Vision-impaired golfer Mario Tobia wins Most Courageous Athlete Award

Golfer Mario Tobia holds the 2013 Most Courageous Athlete award given by the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association.
Golfer Mario Tobia holds the 2013 Most Courageous Athlete award given by the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association. (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 29, 2013

Mario Tobia once griped on the golf course that as his vision faded, he could not track the ball. When Tobia golfs now, he cannot see at all. He needs someone to help him set up for the shot and judges his success by how the club feels on contact.

"And I feel better about myself than I did back then," Tobia said.

Tobia, a 57-year-old from Mount Laurel who lost his eyesight during the last three decades because of an eye disorder, is now an award-winning golfer with the American Blind Golf Association. On Monday, the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association honored him with the 2013 Most Courageous Athlete Award.

"I consider it more survival than courageous," Tobia said. "It's something I did to, it sounds a bit too extreme, but to save my life. To be able to go out and play, and do something, and socialize with people and get out of the house, it was survival more than courage."

Tobia learned of the disorder when he was 25 and suffering vision problems. He played shortstop on a softball team and struggled some days to pick up the ball off the bat. He was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a disorder that causes severe vision impairment and often blindness. His doctor told him that his vision would erode and to start planning for a future without sight.

"I was totally devastated," Tobia said. "I didn't believe him."

He thought he would reach retirement age before it became an issue. But as the doctor anticipated, he became night blind by the time he was 30, needed to stop driving by 40, and required a cane to navigate by 50. Now, at 57, he has only light perception out of his left eye and cannot see out of his right.

The disorder uprooted his life, especially his career. He was a computer consultant and later received an offer from a major accounting firm, although Tobia could not take the position because he needed to accept a job closer to home.

Tobia stayed away from golf courses when the vision problems became severe, but he returned in 2000 upon learning about the Middle Atlantic Blind Golf Association. It offered a social and recreational outlet and even led to a new occupation.

While golfing, Tobia networked and found a job with the Veterans Administration, where he trains visually impaired and blinded veterans in the region to use computers. That process added more meaning to his life, and it started on the golf course.

"It's just something that I enjoyed doing," Tobia said. "Golf is one of the few sports I could really still play. Everything else you do mostly requires hand-eye coordination, and it's not possible anymore. Golf is one of those sports where you can do it without being able to see the ball, and it's something I want to do."

Tobia always golfs with a coach - either his designated coach, or his two sons. They guide him on the course, which includes telling the distance to the hole and the layout of the shot. Tobia picks his club and the coach ensures that Tobia is lined up properly.

Tobia has simplified his swing, allowing him to quickly and consistently hit the ball.

The sense that helps him the most is touch. He feels when he makes solid contact. He cannot tell direction well and waits for feedback from his coach.

Tobia's 28-year-old son, Matt, said the part that a full-sighted person most takes for granted on the course is to witness the bad shots. Good shots can be appreciated, but the bad shots can never be fully understood.

Tobia's 23-year-old son, Mike, said watching players on TV is the part he most takes for granted, because he can watch Tiger Woods' swing but cannot fully explain it.

Mario Tobia's wife, Ann, noted that she's envious because it allows him to spend so much time with their sons. And the entire family admired the attitude Tobia maintains.

"I'm just trying to have a good time," Tobia said, "enjoy what I'm doing and enjoy my life."


Contact Zach Berman at zberman@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @ZBerm

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