With an ever-growing selection of sports being offered to special needs athletes around the globe, the North County division of the Special Olympics Santa Barbara Region (SOSBR) has raised the bar, adding the game of golf to their athletic program.

"I get really emotional when I talk about it. You just can't imagine the people that have been involved ... it's just unbelievable," said Bob Kotowski, a PGA professional and longtime golf instructor at Zaca Creek Golf Course in Buellton. "They just pick themselves up despite their challenges. It's inspiring." 

Heading up the program, free of cost, is Kotowski, a once Bostonian hockey player turned California professional golfer.

Beginning in August, according to the golf pro, a group of five Special Olympics athletes from the valley and nearby Lompoc showed up to the 67-acre course with their families — and plenty of smiles and determination.

The first of eight weekly Tuesday evening lessons included an introduction to the game, friendship-building and hands-on instruction.

"They're so stoked to get out there," Kotowski said, "the game itself is for everybody."

Santa Ynez Valley joins the Santa Maria Valley in offering the 2-month golf program, teaching local Special Olympics participants the rules of the game as well as the mechanics of how to swing a golf club, leading up to a scheduled fall tournament where they will go up against their tri-county peers.

On an unusually green 9-hole course for late summer, Kotowski, dressed in a black Irish flat cap and a green polo shirt that reads "Zaca Creek GC California Blind and Disabled Golf Classic," finishes a sentence before again being visited by multi-aged golf patrons filtering in and out of the Zaca Creek clubhouse. 

Refocusing, he says, "Jerry Domingos called me about a month ago and asked if I could help out with the program. So it's really thanks to Jerry that the program is now up and running."

According to Kotowski, the decision to offer the SOSBR program seemed obvious, given his certification for instructing blind and disabled golfers, and hosting the annual Blind & Disabled Golf Classic. The national championship was inspired by his late friend Howard Shaw, a retired geologist and educator who lost his eyesight due to retinitis pigmentosa.

Kotowski was a senior staff geologist for Exxon when he began losing his eyesight and decided to alter his career path. 

Serving as Shaw's golf coach and support team, his late friend founded American Blind Golf in 2001. The nonprofit golfing organization promotes the game of golf for blind and visually impaired persons, a cause in which Kotowski continues to involve himself.

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"Some of the best blind players in the world attend the Classic," Kotowski said, adding that this year will also be the second year Zaca Creek hosts a PGA Blind and Disabled seminar.

Kotowski said that much like the Classic, the Special Olympics program is made possible through the support of Mike and Mack Brown, Zaca Creek Golf Course owners/operators who offer up their facility free of charge — and especially the brave athletes who continue to show up despite their challenges.

"These people are the real champions, overcoming tremendous challenges. It's truly inspiring," Kotowski said. "I see how the game impacts their quality of life. You know, we're all in this together."

For more information, or to volunteer or donate, visit www.oldeschoolgolfschool.com

Lisa André covers Valley Life for Santa Ynez Valley News. 

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