As the golf ball hit the bottom of the cup, Kirsten Kirby broke out into a big smile.
The 16-year-old visually impaired Rusk High School student was not only happy about making the putt, but also about the message World Champion blind golfer Jeremy Poincenot delivered on Monday at The Cascades Golf Club.
“I enjoyed his instructions on putting, but the major inspiration that was number one on my list was how — even though he is legally blind — he has traveled the world,” said Kirby, a budding young journalist who is writing a novel. “He has been to England, China and Japan even though he is blind at age 21. From that, I feel I can do anything.”
Poincenot’s uplifting message not only connected to the visually impaired youngsters from around East Texas, but also the golfers who were taking part in the Saving Sight Golf Tournament.
Almost three years ago, Poincenot was a carefree 19-year-old college student and fraternity brother.
Then one morning around Thanksgiving 2008, the San Diego State University international business major awoke with blurred vision. He thought it was no big deal. However, a trip to his optometrist to pick up glasses resulted in Poincenot being diagnosed with a possible brain tumor. While an MRI ruled out the brain tumor, his vision continued to worsen.
Over the next month, he lost central vision in one eye and his once 20/20 vision dropped to 20/1000.
He was eventually diagnosed with Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy (LHON), a rare genetic disorder that affects only one out of every 50,000 people. He could no longer drive a car, read or recognize faces.
At first he battled depression, but with the help of his family, friends and fraternity brothers he changed his attitude. Now, he is upbeat about life.
What helped him was reconnecting with his passion for golf. As he grew up, he and his father (Lionel) bonded on the golf course and he was missing that. His mother (Lissa) discovered the United States Blind Golf Association.
With the help of a guide (most of the time his father but this weekend in Tyler his girlfriend Ellen Leach) he began to get his game back; both on and off the course.
In 2009, he placed third in the U.S. Blind Golf Championships and in August 2010 he traveled to England where he won the International Blind Golf Association World Blind Golf Championship. He chipped in to win the tournament in a playoff at Whittlebury Park, Northamptonshire. He had rounds of 91 and 89 and defeated England’s Simon Cookson in the playoff.
After winning the U.S. Championship in Georgia in August, he has qualified to play in the world championship in July in Nova Scotia.
But for this weekend, he was bringing awareness to The East Texas Lighthouse for the Blind. Also, he showed how someone could suffer a tremendous loss, but bounce back and not limit your options.
The proceeds from the golf tournament will benefit PATH and The East Texas Lighthouse for the Blind in order to provide free eye exams, eyeglasses and low vision aids to those in the community who cannot afford them.
His message at the clinic, which was sponsored by Brookshire’s, was to offer some tips, but most of all “to have fun.”
“The best part if you hit a bad shot, you can always blame your guide,” he laughed.
He taught the students proper grip, stance and posture. The youngsters were from grades six through 11 and from Eustace, Harmony, Chapel Hill, West Rusk, Rusk and Jacksonville.
Each student had a guide and Poincenot would make the rounds offering advice and encouragement.
Abby Allen, 11, was excited about putting. The sixth-grader at Harmony Junior High said Poincenot helped her with her grip.
Blake Carter, 9 and a fourth-grader at Chapel Hill, said he was given proper instruction on posture.
The clinic was the second for Poincenot. The first came in Hong Kong.
“Your goal is to be successful, but most of all it is to have fun,” he said.
Following the clinic, luncheon and his talk, Poincenot and his team of Jason Cathey, Trent Dawson and Tudey Teten carded a 65.
Poincenot had a smooth fluid swing and before each shot his girlfriend lined him up in the right direction. More times than not, he found the fairway and the green.
He described his vision as like a donut. He has peripheral vision, but it is dark in the middle, which does not allow him to drive or read.
It has not held him back. After college, Poincenot, whose visit was sponsored by Southside Bank, wants to be a motivational speaker.
“I hope to raise awareness of LHON and hopefully help find a cure for this genetic disease that caused me to go blind and that threatens my mom, sister and brother with the same outcome,” he said.
He added, “Life is filled with obstacles and tough at times. It is all about attitude. You can only determine what you can make out of your life.”
Saving Sight Golf Tournament
The Cascades Golf Club
1, Michael Hubbard, Lester Melontree, Robert Reagins, Alfred Thompson, 53; 2, Eli Clem, Buster Clem, Clint Helms, Tom Prothro, 55; 3, Randal Glaskee, Hunter Glaskee, Zach Glaskee, Chris Ogden, 56; 4, Jimmie Evans, Gary Hanan, David Odle, Steve Winters, 58; 5, Denver Dyer, Cary Evans, Justin Holt, Wyndell Roberts, 59; 6, Bill Campbell, Chase Colston, Gregory Hall, Jake Mienk, 60; 7, (tie) Kent Domigue, Joe Elliott, Eric Sullivan, Nick Zelinski, 61; Presswood, Avery, O’Toole, Gagliano, 61; 9, (tie) Ken Lisk, Jason Ellis, Ben Marks, Mark Tang, 62; Greg Adcock, Mike Martin, Mike Martin Jr., Randy Roberts, 62; Brian Hotman, Dean Cagle, Mackey, Bates, 62.