THE first autism-friendly driving range in Britain is to be opened by a North-East golf star.

European Tour player Graeme Storm has told of his pride at opening the pioneering driving range which has been created by the North East Autism Society (NEAS).

The sports facility is the result of a passionate initiative by keen golfer Sharon Cotterell, who is Programme Support Worker at the New Warlands Farm training centre, run by NEAS in County Durham.

The 300-yard range, complete with driving nets, has been developed on land at the farm, near Burnhope, and there are plans to launch a fundraising campaign to add a putting green and sheltered tee-boxes.

Sharon is a member at Durham City Golf Club and, following a conversation with club professional, Tom Cranfield, she was able to secure funding from Sport England to support regular coaching for three autistic adults.

“They picked it up brilliantly and we quickly saw lots of positive indicators,” said Sharon. “They were taught how to hold the clubs, encouraged to practise their swings, and they got so much pleasure when they hit the ball.”

Sharon was so encouraged that she began to carry out research on links between golf and autism and discovered that golfing legend Ernie Els, whose son Ben is autistic, had launched a foundation to help people with neurodiverse conditions to play the game.

She contacted the Ernie Els Foundation and one of its UK representatives, Cai Menai-Davis, visited County Durham to advise on what could be done.

As a result, the number of adults receiving regular coaching was increased to four, Sharon presented a plan to establish the driving range at the farm, and it was approved by NEAS chief executive John Phillipson.

Sharon said: “We had so much land at the farm that it just seemed a great way to make the best use of it. It means that rather than take a few adults out to play golf, we can accommodate a lot more – children and grown-ups – on our own site.

“The response from the golfing community is terms of general support and donating equipment has been amazing and I’m thrilled to see it becoming a reality. To have the support of a European Tour golfer like Graeme Storm is fantastic and he could not have been more supportive.”

Graeme said: “Sharon’s energy and passion are infectious. It’s a brilliant initiative to open up the game to people who might not normally get the opportunity. Golf is the perfect sport for people with autism because you play it at your own pace, and I just wanted to do whatever I could to help.”

The driving range will be opened by Graeme Storm at New Warlands Farm at 10am on Friday, July 5. Media representatives are welcome to attend. The postcode is DH7 6EX.