Tarpon Woods Golf Club and the Lighthouse organization celebrated National Blind Sports Awareness Day.
PALM HARBOR – During a clinic Oct. 4 at Tarpon Woods Golf Club, Tony Schiros, 71, of Odessa received tips from longtime teaching pro Earl Maurer before squaring up and launching a 200-yard drive into the wide green expanse of the range, eliciting a round of applause from the small crowd.
That a septuagenarian could nail a beautiful drive here in the golf and senior-friendly Sunshine State wasn’t what spurred the reaction; the fact that Schiros is legally blind led to the “oohs” and “ahhs”.
“In my 20s I was down to a 2-handicap,” said Schiros, who lost sight in one eye when he was punched as an 11-year-old and the other due to a firework accident when he was 29.
“Then my 2-handicap went to 10 to 15. But it’s good to get back out here,” Schiros said.
Schiros and 34 other blind golfers were participating in a free clinic sponsored by the Lighthouse for the Visually Impaired, a blind services organization with branches in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties, as part of National Blind Sports Awareness Day.
The collaboration between the Lighthouse and Tarpon Woods, an 18-hole public course owned by LPGA star Jan Stephenson that caters to wounded, blind and disabled veterans and first responders, allowed three dozen golfers ages 14-82 to experience the joy of hitting a golf ball for the first time or the first time in a long time.
“People think they can’t continue doing events they were doing in their sighted life,” Lighthouse CEO Sylvia Perez said by phone prior to the event. “But we show them there are ways to do almost everything.”
The two-hour session began with Stephenson explaining how the volunteer instructors would emphasize the most important aspects of the game, including driving, putting and posture.
The group then split into smaller groups, with some practicing hitting into a medicine ball, some tackling the driving range and others working on their putting strokes.
As a family of deer roamed the fringe of the range while he practiced driving, former New York resident John Gray said being back on a golf course for the first time in more than 20 years felt too good to be true.
“I played golf for about three years before I went blind in 1997, and I always liked the game,” Gray said as he received pointers from his instructor, Judith Benjamin, a retired veteran from Orlando. “I wasn’t very good at it, but I enjoyed it. But after I went blind, I never thought I’d play again.”
Gray, who lives in Spring Hill, said as soon as he heard about the Lighthouse program, he wanted in.
“Somebody in New York told me about a program in Kissimmee, and when I heard there was one here I said put me on it,” he said. “It’s just so good to get back out here in the fresh air and smell the grass. The feeling is so nice. I’m excited to relive it. I’m here for fun. That’s all.”
According to Lighthouse official Patty Porter, Gray’s attitude exemplified the purpose of the event.
“There are blind people who don’t believe they can golf, and there’s a lot of sighted people who don’t think they can golf, either.” she said. “But this is really a fabulous way to learn how to communicate with others, to be on a team, to be a winner and a good sport and to be outside and to get exercise, because vision loss is very disabling. This is a way for them to get back out there and take the confidence from here to other aspects of your life.”
Stephenson, who serves as an ambassador for the United States Blind Golfers Association, said she discovered years ago how important golf can be to the blind.
“I’ve played blindfolded, and I’ve played with blind players in tournaments, and it’s so difficult,” the two-time major winner said. “I learned so much about it. I couldn’t believe their attitude and their spirit. Their attitude is amazing.”
Keeping spirits high is very important in the blind community, according to Schiros.
“There’s a high percentage of suicide with people with loss of eyesight,” he said. “That’s why an event like this is the greatest thing in the world.”