Partnership Launched In May With Free Practice Sessions.
Whether it’s a sweltering 100 degrees in Texas or 35 with snow in Utah, Special Olympics athletes throughout the U.S. can now practice golf year round, thanks to an innovative partnership between Topgolf and Special Olympics that will result in Topgolf becoming a new Special Olympics competitive event.
In May, 2023, Topgolf began providing free practice sessions and competitive opportunities to Special Olympics athletes in the U.S. and U.K. Thus far, 30 Topgolf markets (several with more than one location) are participating and, by the end of September, 2023, each will host a championship event.
In January, 2024, Topgolf will become an officially sanctioned Special Olympics event and will serve as a qualifier for National and, eventually, World Games. It will be the first branded, medaled event in Special Olympics.
Topgolf athletes may participate solo or as a member of a Special Olympics Unified Sports® team, in which an athlete with an intellectual disability is paired with a partner without a disability. The athletes generally practice once a week in two-hour sessions, and will put in 8-12 weeks of practice prior to the pilot season local/area championship.
Special Olympics athlete Tony Trojcak, a 44-year old golfer from the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, was quick to take advantage of the Topgolf opportunity. Trojcak, who has Williams Syndrome, has played golf for 20 years and competed in Special Olympics on a local to state level. Aside from enjoying the fun aspects of Topgolf, he hopes practice will help him qualify for Nationals.
“Thanks to Topgolf’s target system, I believe my accuracy and distance has improved,” he said, adding “I love the game of golf. I like competing with my team and my dad in Unified golf. I love challenging myself, winning medals and making new friends! I really appreciate Topgolf for giving us this wonderful opportunity.”
According to Special Olympics Director of Strategic Partnerships Dalton Hill, response to the program has been overwhelmingly positive, with approximately 200 teams already participating in local communities. In addition, an estimated 246 coaches have completed Topgolf’s training program, and more are coming on board each week.
The partnership epitomizes the Special Olympics spirit of inclusion and access for athletes with intellectual disabilities, regardless of age or ability. It’s a mission that aligns perfectly with Topgolf’s efforts to bring more inclusion, diversity and fun to the game.
Golf presents a number of daunting barriers to entry, including course access, weather, training, equipment, and financial means. Topgolf eliminates those barriers, offering a climate-controlled environment, free use of equipment and session time, and a non-intimidating atmosphere where golfers of all levels can compete.
Ben Wrubel, vice president of programs for Special Olympics Arizona, did not anticipate as much early local interest in the program, noting “The biggest surprise for me is not only the numbers but the enthusiasm. We’ve had teams that I don’t think would ever have been interested in golf without this partnership.”
And, according to Wrubel, the relationship with Topgolf is outstanding.
“We are very, very appreciative of this opportunity to work with Topgolf,” he said. “The collaboration has been absolutely fantastic. The Topgolf staff has not only been supportive and accommodating to our teams, but many have also become volunteer instructors, and offered to get involved in Special Olympics outside Topgolf. They care about giving back and they embrace our mission.”
For Hill, the fact that Topgolf covers the costs and removes a financial barrier to potential athletes has been a key in making golf accessible.
“The greatest thing for me is to hear that families can participate in golf. This is such a great opportunity to get their athletes engaged in a new sport without having to worry about expenses.”
Elio Espinoza enjoys hosting the Special Olympics athletes at his facility.
“It’s been a great partnership and it’s a privilege to host these local teams,” said the Topgolf Glendale (AZ) operations manager. “It’s been an absolute joy and it’s awesome to hear the ‘woos’ and ‘yays’ as they hit good shots.”
Special Olympics athlete Karen Kunder, a 16-year veteran golfer who plays at Topgolf in Utah, shares the experience with her Unified partner, Patrick. At 45, Kunder has competed in 10 Special Olympics sports over the past 17 years, and medaled multiple times in Track & Field at the National Games and Snowshoeing at the World Games.
She hopes next to qualify in golf for National or World Games, and has already noted improvements in her distance and accuracy, thanks to her Topgolf sessions.
“I love practicing with my partner and knowing that I am doing my best,” she said. “The people at Topgolf are really friendly and know us by name now.”
Another Special Olympics athlete looking forward to Topgolf practice and competition is 24-year old Phoenix-area resident Amy Bockerstette, who became a viral sensation in 2019 during a Waste Management Phoenix Open practice session. She made a tough up and down from the bunker at the infamous 16th hole, telling PGA playing partner Gary Woodland, “I got this!”, which ultimately became the name of the foundation she and her parents established.
Amy, who has Down Syndrome, is a fierce competitor. She earned a Silver medal at the 2022 National Games in Orlando, and followed that up with a 4th place finish in her division – Level 5, 18-hole independent – at the 2023 Special Olympics World Games in Berlin. She and her family already play occasionally at Topgolf, and she is excited to continue developing her skills there.
“I love playing golf at Topgolf,” said the former collegiate golfer. “I am so excited that Special Olympics is offering Topgolf as a sport. I can’t wait to begin! I’m especially excited about the free practice sessions that Topgolf is offering because it is so hot in Arizona in the summer and I can play there year round.”
In addition to playing sessions and competition, Topgolf is committed to providing career opportunities to Special Olympics athletes at its 80+ venues in the U.S. and abroad. Approximately 18 are already Playmakers, including Missouri’s Cade Marian, who was honored by Topgolf at a company function last year.
Several fundraising efforts are planned to support the partnership. From September 15-October 31, 2023, throughout the U.S. and U.K., Topgolf players can donate to Special Olympics as part of Topgolf’s “Season of Giving.” And in 2024, Topgolf will host the first Unified Fore Joy celebrity tournament.
As the pilot season comes to a close, Special Olympics and Topgolf are constantly evaluating feedback from the participating venues and athletes. Some minor adjustments are anticipated, but there is no doubt the partnership will continue to grow, as more Special Olympics athletes do their part to help Topgolf reach its goal of 50 billion golf balls hit between 2022 and 2025.