Blind golfer wins 'Most Courageous'

Posted: January 29, 2013

MARIO TOBIA was 25 when a doctor diagnosed him with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that would leave him blind. The doctor told him that by age 30 he would have night blindness; by 40 he would no longer be able to drive; and by 50 he would have to walk with a cane. The doctor told him to begin preparations for a future without the ability to see.

It was devastating news. Tobia could not bring himself believe it. Surely, he told himself, there was some error in his diagnosis, that perhaps the problems he had been having picking up the ball off the bat in his softball games were due to something else. So Tobia did not prepare himself as the doctor recommended, only to discover that his prognosis had been correct. With each passing year, his vision continued to dwindle until it vanished completely and left him steeped in darkness.

Given his disability, a golf course seemed an unlikely place to find Tobia, who is now 57. But that is exactly where you can find him. Tobia not only still plays golf but plays it so well that he was bestowed with 2013 Most Courageous Athlete Award by the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association Monday evening at its 109th annual dinner at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Cherry Hill. Joined by his wife, Ann and their two adult sons, Matt and Michael, Tobia characterized the plaque he received as "a tremendous honor for me."

"I was humbled to even be considered for it," says Tobia, who lives in Mount Laurel, N.J. "When I heard who some of the previous winners had been, I was just blown away by it."

Tobia began playing golf at age 30, in part because his deteriorating vision prohibited him from participating in any sports that involved hand-eye coordination. At Cinnaminson High School, he had competed in football and track and field. He won a partial scholarship to La Salle to throw the discus. Golf enabled him to continue to compete until he could no longer see the targets on the course. It was not until he discovered the Middle Atlantic Blind Golf Association in 2000 that he began playing again. Nationally, he has competed in events with the U.S. Blind Golf Association and the American Blind Golf Association. He has won four ABGA and USBGA events the past 2 years, including the 2010 ABGA championship in the Blind Division. Although he shoots in "the mid-90s to 100," he says his goal is to shoot in the 70s at some point.

How does he do it?

With the help of his two sons and a coach, Steve Rodos.

"We guide him by the arm," says son Michael. "We line him, let know how far he has to hit and then describe where it has landed."

"Like a caddie would do," adds the other son, Matt. We help him analyze the shot he has to play."

Says Rodos: "Like any golfer, he has to stay out of the woods. Of course, he has no idea where the woods are."

Tobia says his sons helped him simplify his swing. "When I could see, I had a swing with a lot of movement in it, a swing that required a lot of hand-eye coordination to get back to the ball," says the former computer consultant who now teaches visually impaired and blind veterans in South Jersey and Delaware to use computers. "So we had to shorten up and find a swing I can reply on."

Michael says putting is a challenge: "At one point, when he still had some vision, one of us would stand behind the pin and he could see our outline. Now, what he will do is walk off the distance between the ball and the cup. By doing that, he can also get a feel for how the green is leaning."

Ann Tobia says her husband was "very involved with their sons when they were growing up. When it came to golf, he taught them everything he knew. Now, they are giving back to him."

Does Tobia consider what he has done courageous?

He pauses before he says: "I think of it more as survival than courage," he says. "Golf has given me a chance to get out of the house and socialize with people."

Tobia recommended that to "anyone with a handicap. Regardless of what it is, you just have to find something you enjoy doing," he says. "And then take on the challenge. Get out and play a sport or join an organization."

Tobia said he is at peace with his affliction. "Ten years ago, when I still had some sight, I would dwell on the fact that I could no longer see as well as I once could. Now, I feel better about myself than I did then."

So how good is he?

Good enough to fool some fellow golfers out on the course, according to his son.

"People will look at us on the course and sense something is unusual," Matt says. "This is usually four or five holes [into play]. When I tell them he is blind, they just look at him and say, 'He plays better than me.' "

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