CONCORD, CA (Sept. 21, 2022) — Seven years ago, Bob Banks began experiencing blurred vision, first in one eye, then both. Within three months, the Kaiser program manager from Concord was legally blind.
He was diagnosed with Leber Hereditary Optic Neuropathy (LHON), an incurable condition that affects about one in every 50,000 people. There are currently about 30,000 LHON sufferers in the United States, mostly men.
After receiving his diagnosis, Banks threw his golf clubs in the trash, sad that he would never play the game again. Luckily, he came across an online video about a blind golfer while researching LHON that same day. Inspired and hopeful, he rescued his clubs before the trash was picked up.
Guide-player interaction is key
Fast forward to 2022, and Banks is hosting the 76th Blind Golf National Championship in Sacramento next month, still basking in his third-place win in last year’s nationals. He and his sighted “guide” – also called a “coach” – Jerry Shaman were voted Most Improved that year as well.
For someone who went from 20/20 to 20/800 vision almost overnight, the honor was a testament to the hard work and communication with one’s guide required to compete at the national level. That unique relationship allows the visually impaired golfer to line up shots and navigate the course.
“The most difficult adjustment for me in learning to golf while blind was asking the right questions of my guide in order to get all the information I needed to make the shot,” Banks says. “Over time, Jerry and I have developed ways of communicating and playing the game that work for us. It’s a very special bond.”
Banks also uses a talking GPS rangefinder, called a Golf Buddy, that clips onto his hat and gives him data on distances to the hole, terrain and other helpful information.
From mentor to mentee
Sports have always played a major role in Banks’ life. He played football in high school and college and coached softball for 32 years. He had been coaching Clayton resident Shaman, a retired Contra Costa County deputy sheriff, on a Walnut Creek adult softball team for more than a decade when he lost his sight.
Shaman stepped up to the plate, so to speak, when Banks decided to try to continue playing golf despite his disability, going from “coached” to “coach” in one generous and life-changing moment for both of them. The pair are now good friends and play golf together three to four times a month.
Three categories of play
Blind golf began in the 1920s in Minnesota when a man who’d lost his sight to an exploding tire began playing. To the amazement of family and friends, his scores improved steadily until he shot an 84 in the 1930s.
The consequences of two world wars added many new participants to the game. The U.S. Blind Golf Association was founded in 1947, followed in 1997 by the International Blind Golf Association.
Blind golf is played by the U.S. Golf Association’s Rules of Golf and the Modifications of the Rules of Golf for Golfers with Disabilities. This includes grounding the club in a hazard, plus permitting the coach to stand in the line of play while the golfer is executing the shot.
Golfers compete with others within their sight classification. The groups include B-1 no vision, B-2 little usable vision and B-3 better usable vision.
Banks is in the B-2 category. He sees some shapes, like large trees, and can often see the dividing line between sky and ground.
“I’m technically classified as a legally blind, Visually-Impaired Person, a VIP,” Bob quips.
“I admit I enjoy the bragging rights,” Banks says, “but sharing information about the game is my primary reason for playing. I know how transformative the experience can be for those who’ve lost so many of their life experiences and activities along with their sight.”
Thanks to the generosity of sighted guides, blind golf has made the game a team sport – one that nurtures and inspires players, guides and spectators alike.
The Blind Golf National Championship runs Oct. 24-26 at Haggin Oaks Golf Complex in Sacramento. The event includes workshops for visually impaired youth. For more information, visit www.usblindgolf.com.
Pamela Michael is a writer and communications specialist who has lived in Curry Canyon for twenty years.