If you were to lose your sight, you might think it would be the end of your days on the golf course.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Thanks to the work of charities such as England and Wales Blind Golf, it’s still possible to enjoy the game with a visual impairment.
bunkered.co.uk spoke to EWBG press officer Steve Killick to find out more...
How does blind golf work?
It’s essentially the same, except players have guides. You can stand behind the flag in blind golf, and you can also ground the club in hazards.
As far as the qualification is concerned, there are three tiers of blind golf. The tiers are B1, which is no sight at all, B2, which is 5% sight and B3 which is 10%. At 10% you can see the ball be a blur, and you might be able to pick out some shapes.
How popular is blind golf?
There aren’t many people playing it. In England and Wales at the moment we probably have just over 50 active members, and I guess it will be even fewer in Scotland. It’s a small number and we are trying to get more members. People try it – the RNIB offer various things and a number of people do try golf but then they find they can’t find anyone who can drive them about or take them round the courses.
Our biggest driving force is to make sure more people are aware because some of the standard of golf is terrific.
What’s the standard like?
At the highest level, the standard is pretty amazing. It was inspiring to see not only the standard of the golf, but how the relationship between guide and players worked and also the relationships between the players.
What sort of impact can getting involved in golf have?
For us, we go out on the golf course and talk about how beautiful it is. The pleasure these guys get is from conquering their blindness and learning to hit a golf ball.
Golf has saved lives. Some of these guys have lost everything. One guy who had diabetes went blind overnight. He lost his job, ended up homeless and he will freely admit that had he not got involved in golf, he was seriously thinking about ending it all.
How important is it to the golfers?
It’s crucial, because otherwise they are stuck at home. The suicide rate is far higher among men.
It’s getting them out, and getting somebody to take them out. One of the guys was injured out in Afghanistan, and he sat at home and drank. His friend got fed up and took him down to the driving range, and he has subsequently qualified for the Vision Cup.
We have to spread the word through golf clubs that if you know someone – even if it’s just standing on the range – get them out. Everything we say about golf, being outside, meeting friends, is factored up for them. They have a terrible feeling of isolation and despair which is lifted because of what golf can offer. The satisfaction of being able to hit that ball helps them overcome their blindness. It’s a real triumph over adversity.
What sort of issues do visually-impaired golfers face?
There’s all sorts of problems. Balance is a major issue, as are slopes, and that’s why you need the guides. The biggest problem is they can’t play golf without guides.
The big push was to see if we could get more people involved as guides and that’s really the big brief.
People see blind as blind. They don’t realise there can be different sight lines or that these golfers can be quite as talented as they are. Some players enter competitions and do very well.
The hardest thing they find is to ask for help and that’s why we’ve been pushing the big drive to get more people. Even if you have a fourball, one of the four can help to line up the visually impaired golfer. For B2 and B3, there’s no reason why they can’t play in a fourball. But there are simply not enough guides to get them to the courses.
There are some pretty nasty stories floating around. A guy was playing at a club and nobody was looking for his ball – they were just taking the mickey out of him.
Talk to us about what it’s like to be a guide. Is it a rewarding job?
One guy who doesn’t play golf but is a guide described it as being a bit like the PlayStation, only Roger, the player he is a guide for, is his PlayStation. You have to be prepared to be out there a fair while, and when you go to a new course you are somebody’s eyes. But in a lot of cases all you have to do is line people up, although putting is more technical. When I did it I came off the course absolutely shattered. But we lined up a putt and when it went in, it was like I’d holed it.
What’s England and Wales Blind Golf doing to get more people involved?
It’s basically through spreading the word. We have been very lucky in that we’ve picked up EuroPro Tour events and one of their guys went down and guided. They’ve come aboard as a partner and that’s helped us get the word out. They’re allowing us to offer places at pro-ams and that’s a big boost. They’ve also put a strap at the top of their website. England Golf have also come on board in a large way and that’s helped us too.
Very few people knew about blind golf generally. Disabled golf had a higher profile and we were a bit left behind, but since they came on board it’s really helped us.
What does the future hold for blind golf in the UK?
I know there is a large number of people suffering visual impairment on a daily basis. The most important thing for us is getting young golfers in. We’ve got two little lads who were both born with visual impairments and they are both getting lessons. We’re helping to fund that.
It’s getting the word out and saying to parents who have children with visual impairments that we will fund lessons, we will build relationships with clubs so they can come in there and play. I don’t think it’s ever going to boom, and you don’t really want it to because you don’t want people to suffer blindness. But we want to offer a sensible, practical solution to help people cope. Some people are in the depths of despair and we can help lift them out of it.
Photography: Ginger Port.
This interview originally appeared in issue 192 of bunkered. To never miss an issue, subscribe here.