Date: September 24, 2018
Author: Martin Blake

Blindness no barrier to golf


Michele Watts has been a golfer for a long time, but the game has changed dramatically for her in the three years since she first suffered the effects of an optic nerve disorder that left her legally blind.

Watts, 59, noticed the world growing “foggy” through one eye in 2015 and then the other in 2016. Diagnosed with a mitochondrial genetic condition known as LHON (Leber’s Hereditary Otpic Neuropathy), she has lost most of her central vision, meaning that she cannot make out people’s faces unless they are within a metre of her.

But it did not stop her from playing her beloved game of golf.

Mother-of-two Watts had been a 20-year club golfer at Monash Country Club and Chatswood Golf Club in northern Sydney, and she quickly found the New South Wales chapter of Blind Golf Australia, which helps the sight-impaired to remain in the game or start it afresh.

Last year at Royal Sydney, she won her first Australian championship in the B3 division, dodging the 200-plus bunkers adroitly with the help of caddie Bob Grant.

Watts, a 29-handicapper from Northwood near Lane Cove on the Sydney north shore, is part of an eight-person Australian team that headed to Italy this week for the World Blind Golf Championships in Rome from 1-5 October. It is her first appearance at a World title and a career highlight.

“I don’t see people’s faces around me,’’ she told this week. “Central vision things like reading and using the computer, anything that’s detailed at all is impossible. You can’t see what’s in your kitchen cupboard or your bathroom, or drive a car, obviously.

“It took 15 months to work out what the problem was because they don’t know what they’re looking for. The eye itself looks pretty normal, because it’s actually not an eye condition, it’s the optic nerve. They’re all looking at the eye, when it’s the power cord that’s the issue. The brain’s working and the eye’s working, but the electrical cable has the big fault, sending the message.’’

In terms of golf, Watts needs a caddie (she is travelling with two for the world titles, Michelle Bloxham and Jan Freed), for perspective and course management. “I’m lucky enough to see the golf ball at my feet to hit it,’’ she said. “I get the normal golf feeling that it’s been a reasonable shot. Sometimes I surprise myself … I think that I’ve hit it in the wrong direction and someone else will say ‘great shot!’ I say: ‘Really? Ok.’ Generally, you’ll know when you’ve hit a screamer or not.

“On courses I’ve played before, I have a general idea of the layout, so I can hit in the general direction of the green. Where it gets much more difficult is on an unknown course. I’m totally reliant on the caddie to give me direction and also to describe what’s coming before the green, any hazard or whether it’s an elevated green.’’

In just more than a year of playing blind golf has witnessed some inspirational stories around blind golf. Ironically, she believes that playing the game sight-impaired “takes the stress out of the game”, and that many more blind people could benefit from playing golf. “There are a lot of people with failing eyesight who can continue to play the game,’’ she said.

The Australian Blind Golf team for 2018:

–        Graham Coulton with Caddy Sue Carpenter – NSW

–        Gary Sargent with Caddy Eileen Sargent – NSW

–        Stephen Mitchell with caddy Kerri Mitchell – NSW

–        Mark Eschbank with Caddy Peter North – NSW

–        Michele Watts with Caddies Michelle Bloxham and Jan Freed – NSW

–        Brad Carver with Caddy tbc – QLD

–        Glen Niciejewski with Caddy tbc – QLD

–        Jenny McCallum  with Caddy Ian McCallum – WA