Embracing Inclusion in Golf | Telethon Speech & Hearing

The sound of success

Feature image credit England Golf

The sport of golf is unique in that, within the amateur ranks, it has its own system that allows players of differing abilities to compete on an even keel. Known as the handicap system, it gives weaker players extra shots against stronger ones and means that, on any given day, an 80-year-old with dodgy knees could get the better of one of the country’s elite amateurs.

Essentially, a player competes against his or her own expected score – based on their ability – rather than shot-for-shot against their opponent. So, while the top amateur could shoot level par and ‘beat’ the octogenarian by 30 shots, they could end up losing out according to the handicap system if their opponent has a relatively better day.

An obvious benefit of this setup is that not only can players of all skill levels compete against one another, but players of wildly differing physical abilities need not be excluded from one of the world’s most engaging sports. And while this has meant that golf has been somewhat

The adoption of the World Handicap System a few years ago means that amateur men and women can now play off the same tees and in the same club competitions at any golf course, while a growing number of professional tournaments are combining men’s and women’s competitions.

In Australia, a leading light when it comes to inclusion sports, many of the events on the PGA Tour of Australasia now feature an All-Abilities section, where players with a range of disabilities compete on the same course as the professionals.

Abbie wears her cochlear implant device over her left ear when she’s not out on the course.

For Western Australia’s No 1-ranked amateur Abbie Teasdale, her disability has never been a restricting factor. Born with permanent and full hearing loss in her left ear, Abbie has nevertheless risen to elite amateur level, winning last year’s prestigious English Amateur Championship and being selected for the Australian team that will travel to Singapore in March for the Women’s Amateur Asia Pacific. She recently added the Concord Cup title to her impressive golfing resume.

“I’ve never known anything different,” explains Abbie. “I’ve only ever had hearing in this one [right] ear and so that’s the ear I have learned to rely on.”

Eighteen months ago, Abbie underwent cochlear implant surgery in an effort to regain hearing in her left ear, but she is yet to enjoy a desired outcome.

“I can’t actually hear anything just yet,” she explains. “I can feel vibrations, but I’m told that it can take a while for your brain to learn to hear as I have not heard from that ear before. It could take up to four years, so I need to be patient. I admit that I have been a bit slack, and I don’t wear the device as much as I should, so I am trying to get into better habits about wearing it.”

It doesn’t help that wearing the device for long hours under her golf cap can be uncomfortable at times. This means that, unfortunately, she spends a large amount of time out on the course or on the practice range without her implant device in place.

It’s difficult to predict just how an improvement in her hearing would affect her golf. For starters, the sound of the strike of club on ball can provide important feedback to a top player like Abbie. It is also possible that the hearing loss has helped her block out unwanted distractions and retreat into her zone – something which could be of great benefit to elite golfers.

It seems likely that an earlier diagnosis would have been beneficial.

WA’s No 1-ranked golfer, Abbie has recently been selected to represent Australia in the Women’s Asia Pacific Amateur Championship.

“Although I was born without hearing in my left ear, I wasn’t diagnosed until much later in life,” she explains. “I think my parents felt that I had selective hearing, since I could hear some things but not others, depending on which side the sound came from.”

Although she underwent tests, the results were inconclusive.

“The hearing test was poorly explained and a little confusing to me,” she explains. “Whenever I couldn’t hear the sounds, I’d point to my left ear and the tester took this to mean that I could hear. It was only when I went for another hearing test, at age 16, that it was confirmed that I have no hearing in my left ear.”

With her surgery costs fully covered by Hearing Australia, Abbie made the decision to have a cochlear implant at the relatively late age of 18, hoping to regain hearing in her left ear. A cochlear implant is different to a hearing aid, which amplifies existing sound, in that it is an electronic sensory system that coverts sounds into electrical signals that activate the auditory nerve fibres.

Telethon Speech & Hearing’s Head of Audiology Azadeh Ebrahimi Madiseh explains that early diagnosis of hearing loss and intervention is the key to success in managing single-sided deafness with cochlear implants

“While cochlear implantation was not an option for single-sided deafness 20 years ago, a growing body of evidence suggests it has become a viable option to manage profound hearing loss in one ear in children,” she said.

“Although research suggests that the earlier the person receives their CI the better the outcomes, receiving a cochlear implant later in life, including adulthood, still provides measurable benefits, despite the longer period of auditory deprivation.”

Abbie (20) now faces the big decision on when to turn professional, although she insists that she is not quite ready.

Now aged 20, and having won multiple big amateur golf tournaments, Abbie is naturally looking ahead to a career as a professional golfer. Yet the decision to leave the amateur ranks and turn professional is a difficult one, even for a player as accomplished as her.

“I still have a lot of work to do,” she says. “I’m not quite good enough to go for it now. I still have a lot of work to do to improve my distance, my ball striking and my scoring.

“I’ve been working hard in the gym on increasing my clubhead speed. A lot of it is about getting out of my own head and just hitting the ball as hard as I can.”

Making a successful career in the cutthroat world of professional golf is difficult, particularly on the women’s tours, where tournament purses are lower than those of the men’s. However, Abbie needs only to look at fellow member of Royal Fremantle Golf Club, Minjee Lee, for inspiration.

Lee is currently the third-ranked women’s golfer in the world and the reigning Women’s US Open champion. For her victory at Southern Pines last year, she pocketed the largest prize in women’s golf – an impressive $2.5 million.

Working two days a week at Wembley Golf Club, Abbie dedicates the rest of her time to working on her game – on the course, in the gym or at the practice range. In order to earn playing rights on the professional circuit she will need to finish well in one of the Qualifying School events.

“I want to start on the Ladies European Tour first and work my way towards the LPGA Tour,” Abbie explains. “This is the year when I really need to make it happen, so I’ve been working hard to block out all the peripheral distractions and really focus on myself and my goals.

“I need to be a bit more selfish because you have to be very realistic in this sport. If you’re not good enough, you need to accept that, instead of constantly spending money chasing the dream. I want to give myself the best chance of succeeding. That’s why I need to be physically and mentally ready for Q-School. I don’t want to go there and miss out, and have that dent my confidence.”

Despite being barely out of her teens, Abbie seems to exhibit the emotional maturity that suggests she has a great chance of making it in the professional world. Perhaps that is because she’s had to deal with the challenges of hearing loss, or because she’s already spent most of her life chasing a little white ball around the golf course.

“Growing up in England, we used to live on a golf estate, and my dad would sneak us on to the course when the members weren’t around so we could hit some balls,” she explains. “We moved to Australia when I was four and I played my first junior event at Lake Karrinyup when I was nine.”

She has been attached to the game ever since then, other than a brief spell – relatable for most sports lovers – where she considered giving up the game completely.

“There was a time three years ago when I almost quit,” Abbie explains. “I just wasn’t enjoying the game anymore and I wasn’t performing well. I didn’t find joy in the sport I have loved since I was little. Looking back, though, I’m really glad I didn’t quit because I can’t imagine doing anything else now.”

Despite a lifetime spent with hearing loss, Abbie is going a long way towards proving that there is no obstacle too great for those intent on chasing down their dreams. For Abbie, the only handicap she knows is the +3.9 that she currently plays off.