GOLF star Graeme Storm has opened the UK’s first autism-friendly golf driving range at a pioneering North-East farm.

The European Tour golfer, who beat Rory McIlroy in a play-off to win the South Africa Open in 2017, described the new facility in County Durham as “truly life-changing”.

The 300-yard range, together with driving nets, has been set up by the North East Autism Society at the 77-acre New Warlands Farm, near Burnhope. A par three hole, bunker and putting green are to be added to the site soon.

It is the result of a passionate initiative by keen golfer Sharon Cotterell, who works at the farm as Programme Support Worker.

With support from Durham City Golf Club professional Tom Cranfield, Sharon secured Sport England funding to support regular coaching for autistic adults.

Following further advice from the Ernie Els Foundation, the new driving range was designed, and Sharon describes it as “just the beginning of a dream”.

Hartlepool-born Storm, who spent time giving coaching tips to autistic adults practising on the range, said: “This is an amazing opportunity for people who wouldn’t normally get the chance to play golf to be out in the fresh air hitting golf balls.

“Sharon has done a fantastic job and it is truly life-changing for the adults taking part. It will be fascinating to see it develop over the next year.”

Sharon said: “This is just the bare bones – just the beginning of a dream. I can’t believe that it’s really happening.”

Alyson Elsy, of South Hetton, says the new facility has transformed the life of her autistic 27-year-old son Stevie Mawhinney.

Since starting on the coaching programme, Stevie has become obsessed with golf, playing three times a week and practising his putting on a machine at home.

“Stevie is non-verbal, and we’ve tried everything to get him interested in something, including kites, bowls, remote-controlled boats. But it’s as if he was born to play golf – he gets so much joy out of it and his confidence has gone through the roof.”

NEAS chief executive John Phillipson said: “We are constantly looking to see what inspires and motivates people with autism and other neurodiverse conditions, and Sharon has done a wonderful job in driving the golf project forward.

“It has been the key to unlocking an interest for people we care for, and there are so many spin-off benefits from playing golf, such as communication, confidence-building and social interaction.”

SIXTY players took part in the Teesside Union of Golf Flagship event the North Yorkshire South Durham Championship held at Bishop Auckland as part of the club’s 125th anniversary celebrations.

Bishop’s very own Mike Henson came through with gross scores of 74 & 71 to clearly win the order of merit event.

Other notable prize winners were Michael Hay of Middlesbrough and Yorkshire with scores of 77 & 70, followed by previous winner Tom Smith of Eaglescliffe and Durham with 78 & 70. In fourth position was Will Marshall of Heworth and Durham with 76 & 73. It was a special day at Bishop Auckland and one Henson will remember on his own turf.