It is a sunny Monday afternoon just south of Tucson, and Ron Church is gingerly guiding Ron Plath toward a golf ball. The 11th hole at the Haven Golf Course in Green Valley is tucked in between three sand traps and adjacent to a lake that will swallow any hook. A mean hole.
Plath approaches the ball, and Church takes a few steps back.
“Two paces to the right edge,” Church tells Plath. “About 115, 120. You want to carry it.”
Plath takes a practice swing, loosens up his shoulders. He takes a step forward, closer to the ball. He sets his feet.
“You’re good,” Church says, “you’re perfect.”
Church sets his feet along with him, and as Plath draws back his club, Church inhales.
Plath lets it go. He crushes it.
He feels it, and he hears it, that pristine ping followed by a serenade of “Nice shot!” and a smattering of applause.
The ball sails, arching, until it finds its destination, the green, a handful of yards from the cup.
Church pumps his fist a la Tiger Woods and kicks his leg. Plath looks up.
“What happened?,” he asks.
Ron Plath cannot see the hole.
The way he describes it, if your vision is a donut, he can see the circle — the dough — but he cannot see the center, the hole. Plath has cone-rod dystrophy, and the macular degeneration has rendered him legally blind since 1987. He started having vision issues about a decade earlier, but at 26, he says, no one thought to test for a disease that typically starts affecting people in their mid-50s. They could not find him glasses that worked. At first, he just couldn’t figure out where his drives landed.
He longs for those days.
The cells that were once there are now gone, and they are not coming back, and they have taken along with them most of Plath’s fine vision. His peripheral vision has remained somewhat unaffected, so he is able to create mental markers and move around the world with relative ease.
Putting pen to paper, though, is a chore on pace with building the Taj Mahal.
Which is exactly how he found the United States Blind Golf Association — or how the USBGA found him.
He’d just played a round on his home course in Lake Oswego, Oregon, and as he signed his debit card slip, an attendant noticed him holding the paper 3.2 centimeters from his face.
“Hey, we’ve got a tournament for you,” he told Plath.
On his home course, Plath was starting to worry about how his vision would impact his routine, his friends. “What if it keeps getting worse?” he wondered.
Then he joined the USBGA, “and it was like, Jesus, I see better than everybody here!”
Just then, Plath excuses himself for a moment. He has to putt.
The reporter offers a friendly, “Hey, make it,” and he comes back with, “I got away with one, I don’t know if I’ll get away with another!” And he won’t.
After Church sets him up — “downhill the whole way … more so the first half than second half … move aside just a smidgen … OK … level …” — Plath steadies himself and putts. The ball slides along the grass, dipping, bending, finally finding its resting place, 2 feet from the hole. There are no cheers this time, only a conciliatory, “My fault, my fault,” from Church.
Plath shakes his head and smiles.
Don’t forget, he can’t see the hole.
At some other point in his life, long ago, Plath may have kicked the ground and left a divot in the grass. Maybe cursed and glared at his coach.
“I was a maniac,” Plath said of his old playing days. “Because of all of this, because I’ve known a lot of people here — and we’ve lost a lot of people — I’ve definitely mellowed over the years. It still hurts. I’m not happy I missed the putt, but I’m not sad.”
He is a USBGA lifer now.
The association has given him an outlet for his competitive spirit; mostly, it’s given him perspective.
It was founded in 1947 by World War II veterans who had lost their sight; 50 years later, the International Blind Golf Association was formed. This season, the USBGA schedule includes tournaments in Italy, Canada, New York and Georgia, but as has been the case for the last half-decade, the season kicked off in Arizona.
Dick and Sharon Pomo have hosted the regional tournament in Tucson five times; once at Del Lago in Vail, twice at Torres Blancas in Green Valley and for the past two years at Haven. Dick joined the association in the early 2000s, a few decades after some work buddies asked him to join them on the golf course for a round despite his vision difficulties, and they first hosted two regional tournaments in Wisconsin before retiring to Tucson.
Sharon has no vision issues, but she’s been touched by what the association has given her husband.
“Blindness is not a way of life,” she says, “but a fact of life.”
Members of the USBGA make it appear as clear as day: They are not blind people who happen to golf, they are golfers who happen to have vision impairment.
Plath has been golfing almost his entire life, despite living a large chunk of it in Alaska where there are more frozen ponds than lush greens. He still has the 7-iron his dad cut down for him when he was 3. He played golf in high school, then at Oregon College of Education — now Western Oregon University — and even with his decaying vision, he plays with little handicap.
Around a USBGA regional tournament, he’s a legend, a 2012 Hall of Famer.
The USBGA has three levels of competition: B-1 (no light perception, or light perception which is not functional; B-2 (ability to recognize the shape of a hand up to visual acuity of 20/600); and B-3 (visual acuity above 20/600 to less than 20/200). Until just recently, Plath was a B-3, and a highly successful one at that. He has had to transition to a B-2 because of more vision loss, but he laments the move, as the B-2 field is too big a range, he says.
“I’m a big advocate that visually impaired people like myself should be referred to as visually impaired,” Plath said. “It’s not only disrespectful to the totally blind, it’s misleading to the public and in the long run it does us more harm than good. People go, ‘Oh, well he’s not even blind.’ And I’m not.”
No, he can still see a joke coming from a mile away.
“Look, if the ophthalmologists of the country want to have a clinic, they should come to a blind golf tournament and line everybody up,” he said.
More assorted jokes from covering a blind golf tournament:
Who is driving the carts?
Did you have to wear a helmet?
Will somebody please yell ‘fore’?
There are countless more, made on the course by the very people you’d think would be the most sensitive to them.
That’s the thing: This is a happy place.
As Plath readies for his approach shot on 12, Church lines up behind him and gets into the routine, setting his feet as Plath does, leaning in as Plath does. “You don’t have to kill it … OK … perfect.”
As Plath draws his club back, a cart starts in the distance. He’s shaken, and he takes a step back.
“He can’t see, but his hearing is unbelievable,” Church jokes.
They’ve known each other for more than 30 years, played golf “hundreds of times,” they imagine. In 2012, Church coached Plath to the Tucson regional title — “He killed it,” Church says — but he knows his friend has struggled with his move to a B-2 and the resigned admission that comes along with it.
“He did a really good job disguising his disabilities at the start, because he could see enough, and he had an uncanny ability, when he hit a slice, he could just go there,” Church said.
They can joke with each other and be brutally honest with each other because they’ve been friends for three-plus decades and because, quite frankly, Plath is still the better golfer.
The hardest thing for Plath on the course isn’t a bunker or a pond but figuring out when to tune Church out.
“The reality is, I thought it broke more,” Plath said after he missed the putt on 12. “His vision said it didn’t and he doesn’t know how hard I’m going to hit it. But you don’t second-guess the coach with vision. Just because my feet tell me something, they’re not as good as his eyes.”
The symbiotic relationship between a blind golfer and his or her coach is one of the most unique in sports.
For golfers in the B-3 category and most of the B-2s, the coach may not have to do anything more than use his or her eyes and mouth, spotting and plotting the course and giving distance estimates. For B-1s, those with total blindness, a coach is involved in just about everything before the actual swing, from a kind arm to use for balance to the set-up to the grip placement.
But at a USBGA event, no coach simply grabs a golfer by the shoulders, points him to the hole and says, “hit it that way.” There is strategy involved, and mathematics. As Plath lines up for his approach on 12, Church yells to him, “You’re about a 100 from the flag. Actually, 101 from the flag.”
This correction is intriguing. How can he tell a 12-inch difference?
He paces out the hole in advance, spots a marker and adjusts accordingly, he says.
Then he leans in close, closer, looks over his shoulder and whispers out of the side of his mouth, “Look, Ron’s been short the last couple days, so I bumped him up, you know? Part of the coaching strategy.”
It’s easier when a coach and a player can go their separate ways.
Would Tiger Woods want to share a hotel room with Steve Williams? Diane Wilson doesn’t have that luxury.
On Monday at Haven, her husband, Byron, served as her coach.
“It always gives me somebody to blame!” Wilson, the USBGA vice president, says with a hearty laugh. “You really do have to trust that individual. There are times when I know I should listen, and my brain doesn’t say it. That trust issue makes all the difference, especially with the less vision you have. Of course you have to make adjustments with the coaching, but with the camaraderie and the help you get …”
Are you a better golfer now?
“Well then I’d have to give credit to my husband!”
Wilson is Plath’s sister, and like Plath, she began having vision impairment at a young age. Her vision loss was gradual, however, and she was actually thankful once she reached legally blind status. Now she could play in the association that brought her brother such joy.
“Knowing you can continue to play, to participate — to compete — is wonderful,” Wilson said. “We’ve met people and we’ll say, ‘Do you play golf?’ And they say, ‘Well, I used to.’ and we say, ‘No, you can! You can still!’”
That’s the thing. The trust issue Wilson was talking about?
That doesn’t just mean a blind golfer trusting a coach. It means trusting yourself to go on, to play, to swing, and sometimes, to miss.
“Life’s a bitch and life’s not easy and it’s not for sissies,” Ron Plath says. “You might as well play golf.”