“I expect we’ll get to the greens fairly easily at Sawgrass, but then it’ll take forever.”
England’s John Eakin is registered as blind and will this week captain the Rest of the World team against North America in the fifth Vision Cup.
The famed Florida course, renowned for its island par three hole, is hosting the two-day Ryder Cup-style event this week, with teams of 14 blind golfers competing in a match play format.
It was first contested in 2013 and Eakin has been on the winning team in three of the previous four contests, with the Rest of the World team retaining the title in the other.
“They have good players, but so do we,” Eakin said. “It’s competitive, but part of it has been the fun of meeting other visually impaired golfers and I want everyone to play well. If we lose, so be it.”
Eakin, who is 64, began losing his sight in his late 40s and has only 10% of his central vision left. He played with a handicap of three at his best with full sight, but is now playing with an incredibly respectable 10.
He says he was “somewhat depressed and unhappy” when his eyesight began to fail. “I gave up golf for about a year, although my wife will tell you it was more like four weeks,” Eakin says with a smile.
But then he found Blind Golf in England and Wales, an organization that he says has been “a great source of comfort” over the years. There are “about 50 members” according to Eakin, but the biggest problem is attracting guides and spotters.
Blind golf is a team game. Each player relies on a guide to line up shots, place the clubhead behind the ball, give yardage distances and describe surroundings. Spotters do just that, keeping an eye out for wayward shots. There has been a recent push to recruit more into the game.
There are three categories – B1 players have no light perception in both eyes, or light perception but an inability to recognize shapes at any distance or in any direction. Players B2 and B3 have a low level of partial vision, players B2 being worse than B3.
Teams for the Vision Cup, which begins on Tuesday and has been organized by the United States Blind Golf Association, will include four golfers in each of the B1, B2 and B3 categories and two women. Eakin’s squad will include four players from England, three from Scotland and others from South Africa, Australia, Austria and Israel, while the North American squad will be selected from Canada, United States, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic and Mexico.
Eakin, who has been a member of Royal Ashdown Forest in East Sussex for 35 years – including a year as captain in 2014 – is in the B3 category.
I’m sitting six feet away from him and he says my face is white and completely blurry. When I ask him what he sees of the ball, he laughs saying, “I have an advantage. The blur makes the ball slightly bigger.”
While he knows his home run well, he still needs a guide and stresses that the relationship between the two is crucial to their success.
“It’s useful if they have a good knowledge of golf but not essential,” he says, before adding that his wife, who “hates golf” guided him “and finds it hilarious when I win”.
Chris Vaughan is his usual guide but Steve Killick, who has guided Eakin on several occasions, will be present in Florida. “Chris is always quiet when I hit a bad shot but Steve usually laughs,” he adds. “I’m comfortable with both.”
When it comes to the shooting advice he faces, Eakin says “sometimes it’s better not to know everything.”
I specifically referred to the 17th par three at Sawgrass – a 132-yard hole played completely through water to an island green – a shot that even the best golfers on the planet fear. All matches will start on the 10th hole so players have the opportunity to tackle the iconic hole.
“There’s so much going on in your head,” Eakin says. “I sometimes feel like it’s a waste of time to know everything. A lot of B1 players tend to want to know too much but that’s something you have to decide with your guide.”
The hardest shot for a blind golfer? “Some blind golfers hate the water but I think the rough is more difficult,” he replies.
“If your ball lands in water it’s just a drop. With rough it’s hard to hit your ball. There’s a lot of heather on my course so now I just drop my ball and play according to my abilities.
“But the most difficult shot, unfortunately, is the putting.
“I can see the ball but I can’t tell if the putter face is open or closed at impact. And I can’t make out the subtle slopes on the greens. 12 feet and downhill, my guide could say it’s a six foot strength putt.
“That’s why Sawgrass will be so tough. We’ll get to the greens in two or three strokes and I expect to take a lot more.”