Vision loss doesn’t end game for golfers

Jim Gilstrap (Left), coach John Duke Hudson (Left Center and coach Josh Lorenzetti (Right) react to Peter Smith's putt that just slides by the hole during the Charleston Riverdogs Golf Tournament to benefit the Storm Eye Institute. Peter Smith is blind and Jim Gilstrap is legally blind were assisted in the tournament with the help of the two College of Charleston golf team members Hudson and Lorenzetti who acted as their coaches. (Brad Nettles/ 5/7/13

Jim Gilstrap’s putt narrowly missed falling into the cup, stopping inches away. Teammate Josh Lorenzetti reached down with his putter and casually flipped the ball to Gilstrap.

“Don’t do that,” Gilstrap said, laughing as the ball dropped to the ground. “Don’t throw golf balls at a blind man!”

The toss of the ball from one golfer to another is commonplace. But after playing several holes in a Charleston RiverDogs charity tournament last week at Wild Dunes, Lorenzetti had momentarily forgotten that Gilstrap is legally blind, suffering from retinitis pigmentosa.

Gilstrap and Peter Smith, a professor at the College of Charleston’s School of Business who is completely blind, played in the tournament that benefits the Medical University of South Carolina’s Storm Eye Institute. The annual fundraising event helps raise awareness of retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease. RiverDogs’ co-owner Mike Veeck’s daughter suffers from retinitis pigmentosa and MUSC’s Storm Eye Institute is one of the baseball team’s primary charities.

Gilstrap and Smith, along with College of Charleston golfers Lorenzetti and John Duke Hudson, formed “Team Noseeums,” a tribute to a charity tournament once held at Charleston Municipal Golf Course.

Smith’s goal, like that of many golfers, is to break 100. Gilstrap shoots in the low 100s. They contributed drives, chips and putts in a respectable 14-under-par score in the captain’s choice tournament. “Team Noseeums” didn’t win, but they certainly were the story of the event.

“I’ve played with everyone from a 2-year-old to a PGA touring pro and this was by far the most awesome day I’ve ever had on a golf course,” said Hudson, who acted as Smith’s coach for the first time. “To do what these two gentlemen do in life, much less on a golf course, is really remarkable. I helped Mr. Smith out all day and he made contact with the ball every time and hit good shots. It was pretty remarkable.”

Blind golfers play the game by the same rules as anyone else, except that they have a “coach” who helps them align their shots and tells them the distance and direction of the shot or putt.

Hudson said he didn’t know what to expect when he arrived at the clubhouse on the morning of the tournament. The group went to the practice range where Smith and Gilstrap “coached their coaches.”

For Gilstrap, Lorenzetti would put a club on the ground indicating the line of the shot and would offer a description of the distance and what lay ahead. Hudson guided Smith to his shot and helped him get aligned before backing away. After a couple of practice strokes, Hudson would place a ball in front of Smith’s club and then tell him what type of swing was needed. Then it was up to Smith to execute the shot.

Hudson said he was a little nervous at first, but by the time they reached the back nine “we worked together as a team, we worked as one. It was really cool.”

Smith has always been athletic. He’s run the Boston Marathon and competed in triathlons. He played rugby and soccer at Syracuse. Retinitis pigmentosa began to reveal itself when he was 18 and was having trouble driving at night. By the time he was 28, Smith needed a cane to help him get around.

Today, he teaches business and risk-insurance management classes at the College of Charleston and telecommutes for the John Hancock Co. Smith also is chairman of the board for the South Carolina Commission for the Blind.

“I’ve always used my athletic ability to deal with my blindness,” Smith said. He switched from team sports to individual sports. Smith narrowly missed qualifying for the Paralympics in tandem cycling. While living and working in Boston, Smith was introduced to golf by a friend. Smith took a few lessons at Wayland Country Club near Boston, the home of blind golfer Joe Lozaro, who once broke 80.

When Smith moved to Charleston in 2008, Rod Turnage approached him and offered to take him to play at Charleston National in Mount Pleasant. Turnage is the son-in-law of Phil Blackwell, currently one of the best blind golfers in the country.

“I don’t like using a driver and (Turnage) had me hitting it 200 yards straight with a little fade. I couldn’t believe it,” Smith said. “I started going out and sheer repetition got me to the point where I’m competitive. I’m looking to break 100 this year.”

Much of his practice and playing these days is at the College of Charleston’s Learning Center at the Links at Stono Ferry. Men’s golf coach Mark McEntire invited Smith to use the facilities and he tries to practice at least once a week. When time permits, he will play 18 holes.

Smith said his golf game has continued to improve, and when he played in the American Blind Golf national championship last fall, things began to click.

“I shot my first-ever birdie and had some bogeys in a row, which for a blind golfer is pretty good,” he said. “What really started improving was my putting. One of the advantages blind golfers have is we don’t see the hazards.”

Gilstrap was in the insurance business for 24 years until being forced to retire because of his vision loss. Although he now lives in a small town near Athens, Ga., he grew up in Summerville and still returns home and plays golf about once a month at Summerville (Miler) Country Club.

“I played loosely for 20 to 25 years but I never got very good. I’m laid-back where it honestly doesn’t bother me. I don’t let it get to me,” Gilstrap said.

Gilstrap, 49, said he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa in 2003, and he stopped playing golf when he could no longer see well enough to hit the ball. He said it began with blurry spots in his vision. He thought he just needed glasses before an ophthalmologist made the diagnosis.

Longtime friend Stan Byram encouraged Gilstrap to continue playing golf. Byram would help him line up the ball with the clubhead and help find it after the shot.

“I’m not the kind of person who sits on a couch feeling sorry for himself,” Gilstrap said. “I play golf with Stan in Summerville 10 or 15 times a year. I’m not very good. I play from the white tees and when I shoot in the low 100s I consider it great.

“If I make a bogey, I’m very happy. A couple of times I’ve made pars and that’s a personal celebration.”