In 1924, Clint Russell of Duluth, Minnesota lost his eyesight when a tire exploded in his face. In 1925 he began playing blind golf. Clint slowly reduced his scores and by early 1930 had shot an 84 for 18 holes.
In 1932 Robert Ripley’s “believe it or not” carried an article on Clint as “the world’s only blind golfer.”
Then, six years later, Ripley’s did a similar story saying that Dr. Beach Oxenham of London, England was “the world’s only blind golfer.” Noting the discrepancy, several of Clint’s friends challenged Ripley’s to sponsor the world’s first “Blind Golfers Championship.” Ripley’s accepted the challenge and on August 20, 1938, at the Ridgeview Country Club in Duluth, MN Mr. Russell defeated Mr. Oxenham, 5 and 4. Read the full story of Clint Russell’s life.
Because of the publicity, Mr. Russell received communications from other golfers who had lost their eyesight. The second tournament was held between Clint Russell and Marvin Shannon of Fort Worth, Texas. It was staged as three separate matches. Clint won the first. His opponent won the second. Unfortunately, Pearl Harbor happened and World War II prevented the third match.
Toward the close of World War II, Clint contacted several people in the Veterans Administration and suggested golf as therapy for those who had lost their sight. The Veterans Administration agreed with his suggestion. They have continued to offer golf as therapy to this day for those who are blind or visually impaired.
In 1946, a national blind golfers’ championship was held in Inglewood, California; this time with more than two golfers. Again Russell captured the championship. Charlie Boswell, who had been blinded while trying to pull a buddy out of a burning tank during World War II, came in second place.
As the number of blind golfers grew, Bob Allman, a blind golfer and Philadelphia lawyer, formed the United States Blind Golf Association (USBGA) in 1953. Allman served as its first President followed by Joe Lazaro and Charley Boswell who together guided the USBGA from 1956 through 1976. Pat Browne served as President from 1976 until 1992. Bob Andrews held the position from 1992 through 2002. Jim Baker was in office from 2002 through 2006. Phil Blackwell took over the office in 2006 and served until 2009. Then Sheila Drummond served from 2009 until 2011. David Meador was named President in 2011 and held the position for one year.
Jim Baker returned as President in 2012 and served until August 2015, when Dick Pomo as elected President of the association. Three golfers have dominated the championships: Pat Browne took first place 23 times with an amazing 20 of those wins consecutive. The streak ended in 1998 with a win by Keith Melick. Charley Boswell won 16 times and Joe Lazaro won 7 times. Pat Browne holds the record for the lowest rounds ever shot by a blind golfer, a 74 at the Mission Hills Country Club in California.
Until 1990, the USBGA National Championship was hosted annually at a different location around the country. From 1990 through 1997 the national championship was played in Florida at the Lake Buena Vista Club at Disney World. Since then the championship has moves around to various states.
Today, there are several USBGA sanctioned regional golf tournaments in addition to the National Championship. The championship and regional tournaments are supported by donations from the Lions Club International, other service organizations, medical groups and individual contributions.
Since 1978, the Guiding Eyes Classic has been held in Mount Kisco, New York, and annually invites the top totally blind golfers to compete in what has become known as the “Masters” of Blind Golf. Since its inception, this tournament and its following-day “Corporate Scramble” has raised in excess of $10,000,000 for the Guiding Eyes campus and year-round program for the training of guide-dogs. Blind and vision impaired users also receive on-site training services free of charge. In 2003 Ken Venturi ended his 25 year run as the celebrity host. After a few interim hosts, New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning became the celebrity host for the Guiding Eyes Classic in 2008.
A match play tournament mirroring the Rider Cup began in 1991. It was held every two years alternating locations between New Orleans, Louisiana and wonderful venues such as Wentworth golf club in England. Sponsored by Mr. Frank Stewart, Jr. a New Orleans businessman, this unique foray into international blind golf competition was titled the Stewart Cup and continued until 1995.
In 1998 the International Blind Golf Association (IBGA,) was organized and funded by Japanese entrepreneur Dr. Hirahusa Handa. The USBGA was one of six founding members. Presently, the IBGA has grown and expanded to include fifteen member countries and 3 associate member countries. The IBGA supports the biennial World championships and an annual World Open.
In 2006, the USBGA expanded its membership to include golfers who are vision-impaired. The USBGA Board of Directors is comprised of three visually impaired members, three totally blind members and one sighted Board member. The President and Vice President are elected by the Board, who in turn are elected by members of the association.
The United States Blind Golf Association’s Hall of Fame, was founded in 2007 to recognize the accomplishments of Players, Coaches and Friends of blind golf. The Hall of Fame is located on the USBGA web site where biographies, pictures and information can be accessed about all the inductees
Bob Andrews was the President of the USBGA for a decade (1992-2002) and is a significant contributor to the success of the USBGA. During his tenure as President, the United States Golf Association and the Royal and Ancient Club, all created “A Modification of the Rules of Golf for Golfers with Disabilities”, which now allows us to compete in the game of golf. Also, with Disney, the USBGA Golf Ball Logo was created and through Florida International University, the motto, “You Don’t Have to See It … To Tee It” was developed. Through his leadership, the International Blind Golf Association was organized with it’s first six member countries. Below, he has captured a perspective of Blind Golf and how it has evolved and affected those that participate and support the efforts of the USBGA in both our nation and throughout the world.
One more article or story about golf could be of some interest, but probably nothing that captures the imagination. However, if one were to precede the word blind in front of golf it always gets everyone’s attention – then they follow up by asking the questions. Yes, there is such a thing as blind golf and the players are represented by an organization called the United States Blind Golf Association (USBGA).
In 1946 a hand full of totally blind men, primarily recent World War II veterans, gathered in California. Their purpose was to play some competitive golf rounds. More startling was the fact that they were playing according to the Rules of Golf. One then asks how is that possible? Well, blind golf is a team sport and every blind golfer has alongside him the most important part of his equipment – a partner, often referred to as a ‘coach’ or ‘guide’.
Those first competitive golf rounds became an annual event and 70 years later the National Championship, as it has become known, continues on. Not too many years after this blind golf story began an organization was needed to validate the growing membership. So in 1953, the USBGA was organized. Several member players, prior to losing their sight, belonged to clubs or knew successful business men and even Hollywood entertainers. This was extremely important because those contacts often opened up golf courses for the USBGA to compete on. In addition it was the beginning of a tradition, still in place today, of assisting members with tournament expenses. It was accomplished through entertainment shows and golf scrambles that gave sighted golfers an opportunity to play with blind golfers.
Some great personalities were part of the USBGA history as well as famous golf clubs and courses. Friends of blind golf would include Bob Hope, HRH Prince Andrew of the Royal Family, and even former President Gerald Ford. More recently, Eli Manning has been the host of a very successful fund raising blind golf event. Through the years blind golfers and the USBGA have had the privilege of playing at famous locations such as Mission Hills, The Riviera Club in L.A., Firestone, Wentworth in England, Sedgefield in NC, and numerous times at Disney World’s Lake Buena Vista Course.
Several PGA tour golfers have supported the USBGA and even played in demonstration rounds with the members. First and foremost on that list was Ken Venturi, former golf TV color analyst for CBS. He dedicated one weekend every year for 25 years supporting “my friends, the blind golfers.” British Open winner, Ian Baker-Finch teed it up with USBGA players. One of the most memorable rounds ever was with U.S. Open champion, Payne Stewart, who played with a blindfold on! He lost to the USBGA national champion but helped create a national awareness of the ability of blind golfers. Civic organizations like the Rotary Club, Lions Clubs, and golf equipment corporations all contributed throughout the history of the USBGA. PGA club pros all over the country have also helped make the annual national championship a special event.
The notoriety and the overall growth of golf stimulated the beginning of international blind golf with new organizations in the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, and Austrailia. International golf matches were held which eventually grew into major tournaments with blind and vision impaired golfers. It wasn’t long before an International Blind Golf Association was born in 1998. The first World Championship was held in the United States and is now held biennially around the world. The financial backing from a very generous Japanese business man, Dr. Hirahusa Handa, made the growth and interest in blind golf world wide possible. The United States Golf Association took note of the growth of blind and disabled golfers and asked the USBGA to help write The Rules of Golf for Golfers with Disabilities. The Royal and Ancient Golf Association also participated and the two small exceptions to the rules were made official: (1) grounding a club in a hazard and (2) allowing a coach to stand on the line of play as well as the line of a putt.
Around the turn of the century there were many additions and changes to the USBGA. The biggest came with the inclusion of vision impaired golfers. Another great addition was the development of a website, blindgolf.com. With the growth of the web and the use of computers by the blind, communications opened up new possibilities. The Midnight Golfer, a quarterly newsletter was circulated throughout the country. Several regional golf tournaments were included in the schedule. The use of net scores to determine title winners became the norm generally around the world. The USBGA however, stuck to its roots and gross scores continue to determine a national champ.
The last decade of the 1900s brought some other updates and exciting developments. The organization finally became an official IRS recognized 501 c-3, non-profit association. A marketing class at Florida International University was given an assignment – to create a catchy motto that both says and captures the uniqueness of blind golf. Well, they did and the membership proudly displays “You don’t have to see it, to tee it!” as its motto. Found in some very old files of the USBGA was a letterhead on stationary with the familiar emblem of a golfer putting with his coach kneeling down lining up the putt. In the early 1990s it was given a modern graphic look by a Disney World artist and became the national tournament logo. About the same time the golf ball with sun glasses was given a face lift and turned out to be perfect when placed on a logo pin. Recently they have been slightly modified but remain as popular symbols.
With so much history it was inevitable that a hall of fame needed to be established. The USBGA Hall of Fame recognizes the three entities which made blind golf famous: the players, the coaches, and friends of blind golf. On the website one can read the bios and statistics of the great players and coaches. Also included are the articles about friends of blind golf who provided financial grants, tournament organization, training and so much more. Six decades of wonderful stories are told in the hall of fame.
So now one knows – blind golf is not about a blind or vision impaired person with a golf bag full of clubs. The story is about what happens when the blind or vision impaired person joins up with a sighted coach. Add to this ultimate team, the friends of blind golf, and opportunities will abound. Yes, the USBGA members have teed it up nationwide for the past seventy years and look forward to future competitive golf games