A Look at Blind Golf

A look at blind golf: Competitors show courage, craft

I’ve witnessed a lot of spectacles through 38 years of getting paid to write sports. Super Bowls, Olympic Games, World Series, NBA Finals, the BCS Championship Game. Maybe nothing has been more jaw-dropping, though, than what I saw Wednesday at Oregon City’s Stone Creek Golf Club.

Thirty players from throughout the world participated in the 68th annual U.S. Blind Golf Association’s National Tournament. Thirteen of them were totally blind, the rest visually impaired to the point of being legally blind. If you play golf, you know it’s a difficult game for those with full eyesight. The most difficult sport to master, in the humble opinion of this weekend duffer who considers 92 about par. What was accomplished at Stone Creek over the last two days was just short of miraculous.

Lake Oswego’s Ron Plath — who has 20/700 vision — shot 83-83–166 to win the B3 division by five strokes over Ontario’s Scott Wilson, beset with optic nerve atrophy. They were the only two Oregon residents in the field.

Andrea Calcaterra of Italy ruled the B1 Division at 98-98–196. Two other totally blind golfers finished within seven shots of Calcaterra.

“It’s unbelievable,” Plath said of those who play so well with zero sight. “I’m in awe. Have been from day one. It inspires me. I have no reason to ever quit playing golf. I’m hoping my vision doesn’t get worse. But if it does, I know people who play well in that situation.”

I’m a bit in awe of Plath, 62, who overcame a stiff challenge from Wilson in head-to-head competition to claim his sixth U.S. title. They were tied with four holes to go before Wilson, 55, hit a few shots down the stretch he’d like to have back. Plath, inducted into the Blind Golfers Hall of Fame a year ago, has an easy swing and an athleticism indicative of his days playing basketball at Oregon College of Education. He is a board member of the International Blind Golfers Association and an ambassador for the organization in particular and blind golf in general in the state of Oregon.

“We’re making an effort to get the word out,” Plath said Wednesday. “Until Scott came on four years ago, I was the only one, and I know I’m not the only visually impaired golfer in Oregon.”

Plath, a graduate of Eugene’s Willamette High, was diagnosed with macular dystrophy in 1980 and also has glaucoma that is controlled through medication. He retired from his administrative position in adaptive physical education with the Beaverton School District in 1987 because of his vision.

By IBGA rules, golfers in the B3 category must have vision of 20/200 or worse. The B2 division is set at 20/600 or worse, with the totally blind competing at B1. Plath competes “up” from B2 and still is one of the better golfers in the world in that division. Plath’s vision is extremely limited. He sees only in black and white, with no color vision. And he can’t see very far ahead.

“If I’m on a course I’m familiar with, I know the dark things are trees,” he said. “I don’t really see it, but if it’s tall and it’s in the air, I’m pretty sure it’s a tree. It’s the fine vision I’ve lost.”

Like all of Wednesday’s participants, Plath did it with the help of what he terms a “coach.” Guide/scout/caddy would work, too. Plath’s accomplice was Regi Christensen, his college roommate who has accompanied him to tournaments throughout the world for the past decade.

“When I first played in 2003, I knew I wanted to play in more events, but my wife was still teaching then,” Plath said. “You can’t do it alone. Regi had retired as a teacher and said he’d do it. This is the fourth national we’ve won together.

“Coaches line us up and help with wind and elevation and especially when you get on the greens. You can move it down 500 yards of fairway, but over that last three feet, it gets critical. It’s hard to find that fuzzy hole in the ground. You can’t do it alone.”

Plath, Wilson and those with impaired sight can pretty much set up and swing on their own. Totally blind golfers depend entirely on their coaches, who line them up and bend down to physically set the club up for them to prepare to swing. On the green, coach and player pace off the distance for each putt together before the coach sets up the putting stroke.

“The less vision, the more work it becomes” for the coach, said Plath, whose current handicap is 9.8. “It’s critical they have the same routine. Some of them move (the golfer) by holding a club together as they walk, but there is no set way. It’s what works for them.”

Not all the totally blind golfers play good golf. The highest 36-hole score in this event was 378, or 236 strokes over par. But they all finished. And I didn’t see much grumping. “There’s less complaining in blind golf than in the sighted game,” Plath said.

Wilson’s attitude was pleasant even as his title hopes withered over the final holes Wednesday. “The social side of it is just as fun as the competitive golf side,” said Wilson, a Portland native who attended Rose City Park elementary school before graduating from Hillsboro High. “I really enjoy coming to these events. It’s a group of people I get to see two or three times a year. We’ve made some really good friends. The competition is very friendly.”

Wilson, who operates a garbage and recycling business in Ontario, was born with a genetic defect that worsened in his mid-40s. He didn’t take up golf seriously until about that time.

“I loved playing, but when you need help to play, I thought, ‘There has to be something out there,’ ” he said. “I looked on the Internet for blind golf, and Ron’s name came up. I called him up and he said, ‘We have a great deal going; come and start playing.’ “

With the help of wife Vicki, Wilson has won the 2012 and ’13 Canadian Opens, is a two-time U.S. Open runner-up and was third in the World Championships a year ago. Remarkably, Vicki doesn’t play golf — “she keeps threatening to take up the sport,” Wilson joked — but has picked up enough knowledge that she lines her husband up for each shot. “We read the putts together, but he is responsible for his swing,” she said. “I don’t take any credit in that, so I don’t feel any pressure.”

“I have enough vision to see the ball on the ground,” he said. “Once the club hits the ball, I have no visual awareness of where it went. I can see treetops or large visual objects. We line up mostly off of treetops, and she helps me with distance and alignment.”

Defending champion Brian MacLeod of Truro, Nova Scotia, finished third in the B1 division at 99-104–203. The 54-year-old left-hander had a pair of birdies on the front side Wednesday but dumped a couple of shots into the water to take a nine on a par-four hole later in the round. MacLeod lost his sight due to a pair of tragic accidents in 1987. A hockey player, he suffered a detached retina in his right eye when hit by a puck during a game. Shortly thereafter, he bent over and caught the corner of a shelf below his left eye, suffering a detached retina in that eye. After surgery in an attempt to repair his vision in both eyes, he left the hospital totally blind.

“I played golf before, but when I went blind, I thought that was it — over and done with,” said MacLeod, who didn’t pick up a club for another decade. One day he visited a pro he had befriended at a local course, who asked why he had stopped playing golf. “Geesh, I’m blind. How am I going to play golf?” MacLeod said.

The pro gave him a book on tape about a famous blind player, then began working with MacLeod on the driving range and offering tips. In 1997, MacLeod started playing blind tournaments and now is a fixture on what amounts to a blind golfers circuit. He carries a handicap of 32, best among those in the B1 category. Does MacLeod feel cheated when he can’t see a great shot?

“No,” he said. “I imagine it. I can normally tell when I hit it well. Sometimes I’m wrong, but you can feel the way it hits off the club. When you crack it and know you hit it good, it’s as good as if you could see it. It’s addictive, just like with a sighted guy. But it’s maddening. I curse a lot, but one good shot keeps you coming back.” MacLeod’s one regret is he can’t see the beauty of a nice course.

“This course is probably so pretty,” he said. “But I focus on other things. I have a (photographic) memory. I’ll play a course once and I can tell you where every bunker is, the distance on every hole. And I can tell you every shot I hit all day.”

MacLeod and Plath will team up in the inaugural Resmeyer Cup, a Ryder Cup-like competition pitting blind golfers from North America against an international team in match play at Columbus, Ga., in October.

There are 16 countries with official membership in the IBGA, with three countries holding associate membership. Plath said there are about 500 individual members throughout the world. Seven countries were represented this week at Stone Creek. Among the participants was Plath’s sister, Diane Wilson of Port Ludlow, Wash., who finished fourth in the women’s division at 110-112–222.

There was an almost divine countenance among the players and their coaches who traipsed around the Stone Creek layout. There was a quiet pride in their craft, a courage in their conviction to do their best despite the challenge of limited or no sight.

If it’s not what sports is really all about, I’m not sure what is.