fellow players and spectators wave their hands in the air after Harley strikes gold with a birdie putt or nice drive.

“For those not familiar with someone who was deaf, they wondered how to react to Harley,” says Detsch. “Clapping does no good, so everyone put their hands in the air instead. All of the sudden, everyone is waving their hands in the air! We explain it to other teams, and they get on board, too. It’s really become an amazing experience for everyone involved.”

And that’s what makes PGA Jr. League and golf so special: It’s for everyone that wants to play.

“Golf is a fantastic sport because it has an individuality aspect to it that anyone can identify with,” says Detsch. “Combine it with PGA Jr. League, and you’ve got something really wonderful that anyone can take part in.”