Have you ever tried hitting a golf ball with your eyes closed? Whilst it sometimes pays to take an easy practice swing with them closed and feel the rhythm of the club, when it comes to making clean contact with a ball it is almost impossible.
Which is what is so remarkable about the body of men and women who make up the England and Wales Blind Golf Association (EWBG), some of whom do it much better than players with 20:20 vision.
Former schoolteacher, Steve Beevers, plays his golf at Wallasey GC in Merseyside and whilst not totally blind has very limited vision. ‘I can’t see anything in any detail,’ he says. ‘I can’t read print, I can’t recognise faces and I can’t watch TV. I can’t see the ball when it’s on the floor although I can detect movement but I’ve no idea who or what it is.’
None of this has stopped Steve breaking 80 on the golf course and maintaining a 16 handicap.
One of the great things about the Wallasey club has been the number of members prepared to act as guide for Steve in EWBG competitions. The guide shows him to his ball, sorts out alignment and tells him where the pin lies on each green.
A guide is also crucial on short putts because, whilst blind golfers can walk across a green feeling the contours, they can’t pace out a slippery, two foot putt with a right to left break, for example, so need to be told where to aim.
One of Steve’s longest serving guides is another teacher, John Porter, known to members as JP. Steve says, ‘We both joined Wallasey at about the same time, just over twenty years ago. We played together in the same group on Sunday mornings and we played midweek games together after work. Both being teachers we were able to get on the course by 4 o’cock on some Summer afternoons.’
‘JP lived a couple of roads away from me in Hoylake. He often gave me a lift to the club and our families became friends, with his teenage daughters often baby-sitting my younger boys. When I joined EWBG in about 2005/6 JP was the first person I asked to come with me as guide. I have subsequently used several other friends from the golf club as guides, so as not to ask too much of any one friend. JP and I still regularly play in the same roll-up groups about three times per week.’
The guide and blind golfer very often become good friends, so different from the hire ‘em fire ‘em attitude of many top professional golfers to their caddies. Yet getting a guide is one of the most difficult things blind golfers find to do.
Andy Gilford is another EWBG player and a member at Ham Manor in West Sussex. He says, ‘Any blind golfer will tell you they don’t want to impact on other golfers’ games. There are a lot of low handicap golfers in blind golf who play to a really good standard both at club and blind level but most of us still tend to feel that at times you can get in people’s ways. It took me a long time to feel comfortable asking people for help.’
Like Steve Beevers, Andy has found joining a club a massive benefit. He says, ‘The club have done everything possible to support me. I have been very lucky at the clubs I have played as a member. So many members have helped guide me and also get me around the club, plus generous offers to give me lifts.’
‘I think if I wasn’t a member of a club and hadn’t got the support from the members I would have really struggled to play. A huge plus is the friends you make too as it can be very lonely being visually impaired without support from family and friends.’
Every year, half a dozen people apply to join the England & Wales Blind Golf Association, but some are unable to take it further because they can’t find a guide. They are often beginners who feel that a golf club will find them a burden.
Yet the experiences of joining a club has helped transform the lives of so many blind golfers who have suffered the sadness and allied depression that comes from the loss of sight.
With so many golf clubs keen to attract new members it seems a logical step for more blind and partially sighted people who have played golf or are interested in starting to call or try to visit their local club and have a lesson with the professional on the driving range to see how they get on. The hardest thing for many is simply picking up the phone and talking.
Barry Ritchie, chairman of EWBG, says, “The biggest hindrance to playing blind golf is finding a guide. There are a lot of people who would really like to play who can’t.”