Most people would be very surprised to learn that legally blind people not only play golf, but are actually good at it.
Warwick resident Mike McKone, the chair for this year’s championship match for blind people at the Exeter Country Club, is good at it.
“Actually, only about 10 percent of our golfers are totally blind,” he said last week. “A golfer must have impaired vision worse than 20/200 to compete. They complete in sight categories ranging from totally blind, B-1, and nominal usable vision, B-2, to more usable vision, in B-3.”
McKone’s vision is rated as 20/400, legally blind but far from being totally in the dark. He said the association doesn’t take the golfers at their word, and an eye specialist must examine every entrant. Cheating is not widespread, but McKone said that must be a consideration in competition.
“People who say they are totally blind must wear black glasses,” said McKone. “If they really are totally blind, they shouldn’t have a problem with that,” he added, matter-of-factly.
Some 34 blind and visually impaired golfers will compete in the rather ponderously titled “2014 Inspire Through the Power of Sport Handa U.S. Blind Open Championship” in Exeter, from Sunday, Aug. 17, through Tuesday, Aug. 19.
Twenty-nine members of the United States Blind Golf Association will also compete in the 69th annual USBGA National Championship, which will run concurrently with the U.S. Blind Open at the Exeter Country Club, at 320 Ten Rod Road in that town.
In case you haven’t guessed by now, the golfers don’t do all that all by themselves. Coaches, who act as their eyes, will accompany all 34 competitors. McKone said it’s not that complicated on the fairway, just making sure they are pointed in the right direction. Putting is a little more complicated.
“The coach makes sure the head of the club is square on the green and pointing in the right direction,” said McKone. “Then they walk to the hole, which lets the golfer get the feel of the green with his feet, where it rises or slopes, and the distance to the hole.”
McKone said the extra time makes for a longer time for a game, “about six to seven hours a round.”
The coaches meet their partners for breakfast, drive them to the golf course, manage their equipment, develop game-playing strategies and provide directional advice on each hole, much the way caddies advise players in conventional tournaments. The golfers do all of the swinging, putting, chipping and sand shots.
“Golfers from as far away as the Netherlands, Northern Ireland and Canada, along with players from the United States, will vie for the title of best blind or visually impaired golfer,” said McKone, who happens to be a two-time National Champion in his category and will be competing again this year.
The two tournaments will be played from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday and Tuesday. Trophies will be presented to the winners at 8 p.m. Tuesday. Members of the general public may watch at no charge and are encouraged to attend. The tournaments will kick off with a blind youth golf clinic at 10 a.m. Sunday. The clinic will be held at the Exeter Country Club’s driving range.
Several PGA professionals, including golf legend Mike Harbour, will conduct the clinic and assist the students in hitting golf shots.
“Every place we go, people tell us they had no idea blind people could play golf,” USBGA President Jim Baker said in a press release. “Playing in the National Championship gives us the opportunity to educate the public about blindness issues.”
Blind golfing has been around longer than you’d expect. According to the USBGA website, it started in 1924, when Clint Russell of Duluth, Minn., lost his eyesight when a tire exploded in his face. He began playing blind golf the following year and slowly reduced his scores. By 1930, he shot an 84 for 18 holes, a score any duffer could envy.
In 1932, “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” featured Russell as the world’s only blind golfer. Six years later, Ripley claimed Dr. Beach Oxenham of London, England, was the world’s only blind golfer. Russell’s friends challenged Ripley to sponsor the first Blind Golfers Championship. Ripley accepted, and in 1938, Russell defeated Oxenham at Duluth.
Other golfers who had lost their eyesight emerged, and more matches followed. During World War II, Russell contacted several people in the Veterans Administration and suggested golf as therapy for veterans who lost their sight. They agreed, and to this day continue to offer golf to impaired veterans.
In 1946, Charlie Boswell - who had been blinded while trying to pull a buddy out of a burning tank - came in second place. As the players multiplied, Bob Allman, a blind golfer and lawyer, formed the United States Blind Golfers Association in 1953. Sheila Drummond of Leighton, Pa., was the first blind female player to score a hole in one, but not the first blind golfer to do so.
“For someone like me, competing in a tournament like this is an opportunity to continue playing the game of golf,” McKone said. “I am also honored to chair the tournaments in my home state of Rhode Island. I enjoy the competition, along with the ability to increase the awareness of a great thing, blind golf.”
The organizing committee had to raise $40,000 from businesses, organizations and individuals. The Narragansett Lions Club is a major sponsor.
“I can’t tell you how much the Lions did for this event,” said McKone. “They are the principal sponsors here in Rhode Island.”
Other sponsors include Rhode Island Eye Institute, Massachusetts Eye and Ear, A Touch of Class Catering, Real Estate Institute of Rhode Island and South Kingstown Elks Lodge 1899. The funds pay for greens fees, lodging and meals for the golfers and coaches, who come from the United States, Canada and Europe. The golfers pay an entry fee and their own transportation.
McKone said they could use some volunteers to keep score, provide signs and shirts and other logistical support. Admission is free and open to the public, but you can make a donation to help with expenses. Check can be made out to “USBGA” and mailed to 14 Joelle Ct. in Warwick.
“I think the most important thing that we do is the youth clinics,” McKone said. “Most kids who are born blind or are blind from an early age really welcome a challenge. Golf gives them yet another challenge to meet and a chance to play golf.”
As for McKone, he can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t like playing golf. He was a competitive golfer for Bishop Hendricken High School and his best friend, Eddie Hewitt, continues to be a golf buddy about once a week.
“We get together with our friends and play a few rounds,” said Hewitt. “We don’t treat Mike any differently. We still tease him mercilessly … and he can take it. It’s no use playing with someone if you can’t make fun of them, is it?”
McKone believes that Hewitt deserves special praise for his steadfast friendship that didn’t waver one bit when an accident on an oilrig destroyed McKone’s corneas in 1979. What, you might ask, was a trained CPA doing working as a roustabout on an oilrig in Louisiana?
“If you remember, there was a big recession when we graduated from college,” Hewitt said. “There weren’t that many jobs for accountants then. It was also a chance to sow some wild oats. In any event, he got hit in the face with something while he was working on a barge that destroyed his eyesight.”
McKone did get a number of corneal transplants, but none of them took. The last transplant entailed a persistent infection, and there seemed no point in getting another transplant.
“Then this doctor at Massachusetts Eye and Ear [Dr. Claes Dohlman] invented a prosthetic cornea, and I was a perfect candidate for it,” he said.
The device provides some vision, and McKone is very grateful that he has it.
“I consider myself blessed,” he said.
More importantly, McKone gets to give back through groups like the USBGA, who treasure blind golfers as much as the PGA values its professional golfers. The USBGA also has a Hall of Fame that honors legendary players and contributing organizations. Among the most generous has been Dr. Haruhisa Handa, who was the founder of Japan Blind Golf Association and a major force behind the world organization. There were eight organizations that took part in a conference held in 1997 from Japan, the United States, Canada, Australia, Ireland, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and the IBGA (International Blind Golf Association) was formed. As of 2014, the IBGA has 18 member organizations from 16 countries, including associate organizations from four countries.
Handa manages more than a dozen companies in Japan, Australia and the United Kingdom and contributed about $250,000 to the Exeter event.
Most importantly, sponsoring the event allows golf lovers like McKone to continue to compete in the sport they love.
“It has been great for Mike McKone,” said Ed Hewitt. “He is a an exceptional guy with a deep faith … and we love to play with him.”
For more information about the 2014 ISPS Handa U.S. Blind Open Championship and the 69th annual USBGA National Championship, visit the USBGA website at www.USBlindGolf.com.