Golf for blind people: par for the course

Visually impaired players in the Irish Blind Golf Society play with a guide and compete internationally

Paul O’Rahilly, secretary of the Irish Blind Golf Society, at Gowran Park Golf club in Kilkenny. Photograph: Dylan Vaughan

Paul O’Rahilly, secretary of the Irish Blind Golf Society, at Gowran Park Golf club in Kilkenny. Photograph: Dylan Vaughan

Tue, Jun 3, 2014, 01:00

Growing up in South Africa, Wally Roode loved watching golf on TV, but he never imagined he would play the game. Born with a genetic condition called optic atropy, Roode, who lives in Swords, Co Dublin, has been visually impaired all his life.

As a child and teenager he loved sport and was involved in athletics, swimming and Olympic wrestling, but his condition ruled him out of activities such as racket sports and golf.

“My dad loved watching the golf and I’d sit up and watch with him. It was the days of the South African golfer Gary Player. He was one of my idols,” says Roode.

After leaving school Roode moved to London to study physiotherapy, and he met his Dublin-born wife, Catherine Walsh, there. He moved to Ireland in the mid-1990s, and when he heard about the Irish Blind Golf Society he decided to give it a shot.

Fourteen years later Roode is a total convert. He is now captain of the society and has just returned from competing in the World Blind Golf Championships in Australia.

“What I like about it is the fact that you can compete on an equal playing field with anybody, whether they are visually impaired or not, due to the system in place,” says Roode, who has two children.

“I like the freedom of being outdoors and thinking of nothing else but hitting that little white ball as straight and as far as you can.”

Key difference

The key difference between “regular” golf and blind golf is that the blind or visually impaired golfer plays with a guide who assists the player, depending on their level of need.

Among the guide’s roles includes indicating where the ball is on the fairway or green, and lining up the club in the direction that the ball needs to go.

The secretary of the society, Paul O’Rahilly, who lives in Kilkenny city, describes blind golf as a “two-person sport”, like tandem cycling or skiing.

“It takes two people to play,” says O’Rahilly, who grew up in Dublin and began playing golf as a teenager. He is a qualified engineer.

“I was very fortunate to have access to golf. I loved it,” says O’Rahilly, who was a member of the Hermitage Golf Club and played in Rosslare during the summer.

However, when he was 16, he was diagnosed with a problem with his retina, which deteriorated over time and by the age of 28 he could no longer drive a car.

At about the same time, he was forced to give up golf. “I let it go. Other priorities took over. I felt my competitive golfing days were behind me,” says O’Rahilly, who now works as a certified sports massage therapist and has recently set up a company, the Bodywell Institution, which delivers health and wellness programmes to people in the workplace.

Golf with a guide

About five years later O’Rahilly heard a radio advert about a fundraiser for the Irish Blind Golf Society and immediately contacted the organisers.

“It was only when I discovered the blind golf – that I could go out with a guide – that I started to get interested in it again. I discovered there was a big competitive scene in blind golf,” says O’Rahilly.

“It enhanced my life. It put me in touch with people who were in the same situation as myself in terms of dealing with sight loss and I think that was very good for me. The friends I made then, they are friends I still have today.

“Sight loss is a big change in one’s life, particularly around the age I was, and it’s not always easy to understand how to deal with it,” says O’Rahilly, who has to walk with a cane at night.

Currently the society has just 22 members, including golfers and their guides.

The majority played golf before they experienced sight loss, but others had never played before.

Members meet up and play together about once a month and the society also organises training days for players. Members also have the opportunity to compete at home and abroad.

The Celtic Cup, between Ireland and Scotland, took place in Cork in April and the Irish Blind Golf Open takes place at Roganstown Golf Club, Swords, Co Dublin, from July 2nd-5th.

O’Rahilly says they would like to increase membership. “Most of our members come from the Dublin area. We’d like to have more members from around the country.” He adds that the society subsidises lessons for new members in many cases. “We have no female members at the moment and we’d like to change that too,” he says.

Adrian Downey, a former carpenter with Dublin City Council who lives in Clondalkin, took up golf in 1993. However, 10 years later he developed sight difficulties due to age-related macular degeneration.

Level playing field

He was still playing golf, but could no longer play competitively. “When I heard about the blind golf I felt at least we’d be on a level playing field.”

Today Downey, who is keen to stress that their society is for both visually impaired golfers as well as those who are blind, goes out with a guide about once a week and enjoys playing in competitions.

He plays abroad about twice a year and is looking forward to competing in the Italian Blind Open in Milan in September.

“The only thing that would stop my playing golf was if the course was closed. It’s like a religion at this stage.”

See irishblindgolf.eu and visionsports.ie Vision Sports Ireland is the governing body of the Irish Blind Golf Society and sponsors many of its events.

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