Teeing is believing

Blind golfers hit the links

Blind golfer Debbie Solberg lines up her putt.

Blind golfer Debbie Solberg lines up her putt.

Photo By Larry Dalton

As Dave Remy walks up to the first-tee box at the William Land Golf Course, talk of his golfing handicap isn’t about how well he will score. Remy is legally blind and has cerebral palsy, a condition that allows him little use of his left hand and forces him to walk with a distinctive limp.

But those disabilities haven’t stopped Remy from golfing for more than 30 years. Remy, 65, is the oldest member of the Swing Club for the Blind, a Sacramento program that pairs blind golfers with sighted volunteers. In the fall and spring, the group—the sighted and the blind—gathers for Monday-morning rounds on the links, as it has since 1974.

“I love it,” says Remy, beaming, with his signature pipe, stuffed full of vanilla-cherry tobacco, hanging from his mouth.

As Remy climbs out of his golf cart, he grabs the arm of Ed, his sighted volunteer, who leads him to the tee box. Ed bends down and pounds the tee in the ground and carefully places the ball on top. He hands Remy a driver and tells him to take a practice swing.

With only his right hand on the club, Remy pulls back—pauses—and whirls forward as the club descends toward the ball.

“Good swing,” encourages Ed, as he helps Remy address the ball for the actual shot.

The ball careens off to the left, about 80 yards of the way toward the hole. And so the round begins.

Here’s how blind golfing works: On each hole, the sighted and blind players alternate shots until the ball ends up at the bottom of the cup. When it is the blind player’s turn, the volunteer selects a club, lines up the shot and advises on the distance. Those blind players with more golfing experience—or slightly better vision—will play the entire round themselves. Except for the first hole, they start in the fairway, part of the way toward the hole.

Next up is Ed Picz, who has played golf for more than 40 years, the last 13 of which he has been legally blind. Unlike Remy, who can’t see the hole at all, Picz can see the rough direction of the green. His sighted volunteer guides him to the flagstick using large trees in the distance as cues.

Picz has a smooth swing for a man his age, let alone a man without good vision. He connects with his 8-iron for a high-flying shot that lands 10 feet from the pin.

The crowd of sighted volunteers erupts in praise. It is such bursts of excitement from the volunteers, who can see where the ball actually ends up, that really rile up the blind golfers.

“I can see the ball on the tee,” says Picz, who parred the first hole. “But once I hit it, it’s gone. Hey, this game is 75 percent luck anyway.”

Both Picz and Remy—and their sighted helpers—are elderly gentlemen. In fact, none of the regular players or volunteers appears to be younger than 50 years old. The Swing Club has struggled in recent years to recruit new members. Though it once had as many as 20 blind golfers, the number has dwindled to eight regulars.

“We always need more players and more volunteers,” says Jim Gabriel, who has been the program director for the last several years.

Run on a shoestring budget, the Swing Club has played at a series of local golf courses, from Lindale, where the first round was played in 1974, to Foothill Farms, Campus Commons and William Land, the current home. The bulk of the money goes to paying green fees and renting golf carts. The program is completely free for the blind, and Gabriel provides golf clubs, too. The club even can arrange to have volunteer drivers give the blind rides to the course, says Gabriel.

Without a doubt, one of the most excitable players is Debbie Solberg, the only golfer who’s been blind since birth. Born and raised in Sacramento, Solberg, 57, says she was part of an original cohort of 13 blind and disabled students first allowed to attend public schools in Sacramento.

“We opened up doorways for other disabled kids,” says the quick-talking Solberg.

Though blind, Solberg is an avid fan of golf on TV.

“They don’t talk 90 miles an hour like football,” she says. “Not being able to see, I can still follow what’s going on.” She counts Annika Sorenstam, Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus as her favorite golfers.

Watching Solberg putt is a sight to behold. First, a volunteer helps line her up and shows her how hard to swing, giving her an approximate distance to the hole. Then, a second volunteer stands by the cup and taps a golf club on the flagstick so she can locate the hole by sound. “Because I can’t see, my other senses take over for me,” she says.

“I zero in on where the sound is,” she adds. Several other players—those with the least vision—use the same technique.

Good golfing technique and fundamentals, however, are not generally on display.

“The first thing you’re told in golf is to keep your head down,” says Archie Thompson, a former basketball player who has been the sighted volunteer for Peggy Parker for five years. “Now, here she is—she can’t see—and she is still pulling her head up to go look for the ball.”

That isn’t to say there have not been impressive achievements. At the top of the list is the hole-in-one by Remy, the pipe-toting golfer with cerebral palsy. He knocked it straight into the second hole on Campus Commons in 1993. Nary does a week go by that someone doesn’t mention it.

“It was a low, flat-running shot,” says Jean Lawson, 84, who was Remy’s sighted assistant at the time. “We thought it had gone off the green in the back, and then someone said, ‘Here it is,’ and it was in the hole.”