Gerry T Kelly – Founder
A brief insight of my journey to establish golf for the blind
It is now twenty five years since I first heard of a blind person playing golf. The following is the account of my journey to establish golf for Visually Impaired (VI) people in the UK.
The story began on the 4th of September 1979. I read an article in the local newspaper about a blind American called Pat Browne Jnr, who fulfilled an ambition to play Championship golf courses in Scotland. He played Turnberry, Royal Troon, Muirfield and St Andrews and recorded gross scores in the low nineties on all of these courses.
I identified very much with that article, especially his closing remarks, that he was disappointed to learn there were no Blind Golf Associations in the UK. I was greatly inspired by the article as Pat Browne was totally blind, yet could play golf to a very high standard. Although I did not realise it at the time, that article had planted the acorn seed from which Blind Golf in the UK evolved. I will explain here my interest and why that story meant so much to me.
I was diagnosed with Stargards Disease in 1971. It is a progressive disease of the retina and in my case, caused loss of vision acuity and limited peripheral vision. I was registered blind in 1980 and medically retired from my job as the Works Shift Manager at ICI Petrochemicals. Retirement at 40 was not something I had ever envisaged happening, however, now retired, the article about Pat Browne’s achievements sparked my thoughts into action, ultimately inspiring me to try and play golf as a challenge to my failing sight. I felt there must be others like me throughout the UK and Ireland who wanted to take up golf, and still others who had played and had given up because of failing sight. The big question was how could I communicate with such people?
My journey started in 1980. I contacted the secretary of British Blind Bowling, as this was a major sport for VI people, requested that my enclosed circular was distributed to the membership. I awaited the feed back with interest. Unfortunately, there was none. Over the next number of months I made contact with national and local media, various social works departments and disability groups, requesting they make it known to their clients that I was interested in setting up a visually impaired golf association. Again, there was no response except for a number of nice letters from various bodies saying they admired my enthusiasm but they could not see golf for the VI ever happening. I was not going to be beaten, I would keep going, against all odds. I believed in myself and the necessity to break down the barriers.
‘Golf for visually impaired? Preposterous! What will they think of next? Don’t you know your limits?’
This was the general implication.
Later, I learned of an audio tape for the blind called Playback, which was issued by Glasgow and West of Scotland Society for the Blind. With a great feeling of trepidation, I contacted the editor, fully expecting a disinterested response. To my amazement, Peter Fraser, was most enthusiastic about my venture. I felt elated. This was the first positive response I had received! We arranged to meet. Peter came to my home a few days later, bringing along his microphone, a golf club and golf balls. I live within easy reach of a golf practice facility but I had never struck a golf ball in my life! Peter asked me to strike the ball – this did not prove very successful because I kept missing but, eventually I did make contact and Peter gave a sigh, mixed with a tinge of relief and frustration – my first strike on a golf ball recorded for posterity!
I still remember listening to the next edition of the Playback magazine, which opened with the clear sound of a swish and the contact of a golf club striking the ball. Peter posed the question, does anyone recognise this? He ran the interview and asked if anyone listening was interested in helping to start a VI golf association, to please contact me, but unfortunately no one did.
Communication technology in the 1980s was not as advanced as it is today. With just an old battered typewriter and telephone, communicating proved a long and arduous task, but I never gave up the dream, although at times it was as though I was battling alone except for the tremendous support and backup from my wife Mary.
During this time I was still applying for employment, preparing for and going for interviews. I was made aware then of the social stigma that came with disability. Employers were ‘blind’ to the persons ability, only ‘seeing’ the disability. In early 1982 as part of a career change, I went on a training course in Computer Programming and System Analyses to the RNIB College, Pembroke Place, London. There, I met Ron Tomlinson, who, having heard my story, was very keen to come on board.
In June 1982 I contacted the Sports Development Officer for the Blind at the RNIB in London and arranged a meeting. He too, admired my enthusiasm but thought what I was trying to achieve was a non-starter. His response was a bitter disappointment to Ron and I, and certainly not one we were expecting from a Sports Development Officer for the Blind. I intimated we were trying to contact other people who might be interested in golf for the VI. He agreed to provide a meeting room when required.
Following this meeting, I contacted the Resource Centre of Glasgow and West of Scotland Society for the Blind again, and requested Peter Fraser to re-run the article on VI Golf in the next edition of Playback.
Wait for it…
At long last, I received a positive response – some two years from the start of my quest! Two interested people responded, Ken Freeman and the late Bob Dunsmore. I arranged a meeting with them. They were both very enthusiastic and we agreed to set up a steering committee.
Main priorities were identified and actioned:
- Drawing up a constitution
- Finding a golf course
- Recruiting other members
- Considering rules and handicapping structure
We had a most successful recruitment drive and over the next few months six new people were welcomed to the membership. I had heard there was a nine-hole Golf Course with a Driving Range attached at Auchenharvie Golf Club (GC) in Ayrshire. I went along to Auchenharvie and quite by chance the first person I spoke to was Club Captain, Peter Breslin. I explained to Peter the reason for my visit, he was extremely enthusiastic and supportive of my quest. I was overjoyed because up until then, apart from Peter Fraser at Playback, all the responses from other organisations were patronising and negative.
Peter said, he would raise the matter with his committee at their next meeting. He phoned immediately after this meeting with the great news that Auchenharvie GC Committee, had agreed to offer associate membership to the members of our fledgling association. This was indeed a unique, momentous and historic moment, as Auchenharvie GC, was the first Golf Club in the world to have a Visually Impaired golf section.
Finally, after almost two and a half years of hard work, self-belief and commitment, golf for VI people had been given roots. This acorn would now grow and grow.
A meeting was arranged between Auchenharvie GC Committee and our VI Steering Committee, to investigate ways in which they could be of help to us. It was agreed that a pool of volunteer guides would be organised by the club and lessons were set up for us with the Golf Professional at the Driving Range. Then at the end of each lesson, members from the pool of guides would help us with further practice. When the professional was satisfied we had reached a reasonable standard, we had the wonderful experience of our first game of golf.
In the meantime, the VI Golf Steering Committee was drawing up a constitution whose main objective was to encourage other visually impaired people to play golf, to develop the opportunity, examine the difficulties which may arise and find means of overcoming such difficulties, whilst promoting the whole idea as a viable proposition. We adopted a handicapping system and a set of rules, as determined by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews. The hard work was paying off and within two months two new members had joined and were co-opted to the Steering Committee. Shortly afterwards our membership had increased to nine.
A written constitution had been approved by the end of 1982. The West of Scotland Visually Impaired Golf Society had been established. It was a very proud moment in all our lives.
In December 1982 I organised the meeting referred to earlier at the RNIB, London. The consensus being to continue developing VI golf in the UK. Also about this time, London and the South East Visually Impaired Golf Association was established and the National Association of Visually Handicapped Golfers [NAVHG] was founded. This was an umbrella Association to which the West of Scotland Blind Golf Association (BGA), and London and the South East, were affiliated and served as a communication conduit to both bodies. The NAVHG was discontinued by mutual consent in 1987 having now served its purpose .
By 1983 the West of Scotland BGA began playing regular golf at Auchenharvie GC, with the help of members who acted as our guides. We were so lucky to have met these wonderful people, who believed in us and gave up their Saturday afternoons to assist us. We played to the normal rules of golf laid down by the R & A (Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews), however we identified a major problem – playing shots from a hazard. How could we play a shot from a bunker without a point of reference, when the rules stated a golfer could not ground the club?
I wrote to Sir Michael Bonallack, the Secretary of the R & A, to explain the dilemma. He referred the matter to the Chairman of the rules committee at that time, Mr Glover, who convened a special R & A Rules Committee meeting. The R & A Rules committee defined a ‘local rule’ on our behalf whereby we could ground our club when playing from a hazard in VI golf competitions. I also contacted the Secretary of CONGU (The Council of National Golf Unions), Mr Alan Thirlwell, for help in drawing up a proper Handicapping Scheme.
I served for many years as Secretary, Match Secretary, Treasurer, Captain and Youth Liaison Officer for SBGS (Scottish Blind Golf Society). During this time I organised professional golf tuition, funded by the Golf Foundation, for students with pan-disabilities in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee.
First Ever Visually Impaired Golf International
In 1984 we decided, with the assistance of sponsorship, to organise and promote the first ever Visually Impaired golf International between Scotland and England to be played at Auchenharvie. It was now time to make contact again with the media, with this newsworthy story, in order to obtain greater publicity for our association. This event attracted wide publicity and was highly successful and set the scene for the future – with the skirl of the pipes and the roll of the drums leading the teams to the first tee, watched by a large number of spectators who enjoyed the spectacle, especially the hole in one by the late Jack Kerfoot, at the 137 yards 5th hole!
The wide-ranging publicity by newspapers, television and radio, boosted our membership and soon afterwards we had enough members to form four Districts, each autonomous and having their own fixture list – including an Inter District league, Stroke and Match play championships.
At this point in 1986, the SBGS was established, to coordinate activities and to maximise resources. Fundraising was a major factor in the early years of development. Funds were raised through sponsorship, running dances, raffles and auctions. One of the most successful fundraisers held was an outdoor auction run in conjunction with a player-guide golf tournament which I helped organise with the assistance of Troon Welbeck GC on Sunday 16th July 1989 (the first practice day for the British Open at Royal Troon).
Memorabilia had been obtained from many of the worlds top golfers and local businesses had also supplied articles to the auction. Kyle and Carrick District Council (now South Ayrshire District Council) provided a covered outdoor facility to stage the function. Christy O’Connor Jnr ran a golf clinic during the Tournament for all the VI golfers, and both Gary Player and the late John Letters presented prizes. The very successful auction, conducted by the late Gordon Brown (Broon from Troon) accrued the magnificent sum of £4,000 for SBGS. Subsequently SBGS decided to donate half of the funds raised to The Continuing Education Centre for Blind and Profoundly Deaf in Glasgow.
September 1986 was another major breakthrough for SBGS. I received a telephone call from Bob Mitchell, the Chairman of SSAD (Scottish Sports Association for Disabled) requesting SBGS to organise a major world golf event as part of their 1987 Silver Jubilee celebrations. This was the breakthrough I had been waiting for.
I set about organising and coordinating players from other countries to participate in the first ever open golf tournament for the Visually Impaired, most poignantly to be held in Scotland, the home of golf. With the agreement of the R & A, the event was called the British Open for Blind Golfers, which was held at Cawder Golf Club, Bishopbriggs, Glasgow.
I knew there were blind golfers in America and Canada, but I had no contact addresses. I contacted the American and Canadian Embassies in London, requesting the addresses of their equivalent to the RNIB, which enabled me to make contact with the respective Presidents of American and Canadian Blind Golf Associations. Detailed information and application forms were forwarded to Pat Browne, USA and Claude Pattimore, Canada. The response was tremendous, eleven Americans and seven Canadians registered an interest. Invitations were also sent out to all VI golfers in the home counties, attracting a field of forty-five golfers to the championship. The event was the highlight of our golfing history so far. It was a momentous occasion and a huge success, both for the credibility of blind golf and the publicity it attracted, which led to a greater manifestation of a vision of a sport, integrating VI people into the sighted world.
This event also marked the advent of a good working relationship between SBGS and the R & A, and the Scottish Professional Golf Association which has been maintained to this day. Both organisations have been most helpful and supportive down the years, and provide continuing assistance.
At that time we were unaware of VI golf in Australia, Japan, or Europe. However, Terry Simpson from Canada, informed me he had a good friend in Australia, called Ron Anderson, who was trying to organise VI golf. I subsequently forwarded the database collated from the British Blind Open to my contacts in Australia, America, Canada and the Home countries. This action provided immediate results. I received a request from Mr Joe Spoonster, Chief Executive, Ohio Disability Organisation, to organise a group of totally blind golfers from Europe, to participate in a totally blind World Golf Championship at Quaill Hollow Golf Resort, near Cleveland, USA. Five ‘totals’ accepted. Sandy Bruce, Bob Dunsmore from Scotland, Ron Tomlinson and Tommy Mulholland from England and Jim Purcell, Ireland. As it turned out, this was just the beginning of what would become international blind golf.
Organising the first ever world VI golf event in Scotland, really was the gateway to the world of blind golf events we know today, with many of our members each year following in the footsteps of the original five and going to tournaments in the USA, Canada, Australia, Japan, as well as the UK and Ireland. There is a growing number of European Countries, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, France and Italy as well as South Africa becoming involved.
Organised Golf for the Visually Impaired, is now very fortunate to have a benefactor from Japan, Mr Haruhisa Handa, who has invested in the development and staging of major Blind Golf events across the world, thus greatly helping all VI golfers by giving them the opportunity to realise their potential and so improve their overall wellbeing. Today, golf for VI is becoming a worldwide sport.
I take pride in the fact that I am the founder member of Blind Golf and had the vision and belief to carry on against all odds. The greatest pleasure for me is to know that through my perseverance and belief, so many Visually Impaired people can get so much pride and fulfilment from the game, whilst opening the eyes of the world to the person’s ability, not their disability.
My journey to get blind golf accepted has taken up a great part of my life. Mary and I have also gained an enormous amount from the knowledge that blind and VI people can and will continue to participate in such a great sport.
I acknowledge and pay tribute to my wife Mary, for her tremendous support and dedication to VI golf during the past twenty-five years, and in particular for financing my endeavours between 1980 and 1982 when there were no funds available for my work.