Golfer adapts to blindness Ñ and golf adapts to him
• Ex-teacher's 'competitive juices' flowing for national championship
With a lifetime of teaching school and playing golf seemingly ahead of him, Ron Plath kicked back during a work break in Alaska and looked off in the distance. Moose!
The herd was clear to see Ñ for everyone but Plath. The 26-year-old Eugene native couldn't make them out.
Plath figured he needed glasses. Over the next few years, he tried on pair after pair and visited several ophthalmologists. But nothing corrected his blurred vision.
His golf handicap was down to 4.8 when Ñ about to start his first teaching job in a fifth-grade classroom at Beaverton's McKay Elementary Ñ the problem was identified.
'You have the best kind of blindness,' the doctor said, trying to break it to him gently.
Plath learned that he had macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness. Although it typically strikes people in their mid-50s or older, and there is no cure, his vision would worsen only gradually, over many years.
Eventually, Plath had to quit teaching, after a 12-year career. 'It got to where I couldn't read my writing on the chalkboard and couldn't grade papers,' he says.
Today, at 52, he is legally blind.
But he still plays golf a couple of times a week, and he's getting ready for a big tournament, his first competition since he was afflicted.
The United States Blind Golf Association's national championship Ñ the U.S. Open for blind golfers Ñ is coming to his home course, the OGA Members Course in Woodburn, Sept. 23-24.
Plath, who carries a 9 handicap, has shot as low as 76 and no higher than 86 this season. The Mountain Park resident could be a strong contender in one of the tournament's three divisions.
He and the other entrants will play with the help of a caddie 'coach.' Steve Mallicoat, a friend and regular playing partner, will help Plath line up shots and compute yardage, tell him where his ball goes and help him read the greens.
Plath's vision is 20/300 in his left eye and 20/400 in his right eye. With his left eye, the biggest E on the eye chart is blurry. With his right eye, he can't make out the letter at all. He watches golf on TV Ñ he caught the end of the U.S. Women's Open Ñ by sitting 'real close' to a 43-inch screen.
'Can't read the scores or the graphics, though,' he says.
He can tell when someone walks up to him, but he can't distinguish faces. 'People will recognize me, but I'm not able to recognize them,' he says.
The 1968 Willamette High grad scores well on the links largely because he played a lot of golf as a youngster. His parents, avid golfers, were early members of Shadow Hills Country Club in Junction City. He still has his first club, a cut-down 7-iron he swung at age 3.
When Plath takes his golf stance, he can see a fuzzy object on the tee or ground and knows it's his golf ball. He can't follow his shots or his putts, but from about 3 feet he can at least make out what looks like the cup.
Before hitting a wood or iron, he tries to spot a blurry object in the distance ÑÊa tall tree or a speck of white that he knows must be a bunker.
'If I know there's a trap on the left and someone tells me the pin is 10 yards to the right of that, I'll adjust my aim accordingly,' he says. 'And then if I do what I'm supposed to do, the hole will get in the way.'
Once on the green, he tries to feel the undulations under his feet. He has calculated about how many feet his ball will roll when he takes the putter back to his right toe, or an inch beyond it, or 2 inches, and so on, and makes the same follow-through at the same pace of stroke. He has a playing partner tend the flag on his putts.
He refuses to think of his limited vision as a handicap on the course.
'My expectations haven't dropped at all. My goal each time out is still to shoot in the 70s,' he says. 'I wish I could see the golf ball, but if I have a bad day I can think of a million reasons for it, and it's basically because I was swinging lousy.
'The only thing is that it's hard for me to practice a lot, other than my chipping. Sometimes I think if I could practice more, I could do better.'
Working the Web
Plath works on a Web site for International Discount Golf stores and publishes an annual Northwest golf calendar. His wife, Carolyn, is an elementary school teacher in the Beaverton district.
His sister Diane Wilson, 55, of Renton, Wash., also has macular degeneration, although in her case the disease hasn't progressed as much. His other sister, Wendy Harris, 46, of Redmond, Wash., 'sees like a hawk,' he says.
'With me, it will get to the point where the ball on the ground won't be just fuzzy, I won't be able to see it at all,' he says. 'At one time, I was told that typically happens about 30 years after the onset of the disease. I figure my 30 years will be around 2005.'
When Plath learned earlier this year that the national championship was coming to Oregon, he decided to postpone surgery on his left knee and began playing and practicing with even more purpose.
Plath has heard that the tournament's field of more than 50 blind or vision-impaired golfers will include at least seven Europeans, including one good player from Scotland in his division.
'That gets my competitive juices flowing,' he says.