Tom Ogan is used to turning heads on the golf course.
The 63-year-old’s booming fairway drives start with an upper-body lunge at the tee, generating power on legs withered by the effects of the polio that orphaned him as an infant in his home country of South Korea. The force sometimes drops Ogan to the ground after his shots, an unmistakeable sight on Spokane’s municipal links.
“I don’t even know I fall down,” said Ogan, taking a moment between shots at Dowriver Golf Course earlier this month. “Other people go, ‘Are you OK?’ I’m making sure I’m hitting the ball, and accelerating through.”
Lately, Ogan has been trying to gain the attention of City Hall, hoping to change a policy that allows him to play the game he loves on a fixed income. For four years, from 2012 to 2016, the city waived a fee for disabled players using privately owned golf carts on Spokane’s municipal courses. After a hip injury sidelined Ogan for two years, he returned to the links this summer to learn that policy had been done away with.
“Anybody I talk to just thinks it was asinine that they quit doing that,” Ogan said.
The extra cost, $12 for each round of 18, adds up quickly for someone living on Social Security disability benefits, Ogan said. This summer, he’s limited his play from three to four rounds per week back to just one.
Jason Conley, executive officer of Spokane’s Parks and Recreation department, said the policy decision was made during a legal review of the city’s compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Spokane’s courses were offering a waiver that went beyond what was required under the law, and cut back on funds spent maintaining the city’s four publicly owned courses, while keeping the price of golf competitive for all players.
“We couldn’t find many courses that were waiving trail fees to bring your own private cart onto the course,” Conley said.
Faced with the need to scrape together dollars for course maintenance – golf operates independently of the city’s parks fund, with operations solely funded by fees – the policy was ended, in consultation with the city’s legal department, before courses opened in 2016.
At that time, Ogan was dealing with hip injuries caused by a fall the previous summer. After undergoing surgery, he wasn’t given medical clearance to play until earlier this year, and he pointed out during his round at Downriver the shots he might have made if he’d been able to play regularly.
“The short game’s the first thing to go when you haven’t played very much,” Ogan said, after fudging a chip from the rough near the green of the par 4 11th. After striking the ball, Ogan immediately cursed the shot, saying he “chili dipped it.”
Ride with Ogan in his personal Sun Classic cart (a steal on Craigslist, he insists) and he’ll regale you with the platitudes you’d expect from someone who’s devoted 20 years to learning a game so equally loved and maligned by so many.
“The most important six inches on the golf course is the space between your ears,” Ogan said, explaining how he taught himself to swing because he pros couldn’t adapt their teaching to his physical limitations.
And those players frustrated by errant shots, who don’t put in the time to improve their game? “That’s like the definition of insanity. Doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results,” Ogan said.
Ogan also warns against taking the game too seriously.
“I don’t get too upset when I play golf. It’s so much fun, why get mad?” he said.
That optimism emerged from Ogan’s upbringing, he said. His birth mother, whom he never met, left him on the stoop of an orphanage outside Seoul in the 1950s. Ogan had already contracted polio, which left his legs so deformed he couldn’t sit up.
Ogan said he was taken in by Harry Holt, an Oregon farmer who co-founded the Holt International adoption agency with his wife, Bertha. He was one of more than 3,000 Korean children who found homes in America as a result of the agency’s work, and flew across the Pacific Ocean in a box, propped up by pillows.
“They told my adoptive parents, ‘He’s not going to live to see 20,’” Ogan said.
Ogan taught himself to ski and ride a bike, despite his physical limitations. In junior high school he was a wrestler, and later served as manager for his high school’s football and baseball teams in Kent, Washington.
Dave Keller, a physical education instructor at Spokane Falls Community College, had Ogan as a student in class about five years ago. The pair talked golf one day in the weight room and Keller took him up on an offer to play.
“He expects perfection when he’s playing, and you know, you’ve got to tip your hat to him,” Keller said.
Keller said Ogan’s driving often attracts even more attention than his drives. Though the city rescinded its policy waiving trail fees, it kept in place permission for disabled golfers to drive their carts in areas that are inaccessible to other players.
Ogan can drive right up to his ball, near a tee box or in the thickest muck, and swing away. A blue flag identifies him as a disabled golfer, allowing his cart entry to areas of the course others must stay away from.
“Now we’re saying, we’re not waiving fees, but we will give you greater access to the course to accommodate your disability,” Conley, the parks executive, said.
During one of their rounds at Indian Canyon, a course built atop a rock wall on the city’s western edge known for its steep undulations, Keller remembers Ogan drawing the attention of a crowd of onlookers while gunning his cart up a hill to a high-perched tee box.
“One time he said to me, ‘Now don’t be afraid, I’m going to take you to some areas you’ve never been to in a golf cart, on a golf course,’” Keller said, chuckling.
The determination Ogan shows in improving his golf game is mimicked in his tenacity trying to sway City Hall, Keller said. After learning the city had switched its policies, Ogan fired off emails to Conley, the city’s human resources department and later to groups representing those with disabilities at the state level. John Lemus, the chair of the city’s Human Rights Commission, encouraged Ogan to take his grievance to the Spokane City Council.
“I said, ‘I’m your man!’” Ogan said. The council heard his complaint earlier this month.
Conley said parks staff understood Ogan’s complaint, and refunded him for a season pass he bought before his injury that can help cover his greens fee costs for several seasons. He also said the department would reviews its policy again at the end of this season.
“I’m tickled, personally, that Tom’s able to golf again this year,” Conley said. “He’s been on our courses eight times this season. That’s pretty cool. He’s played more golf than me.”
Ogan said it was “pretty cool” that the city refunded his money for the lost season, but still wants to see the policy change. He pledged to donate his time and energy to developing a system to ensure there aren’t players taking advantage of the fee-waiving system if the city decides to revise its policy. That includes developing an application that would require players to prove they can’t work and are identified as disabled by the federal government.
“I’ll let the city off the hook to make that decision, because who better to make a decision about disabled people than me?” Ogan said.
Ultimately, he wants to ensure he’ll have access to a game that allows him physical activity as well as companionship, both things he said those with disabilities need.
“It’s not that I have equal footing with these guys. I don’t, in terms of my physical abilities,” Ogan said. “But they know I can beat them in golf. And they don’t look at me as being disabled anymore. They look at a guy that plays good golf.”
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