There’s nothing quite like a blind golfer to make one feel both inadequate and inspired.
Inadequate, because a sightless man can shoot as low as 86 and routinely beat me with no special assistance except a sighted coach to help him line up his shots.
Inspired, because anyone who overcomes such a severe handicap in the devilish sport represents a physical and psychological triumph.
I had the pleasure recently of meeting a pair of national champions of vision-impaired golf and witnessing their remarkable ability.
Phil Blackwell, who is 100 percent blind, and Bruce Hooper, who is legally blind but can see a tiny bit, consistently whacked straight tee shots and mastered putting greens at the driving range at Woodmont Country Club in Rockville.
Both are 68 years old and coached by their wives, Sybil Blackwell and Judy Hooper, who demonstrated the painstaking steps needed to properly align golfer, club and ball.
The couples were at Woodmont to prepare to be the star attractions at a charity golf tournament Friday on behalf of Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind.
Lots of nonprofit groups sponsor golf tournaments, but not like this one. It’s to be played at night, using glow-in-the-dark balls, and is appropriately named Shot in the Dark Golf & Dinner Classic.
Blackwell and Hooper have put their rare skill to philanthropic use by appearing in such tournaments across the country. They’ve raised money for charities that assist the blind as well as others, including the Wounded Warrior Project.
“It’s a way for us to give back something,” said Blackwell, a retired U.S. sailor and rock keyboard player who lives in Greenville, S.C. “I feel like I’m giving opportunity to others who are blind. We get zero for this.”
Anyone who has tried golf understands why people are impressed. It’s maddeningly difficult to play, as befits a game perfected by masochistic Scottish Calvinists.
Blackwell recognizes the irony, calling it “this horrible, addictive game.” His son-in-law, Rod Turnage, persuaded him to take it up in 1998 — 28 years after Blackwell lost his sight.
“I didn’t hit anything the first five shots” on a driving range, Blackwell said. But Turnage was persistent and soon got him on a course.
“I birdied the first hole, and something clicked in my brain,” Blackwell said. “I thought, ‘This is nice.’ ”
Turnage was his coach until two years ago, when Sybil took over. I watched while she helped her husband prepare for a shot.
First, she stood still with her left foot behind the ball, and he put a hand on her shoulder to judge where to plant his feet.
Then she checked to make sure his shoulders and hips were aligned correctly.
Finally, she squatted and gently placed his club head directly behind the ball.
She stepped back, said “clear,” and he swung at a spot he could not see.
I saw him hit four consecutive shots directly toward his target, a pennant on the range. About 130 yards each, with a 7-iron.
The fifth was errant, pushed off to the left with no lift and only 100 yards. (That’s what my shots look like. No false modesty. I’m lousy.)
Told of his bad shot, Blackwell shrugged and said, “That’s because we didn’t set up properly. As long as the process is smooth, I’ll usually hit a good swing.”
For putting, Sybil paces off the distance and does her best to describe the contour of the green. With her help, Blackwell repeatedly two-putted (which is good).
Blackwell won his category — B-1, for totally blind — in the 2013 American Blind Golf national championship with rounds of 97 and 99. (I’ve never broken 100.)
Hooper, who lives in San Antonio, plays in the B-2 category, for people who have a bit of sight. He has won multiple championships and usually shoots in the 80s.
He had the advantage of having played golf for years before starting to lose his sight at age 52 because of macular degeneration.
He gave up the game at first, but Judy persuaded him to try it again. “He was too good to just drop it,” she said.
Blackwell and Hooper played last year in Rockville at the first Shot in the Dark tournament. They helped raise $30,000 and called attention to the needs of vision-impaired people in our region.
“It’s not really about making the money — it’s about the awareness,” Columbia Lighthouse President Tony Cancelosi said. “The blind community is participating at a new level, and there’s lot of buzz about it.”
It’s easy to appreciate why.
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.