Bob Lobel claims Newton golf course discriminates against disabled
QUINCY — Legendary Boston sportscaster Bob Lobel, now unable to walk without crutches, plays golf with the aid of a special cart that lifts and swivels him toward the ball. But don’t expect to see him at the Woodland Golf Club in Newton.
The former WBZ-TV mainstay, who suffers from spinal stenosis, filed a discrimination suit in US District Court in Boston this week after Woodland barred him from taking the cart onto its putting greens in 2014.
The private club, where Lobel played as a member’s guest, said it feared the cart would inflict expensive damage on the Auburndale course. But Lobel says the ban violates federal and state protections for the handicapped.
“This came from a lack of understanding,” Lobel said Wednesday at a news conference in Quincy. “This was an attitude that was manifested in so many different ways.”
David Garfinkel, general manager of Woodland, said in a telephone interview that the club permits Lobel — and others — to use an adaptive cart everywhere on its course except for the greens.
“We’ve accommodated Mr. Lobel’s request to have access to the golf course. Mr. Lobel has access to our tees, to our fairways, to our roughs, to our approaches,’’ Garfinkel said. “No one has access to our greens in carts.’’
Garfinkel said the club conducted its own test using an adaptive cart and concluded it would harm the putting greens.
“It’s just that with certain surfaces we witnessed mechanical damage to the golf course,’’ he said. “Whether it was the age of our green or the golf cart — it caused significant impression and wear on the putting surface during the test.’’
Lobel, 71, rolled his eyes when asked about his cart’s potential to cause harm. “I would not step on anyone’s golf course with the intent to do any damage,” he said.
However, Garfinkel said that any repairs to the greens would be an added cost to the club. “We’re concerned about an unreasonable burden to our members that would be caused by damage from the carts,’’ he said.
Lobel, who lives in Natick, is seeking $250,000 in compensatory damages, unspecified punitive damages, attorneys’ fees, and an order that bars Woodland from further alleged acts of discrimination.
For Lobel, the game is a joy, and he hits the links regularly. He praised Woodland — “great course, great greens” — but also said the club’s policy is illogical, particularly because he said he is allowed to bring the cart onto several other courses.
Those courses include Granite Links in Quincy, a semi-private club where Lobel plays often and where he spoke with reporters Wednesday. Walter Hannon 3d, general manager of Granite Links, said that the cart causes no damage to the greens and that banning it “is absurd.”
Granite Links bought a cart for Lobel to use after he approached the club with the idea about five years ago, Hannon said. Now, Lobel uses the vehicle along with other disabled golfers, including many handicapped veterans, Hannon said.
“I think every course should do it,” Hannon added.
Jesse Menachem, executive director of the Massachusetts Golf Association, said the topic has not been discussed much and he does not know whether most courses in the state allow such carts on their greens.
“It’s difficult for me to say. I understand there is access that needs to be available, but I don’t know specifically what the policy might be course to course,” Menachem said.
Lobel continues to golf about twice a week, he said, but the denial of full-course privileges at Woodland has deprived him of “the right to socialize with longtime friends” and caused “feelings of isolation and depression,” according to the lawsuit.
Such a picture is starkly at odds with the public perception of a Boston sportscaster whose puckish personality engaged television viewers for 29 years as part of the WBZ team.
Although Woodland is private, the lawsuit argued that the club is required to comply with disability laws — such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the state’s public accommodation law — because the public is allowed access to the golf course for charity and corporate events, banquets, parties, and weddings.
Before Lobel was diagnosed with spinal stenosis in 2008, the year he signed off from WBZ-TV after more than 10,000 broadcasts, Lobel played regularly at Woodland as a guest of club member Gerry Chervinsky.
In those days, Lobel said, he took a sterling eight-handicap to the golf course. Now, with an array of ailments and injuries — which include two knee replacements, two rotator-cuff surgeries, three back surgeries, and two broken femurs — his handicap is 23.
Chervinsky, who has known Lobel for more than 30 years, said his request to allow Lobel to use the cart at Woodland was rebuffed after a meeting with top club officials. Lobel had hoped to play at an event sponsored by the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce, Chervinsky said.
“I feel badly that it has come to this,” Chervinsky said Wednesday. “I feel badly that my friend is being discriminated against. I feel badly that the club will now be put through this unfortunate situation. I hope the majority of the members will agree that the club should be compliant with federal disability law.”
Jeffrey A. Denner, a Boston attorney who is representing Lobel, said the lawsuit could expand access for a broad range of handicapped golfers.
“There are a lot of people who are not TV personalities who have the same problem,” Denner said.
Adaptive carts, such as the SoloRider and ParaGolfer, have a seat that swivels and supports golfers while they swing.
“The carts are designed and constructed to distribute weight evenly upon the golf course to eliminate damage to the course and enable the golfer to drive onto tee boxes, greens, and bunkers without causing damage beyond that of a non-disabled golfer using the course,’’ according to the lawsuit.
“They’re no different from lawn mowers. They’re designed not to damage the grass,” said Kenneth Fishkin, another of Lobel’s attorneys.
John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.