Bobby Jones Classic for Chiari & Syringomyelia Foundation

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Biomedical Engineering students on a mission to make golf more accessible for young players.

This year’s Bobby Jones Classic tournament at East Lake Golf Club launches the beginning of a new partnership for the Georgia Institute of Technology, designed to increase accessibility to the sport for kings for a diverse, new, young crop of players, and it’s largely thanks to the legacy of an Atlanta legend sometimes known as The Emperor Jones.

Before he became roundly acclaimed as the greatest golfer of his generation, Robert Tyre Jones was a hell of an engineer, a graduate of Georgia Tech: Mechanical Engineering, Class of 1922.

The next year, he won the first of his record four U.S. Opens and, as almost everyone who has picked up a putter knows, Bobby Jones kept on playing championship golf like no one else has since, retiring as a competitor (a lifelong amateur) in 1930, after completing the only Grand Slam in the history of the sport, winning all four major championships in the same year.

What everyone may not know is, Jones, who died in 1971, was engaged in a painful battle with syringomyelia for much of his life.

“Syringomyelia is a tough word to say, and it’s a tough condition to have as well, a fluid-filled cavity in the spinal cord that swells and presses against the spine itself,” says Paul Farrell, chairman and founding member of the Board of Directors of the Chiari & Syringomyelia Foundation (CSF), who is battling the same affliction Jones had – well, the same two “afflictions,” if you count golf, as many duffers with a wry sense of humor typically do.

“I have, unfortunately, lost the use of my legs 15 years ago, so I use a wheelchair,” Farrell says. “But I was and I remain a very avid golfer.”

This combination of circumstances makes the annual Bobby Jones Classic for CSF (May 18-19 at East Lake) a particularly profound event for Farrell, as it not only commemorates Jones the golfer, but is a major fundraiser for CSF, which exists to raise awareness and advance research of Chiari malformation (the most common cause of syringomyelia) and related disorders.

“The Jones family has been very supportive of us, letting us use Bobby Jones’ name and likeness to help us raise money for research,” Farrell says. “They have really helped us get off to a fast start. We’ve been an organization for about six years, and we’re already funding research.”

This year’s tournament marks the beginning of a new phase in research, with Georgia Tech capstone students taking the lead role. CSF was to make it public during this tournament at East Lake – fittingly, Jones’ home course, where the idea for the project came to Farrell and CSF Executive Director Dorothy Poppe.

Last year, as part of the opening ceremony for the PGA’s TOUR Championship, the culminating event of the PGA TOUR Playoffs for the FedEx Cup, two children from the vaunted First Tee program in the East Lake community, teed off to start the day. Farrell, who plays using a special golf cart designed for people with mobility challenges which has hand controls and a single swivel seat that can actually line a player up with his or her shot, was discussing the challenges of golf for disabled people with Poppe.

“We were talking about my ability to play golf, then we were looking at these kids, and thought, it’s terrific they’ve got kids playing golf, but unfortunately, a child with physical limitations couldn’t,” Farrell says. “They’ve got handicap accessible golf carts that are fantastic for an adult, but not for a child.”

That’s when Poppe started down the “what if” road, as in, “what if we could come up with something for kids who deal with paralysis or limb loss or other mobility issues, some kind of vehicle that can help stand them up to swing a club. It could be a cart, or maybe something like a Segway – we don’t know yet,” Poppe adds.

They don’t know yet because Georgia Tech’s capstone students haven’t designed it yet. The impromptu brainstorming last year has become this year’s undergraduate capstone project in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME). Poppe approached the BME folks, and James Rains is running giddily with the idea.

“It’s a great idea, a real collaborative effort,” says Rains, design instructor and director of the BME Capstone Design program. “Dorothy’s idea was to partner with us, with golf cart companies, get the PGA [Professional Golf Association] involved.”

Every semester, capstone seniors apply what they’ve learned to a real design problem. Since there isn’t currently anything designed for children with disabilities to play golf, this qualifies, and Rains hopes to confront it with a versatile team.

“We will actually want this to be a multidisciplinary team,” he says. “Originally, they approached BME, but we want to pull in expertise from mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, industrial design, a diverse set of skills working in concert to solve this problem.”

Or, it may be two teams working on different aspects of the problem, Rains adds. He won’t know the makeup until the fall semester, when the next capstone class begins, and he can gauge student interest – he only wants students to work on projects they are passionate about. This isn’t just for a grade.

“Some programs look at theoretical problems and aren’t really interested in a real-world solution,” Rains says. “We’re interested in designing something tangible, and we don’t know what that will be yet.”

“Right now we’re working with different companies, identifying partners willing to give us support and equipment – we don’t want to start inventing golf carts from zero, in other words. That’s another thing. Maybe this thing won’t be a cart, per se. That’s something the students have to figure out. So, we’re not telling them to make a better golf cart. We’re telling them to give access to people who don’t have it.”

The CSF-sponsored team (or teams) will work fall semester with the goal of having a working prototype – proof of concept – before the annual Capstone Design Expo in December, when student teams from different disciplines pitch their stuff to a panel of judges, competing for cash prizes. And after that, who knows? Farrell, it turns out, is a patent attorney, so he’s thinking long-term, and Poppe says her organization’s interest extends well beyond December.

‘’This is a concept we are keeping close tabs on and with Georgia Tech’s help we plan to see this through,” Poppe says. “We’re trying to think along a broad spectrum about accessibility, and the ability to play golf is one part of that. Imagine if we could design a way for children with disabilities to play golf? It could be a sport for them that lasts a lifetime.”


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    Colly Mitchell
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    Fletcher Moore
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