As the calendar moves into spring, it is once again time for recreational golfers to start dusting off their clubs and begin to prepare for the golfing season. Unlike recreational golfers, however, owners and operators of golf courses have hopefully spent the off-season ensuring that their golf courses are compliant with the accessibility standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).

Many resort owners and operators mistakenly believe that golf courses are exempt from the requirements of the ADA. While this may have been true in the past, new ADA regulations were promulgated in March 2012 mandating that golf courses comply with the ADA. Pursuant to these regulations, golf courses must have accessible routes that serve teeing grounds, practice teeing grounds, putting greens, practice putting greens, teeing stations at driving ranges, course weather shelters, golf cart rental areas, bag drop areas, and course toilet rooms. The new ADA regulations also require at least one 48-inch pathway providing an accessible entrance to at least one tee box on each hole. Additionally, each putting green must be designed and constructed so that a golf cart can enter and exit.

A common question I receive from golf course owners and operators is whether these new ADA provisions prevent a golf course from instituting a “cart path only” policy, which prevents golf carts from driving on fairways. Like many aspects of the ADA, there is not one simple answer to this question. As an initial matter, it certainly is permissible for a golf course to institute rules to alleviate dangerous situations. Therefore, a decision to designate a particular day as a “cart path only” day due to slippery and muddy conditions from heavy rain the prior night likely would not run afoul of the ADA, as there clearly are legitimate safety reasons for such a rule. It is less clear, however, whether a course’s decision to impose a permanent “cart-path only” rule solely so that it could better preserve and maintain its grounds and fairways would violate the ADA. 

The ADA provides that accommodations are not required if they are not “readily achievable,” meaning that they are not accomplishable without much difficulty or expense. If a plaintiff were to claim that a permanent “cart path only” rule violated the ADA, a golf course could assert that allowing golf cars on the course was not “readily achievable.” But, the “readily achievable” defense can be difficult to prove and will likely delve into a golf course’s particular facts and circumstances.  While it may be relatively easy for a course to demonstrate that its fairways would be virtually destroyed by having many carts drive on them, it may not be as easy for a course to show that its fairways would be similarly destroyed by permitting carts near the tee boxes and greens only for disabled golfers, which are likely a very small percentage of the total number of golfers. If a course can show that even one or two carts a day would destroy its fairways, then the “readily achievable” defense would likely hold. However, if, for example, up to 20 cars a day would not destroy the fairways, the “readily achievable” defense may not hold up in court. Ultimately, it is a balancing question between the actual damage to the fairways and the risks the owners and operators of a golf course is willing to take with regards to a potential violation of the ADA.

At a minimum, owners, operators, and managers of facilities with golf courses must be aware of the new ADA regulations and their potential far reaching impact. Moreover, golf course owners and operators should be proactive in remedying any potential barriers to access. Taking these simply steps would help reduce legal exposure to potential ADA claims, which would be particularly welcome news with the heart of the golf season rapidly approaching.