From vision-impaired golfers, eye-opening feats

Mario Tobia, 58, of Mount Laurel, assisted by Steve Rodos, will be in Seattle this weekend to compete in the United States Blind Golf Association's national championship.
Mario Tobia, 58, of Mount Laurel, assisted by Steve Rodos, will be in Seattle this weekend to compete in the United States Blind Golf Association's national championship. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff)
Posted: August 17, 2013

Quiet, please.

We're on the 16th hole of Philmont Country Club in Huntingdon Valley for the MABGA annual Pro-Am tournament.

Mario Tobia, 58, of Mount Laurel, tees up. He steps back, grips his driver, and extends it toward the ball.

It's the longest hole on Philmont's south course: 499 yards to the flag. Hard to see.

"Close your stance a little," says a voice.

Tobia brings in his left foot, addresses the ball, raises his club back, swings, and thwack! The ball sails about 210 yards down the fairway.

"See that?" the voice asked brightly. "You hit it farther."

Tobia nods, but he hadn't really seen the shot. He never saw the ball either, or the fairway, or Steve Rodos - the voice.

A retired lawyer from Langhorne, Rodos was also the hand on Tobia's elbow Friday as they headed back to their cart. And his eyes.

This was a tournament of the Mid-Atlantic Blind Golfers Association - MABGA. Now in its 65th year, the association hosts 40 outings and tournaments across the Philadelphia area for about 100 blind and visually impaired golfers.

Tobia, a consultant for the Veterans Administration, is one of the best in the game.

He will be in Seattle this weekend to compete in the United States Blind Golf Association's national championship, where he has taken second "several times."

"I started playing when I was 30," he said.

That was five years after he had been found to have retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited, degenerative eye disease that can lead to total blindness.

"I was 25 when the doctor told me I'd have night blindness at 30, stop driving at 40, and need a cane at 50. He was dead on."

Today he sees "just light and dark." That makes him a "B-3" player: completely unsighted, in the jargon of blind golfers.

"What a normal person can see 650 feet away, a B-3 can only see at 20 feet," he explained. "But I see zero. Nothing."

He smiled. "I love it out here," he said, "because this I can still do."

His partner Friday was Patrick Shine, golfing director at Commonwealth Country Club in Horsham.

Each player on a mixed-sight team takes a tee shot and, based on the lie, pick the more favorable one to continue playing. Blind and sighted player then alternate shots until the ball is holed.

Playing opposite Tobia and Shine on Friday were Rod Ryan, 76, of Ambler: a retired salesman and a "B-1," or visually impaired golfer. Joining him was Dan Donohue, golfing director at Whitemarsh Valley Country Club.

Ryan, who describes his sight as "tunnel vision" - meaning he can see only a small area straight ahead - was found to have retinitis pigmentosa in 1976.

"I used to drive 35,000 miles a year," he said. "Around 1997 I had to quit."

Guiding Ryan Friday was 84-year-old Don Betterly, his "coach" for the past 10 years.

It is the coach who helps orient a blind golfer to the ball and the hole. For Ryan, who can see the ball but little around it, Betterly's role is laid back. He guides Ryan to the tee, helps him find his ball, and murmurs descriptions of the situation, such as, "It's uphill," or "That was low to the left," through a cigar clenched in his teeth.

"Aim for the smoke," he joked on one green as he stood by the hole.

For Rodos, however, coaching is a more hands-on job. When Tobia steps up to the tee, Rodos typically crouches before him, gripping the driver by its head and adjusting its face so it's square to the ball.

He then describes the ball's flight and lie, helps orient Tobia's irons to the green. Once on the green, he grips his arm and the two walk from the ball to the hole, counting the paces, and back.

"If I count, say, eight paces," said Tobia, "I take the putter back eight inches and follow through eight inches. It works pretty good."

And then Rodos will talk him through a putt. "The ball's not centered," he might say, or, "A little left."

Viewed from a distance, however, it was pretty routine golf. Donohue and Shine generally hit well, groaning when they drove wide but sometimes dropping iron shots two or three feet from the pin.

Tobia's and Ryan's shots were more erratic, flying wide or short sometimes. But they also hit some of the best shots of the day.

"You'd be better playing by yourself," Donohue joked when Ryan tapped in a 15-footer.

It was a good day for Ryan, who played better than usual. He and Donohue carded an 85.

Tobia, who has been trying a new swing in recent months, was disappointed with their 89. "I was tweaking things too much," he said, and slicing his drives. Still, he and Shine finished second in the blind category.

Afterward, Shine took him to the driving range, where he gripped Tobia's arms through the swing, showing him how it should feel. Soon his drives were flying straight, again and again, for 200 yards.

"I'd be world champion with you coaching me," Tobia said when they got back to the clubhouse for lunch.


Contact David O'Reilly at 856-779-3841 or doreilly@phillynews.com.

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