SoloRider gives quadriplegic security specialist ‘hole’ new outlook

  • Published
  • By Wayne Crenshaw
  • 78 ABW/PA
On a misty morning at Robins' Pine Oaks Golf Course, Jeff Hutcheson lines up his shot on the first tee, draws back his club and strikes the ball with a gentle but solid "ping."

The white orb flies in an arch to the left, landing about 100 yards down the fairway.

For most golfers a 100-yard drive would be a rather disappointing start, but for Mr. Hutcheson, it's actually an impressive achievement.

Although an avid golfer as a teenager, a motorcycle accident at age 17 took away his ability to participate in the game.

The accident left him permanently paralyzed from the chest down. He is considered a quadriplegic, but he has the use of his hands and arms. He has no use of his legs.

Since the 1982 accident he has been able to do just about everything he wants to do except play golf. He is an avid hunter and scuba diver, but golf had been a problem because of the difficulty in swinging from a wheelchair and maneuvering around a course.

That was until earlier this year, when a friend told him about a new golf cart for the handicapped at Pine Oaks. The military requires all base courses to have golf carts for the handicapped, and in December Pine Oaks acquired two of them. However, they had gone unused until Mr. Hutcheson showed up one day in May and wanted to give it a try.

He has been playing ever since despite the fact that, due to balance issues, he has to swing with only one arm. He is also a natural right hander, but swings from the left side, with his left arm, because he has more control and power that way. He putts with both arms because balance isn't an issue with that motion.

Although his game is not where he would like it to be - he hopes to be able to drive it at least 200 yards eventually - he has been having a blast.

"It's really enjoyable because I've wanted to do it for so long," he said. "It's great that the Air Force stepped up and did this. I can't tell you how much it means for them to have this."

The cart, called the SoloRider, is designed so the user can swivel the seat to either side to strike the ball. The seat also tilts upward to give the golfer a better angle.

The clubs are mounted on the front of the cart, rather than the rear, so that the user can easily reach them. The cart is also specially designed so that it can be driven onto greens without causing any damage.

Mr. Hutcheson went to the driving range a few times to try to learn to hit the ball again. He played his first round with close friend Chris Hodges. Mr. Hodges had taken Mr. Hutcheson with him before when he played golf, but then all his pal could do was ride in the cart.

Mr. Hodges with thrilled to actually have his friend as a playing partner rather than an observer.

"It was just amazing," he said. "It was really nice to have a tool like that so that he could play. It's been one of the best things lately for him, to be able to go out and play."

Mr. Hodges has been encouraging other handicapped friends to give it a try. He talked to one friend who was interested in golf, but was afraid to try it because he was overweight and was afraid of how he might look.

"I said if Jeff can go out there and be one handed and paralyzed from the waist down, I don't know what your problem would be," he said.

Mr. Hodges also said playing with Mr. Hutcheson has given him a new perspective about the game that can be so frustrating to even the best players.

"It makes you thankful for the physical ability that you have," he said. "You may have a bad day but you are playing with a capability that some don't have."

Mr. Hutcheson does need a little help when he plays. He needs someone to tee up the ball for him and get some things from his bag that he can't reach. For that reason, his wife started playing with him. She had never played before, but is quickly becoming an addict, he said, and they now play regularly.

Originally from Soperton, where he had his accident, Mr. Hutcheson has worked at Robins since 1987. He started as a clerk and now works as a security specialist.

Mandy Carter and Jerry Vail, the interim co-managers of Pine Oaks, said Mr. Hutcheson is the only person who has used the SoloRider. They were thrilled, however, that the carts were finally getting put to use.

"It just goes to show that anybody can do anything," Ms. Carter said.

So what advice would Mr. Hutcheson give to a disabled person who is considering giving golf a try?

"They should go for it," he said. "If anybody wants to try it they can call me and I will go with them. There are so many who have told me that they think they can't do it, but if you want to do something, you can do it."