Members of the United States Blind Golf Association and a swarm of volunteers flocked to Haven Golf Course in Green Valley for an annual ritual on April 19-20. That ritual is the USBGA's fifth annual Green Valley Arizona regional golf tournament, which has been played at Haven for each of the past four years.
The tournament, which included two 18-hole rounds, has been organized since its inception by Green Valley couple Dick and Sharon Pomo, who have been involved with the association for more than a decade.
This year's tournament featured a record 28 golfers from 11 states and three provinces in Canada, each of whom brought a coach.
Sharon said she and Dick spend four to six months preparing to host the tournament, but that all the work is worthwhile.
"You form a friendship, and it's just nice to do a tournament and welcome them to our small community," Sharon Pomo said. "We love the volunteers, and it's just all good."
Camaraderie & competition
Founded shortly after World War II, the USBGA aims to bring people with similar macular issues together through the game of golf. Those who compete in USBGA events play by the same rules as sighted golfers and don't let their lack of sight stop them from playing the game they love.
Golfer Ty Thompson, 54, lost his eyesight to a genetic disorder 11 years ago and said the events help members overcome adversity.
"People think that this is some sort of entertainment, and often times it is for the sighted," Thompson said. "But for the blind it's about changing your world because this is something that most people wouldn't think that we could accomplish."
Thompson, who serves as the president of the Bluegrass Council of the Blind in Lexington, Ky., said the events also build lifelong friendships amongst competitors.
"This gets them out, and it gets them out with other people who have similar eyesight issues," Thompson said. "It forms a bond in the community because we're all exploring a golf course together. So it's not about whether we win or lose, or do good or bad. It's about the camaraderie of exploring, and getting out."
Kissimmee, Fla. resident Tom Mirus, 62, blind with cataracts in both eyes, said the USBGA events are special for a number of reasons.
"There really aren't any physical limitations for people that want to play golf," Mirus said. "You can play golf when you can't see, you can play golf with arthritis, you can play with one arm or one leg. You don't have to be in perfect health to play golf. It really is a game you can play your whole lifetime."
Sahuarita resident David Van Dam, 75, caught a disease in the 1960s while serving in the Vietnam War that destroyed his retinas, leaving him with only his peripheral vision.
Van Dam entered the tournament for the first time this year, and was very impressed with the experience.
"Well, it's wonderful to be with my peers — people that understand my problems and I understand their problems. We have a sense of camaraderie," Van Dam said. "There's a Marine that lost his vision at about the same time in Vietnam that I did, so it's nice to talk with him and compare notes."
USBGA events are divided into three classes — B1, B2 and B3 — with B1 being completely blind, B2 for those with eyesight between 20/600 and legally blind, and B3 for anyone between 20/200 and 20/600.
The annual tournament has become known amongst USBGA members across the country for its volunteer base.
Each year the event draws an impressive number of local volunteers, and this year was no exception. Sharon Pomo estimates that this year's event broke last year's record for volunteer count, with 48 people helping with everything from shuttling people back and forth to the airport in Tucson to updating each player's score.
Thompson, who has competed in all five of the Green Valley tournaments, praised the Pomos for having excellent volunteers every year.
"Every year there are several things that are special about this tournament," Thompson said. "One is the camaraderie, two is the volunteers, they're exceptional here. There's a great community here, not just because they volunteer every year, but because they remember you from year to year and greet you by name. It's fantastic!"
Another special aspect of blind golf is the relationship shared by players and their coaches. Blind golfers are completely reliant on their coaches for everything from shot direction to putt alignment and course navigation.
Mirus, who has worked with coach Robbie Robertson for 16 years, said the relationship between player and coach is certainly unique.
"Well, he's your best friend, he's your eyes out there on the course, and we call it the ultimate team sport, because that's what it is," Mirus said. "I couldn't play without having somebody with me. So we work together and he helps me with the terrain and what's in between."
Thompson's coach Doug Kaylor shared a similar sentiment about the relationship between player and coach in blind golf.
"It makes you feel really humble," Kaylor said. "You can go out there and play with them and you'll see that they can do it. These guys are really good!"
Entering tournaments is a labor of love for players, as they must cover the travel costs for both themselves and their coaches.
Thompson said the tournaments, while expensive, are worth every penny spent.
"It does get expensive," Thompson said. "But it's such a good learning experience about getting out and trying to accomplish things that they never would have dreamed of."
Christopher Boan | 547-9747