If you head over to Braemar Golf Course on a Friday in May or June, you will find an inspiring group of 60 golfers and volunteers—all thanks to an Edina golf instructor, the late Larry Nelson. Nelson had two passions, junior golf and adaptive golf, and he started an adaptive golf program in Richfield in 1990. “He started the program because he wanted to give back to golf and try something different,” says Mike Grube, a Braemar PGA professional and adaptive golf program volunteer. When the adaptive golf program began, there wasn’t anything like it in the Twin Cities. The program blossomed and eventually moved to Braemar Golf Course in 2000. Nelson passed away in 2009, but through this program, renamed the Larry Nelson Adaptive Golf League, his legacy lives on.
Tee-ing it up
Twenty-four years ago, Nelson was teaching golf lessons to a mother of an adult son with Down syndrome. She asked Nelson if he would be willing to coach her son. He agreed and after a few sessions, he found himself coaching five adults with cognitive disabilities and realized he needed assistance. He turned to the Richfield adaptive recreation supervisor and an adaptive golf program would take off at Rich Acres Golf Course. The next year, Nelson asked his lifelong friend Grube to join him in coaching the adaptive golf program. And when the Richfield golf course closed, the program moved to Braemar. The City of Edina renamed the program shortly after Nelson’s death to commemorate his spirit.
The Larry Nelson Adaptive Golf League meets every Friday from the end of April through the end of June at Braemar Golf Course, and during the winter months inside the dome. Additionally, the Sister Kenny Golf League for people with physical disabilities—a program that Grube also helps—has been playing at Braemar since 1979. It runs from May through August. Edina Recreation Supervisor Kristin Aarsvold has overseen the city’s adaptive programming for the past six years. She says the adaptive golf leagues are treasured programs.
Friendships drive program success
The most inspiring aspect of the program is the friendships that develop between the volunteers and the participants. Many coaches and players have been with the program since its inception. Aarsvold, Grube and 14-year volunteer Chris Medrano believe these friendships are the driving force behind Nelson’s vision. Additionally, the adaptive golf league received a $2,900 grant late this winter from Edina Rotary to purchase SNAG golf equipment.
Adaptive golfer Michael Davis joined the program during its first year. His mother Gail says program volunteers go above and beyond. Aarsvold says, “The camaraderie of our volunteers and golfers is really special. They look forward to seeing each other.” Grube adds, “It’s a big deal to know everyone’s name, make them feel that you are buddies. And we really are.” Program volunteers are now two generations deep. When Grube’s son Matt was 6 years old, he brought him along to the golf course. Now 16, Matt volunteers every Friday (or as his sports schedule permits) with the adaptive golf league.
A legacy of building lifelong skills
Frona Ites and her husband have always enjoyed golf. Ten years ago, when their son Mike was looking for new activities, they decided to have him give adaptive golf a try. Thanks to Nelson, the Ites family now plays golf together. “It’s a family thing that we can do and enjoy, and have a conversation about,” Frona Ites says. “It’s a lifelong sport for all of us.”
“I really enjoy the fact that we get more volunteers involved,” says Medrano, “some who know golf and some who don’t. Their willingness to help is amazing to me. This is a program where I feel everyone gets something out of if it.” And although Grube has not been able to volunteer much in the past few years, the program has left a strong impression on him. He says, “You forget about a lot of the little things that don’t matter. You look at the overall picture, and see the joy that our participants have.”
A golfer with the Larry Nelson Adaptive Golf League is an example. He wrote Nelson’s name on the club handle, saying it was to remind him of Nelson each time he used it. “I'm glad the program was renamed the Larry Nelson Golf League,” Davis says. “Long live his love for the game.”
The City of Edina adaptive recreation program hosts activities year-round, including golf, bowling and skiing. If you’re interested in volunteering or know someone who would like to participate, contact Kristin Aarsvold at email@example.com. For more program information, visit edinamn.gov.
A Lasting Legacy
In 1990, Larry Nelson started something that had never quite existed before in the Twin Cities. He took his passion and love for junior and adaptive golf, and founded an adaptive golf league in Richfield for golfers with cognitive disabilities. Ten years later, the program moved to Edina, bringing volunteers and participants with it.
The adaptive golf season begins each year in April at Braemar Golf Course, and continues to inspire volunteers and form bonds of friendship among participants.
To read more about the program’s impact on volunteers, participants and the City of Edina, read the story in the May issue of Edina Magazine.