International Day of People with Disabilities: Saunders earns BEM for services to golf

Richard Saunders has recently been honoured with a British Empire Medal for services to disability sport.

And no-one can argue with the merit of the decision to reward the golfer from Stoke-by-Nayland with his gong.

The former Football League referee has devoted the best part of 30 years to helping disabled golfers enjoy the game and compete in club and national events.

He even worked with The R&A to draw up a section of rules to cover disability golf – as well as working with their research and development department on club specifications for disabled golfers.

Having taken over from the late John Byrne to run BALASA (British Amputee and Les Autres Sport Association), Saunders ran a national amputee golf event for 25 years.

He then helped establish the former order of merit run by the European Disabled Golfers’ Association (EDGA) and in 2017 successfully worked with England Golf on the handover of responsibility for running of the English Disability Open.

This event – now re-named the English Open for Golfers with a Disability – is going from strength to strength with the 2022 edition set to take place at Carden Park Golf Club in June.

“I never classed myself as disabled simply because I was born as I am,” admitted Saunders who is short armed with just two fingers on one hand and one on the other.

“For me that’s different to having had something and then lost it. That can be tough from a mental point of view.

“My whole life has been a challenge and I’m aware that sometimes people may stare at me, but I have never let that bother me.

“I do what I want and set my mind to achieving what I want to achieve.

“When I was retiring from being a linesman and referee a friend asked me what I was going to do next. He didn’t believe me when I said take up golf!

“But I’d played pitch and putt as a teenager and knew that I could do it, it was just a case of adapting to things and being able to play on a full course.”

As well as playing and winning titles of his own, Saunders – now playing off an index of 22.9 and still with ambitions of getting back to his lowest of 16 – has been a driving force behind emergence of disabled golf events in England.

“I was lucky to pick up from where John Byrne left it at BALASA,” added Richard who only seriously took up the game at the age of 50.

“I was then able to work towards the point where England Golf as the national governing body took over the running of our event.

“For me that was a big step forward and so too is the fact that next year there is budget being set aside for the first time to run national teams which can hopefully compete at European Championships in Belgium.

“Over the years I’ve also worked with The R&A on rules and also equipment regulations.

“It’s not something that people thought about, but what do you do for example if you have a wheelchair golfer and he puts his ball in a pot bunker? All these issues had to be addressed and solutions found.

“Similarly, I have had clubs adapted to suit me and it was important to work with The R&A to make sure that these conformed to the rules.

“I have played able-bodied golfers in competitions, and you don’t want it being muttered that the clubs you are using are illegal.

“It was an honour for me to collect my British Empire Medal a few weeks ago, but nothing I’ve ever done has been for public recognition.

“Over the years I’m just glad I’ve been able to enjoy myself playing golf and be in a position to encourage others – no matter their disability – to join me on the course.”