2002-07-25 / Front Page

McNeish Doesn't Let Blindness Keep Her off the Links

McNeish Doesn't Let Blindness Keep Her off the Links

Susan McNeish of Randolph Center is definitely a woman who knows how to make lemonade when life hands her a lemon.

McNeish lost her sight eight years ago as a result of surgery following a brain aneurism. A couple of years later, she decided to take up golf.

Determined to share her love of golf with others, she has founded the Vermont Blind Golfers Association. Registered with the U.S. Golf Assoc. and sponsored by the Vermont Blind Artisans Group and the Vermont Council of the Blind, the group has already attracted six members.

"I’m out here to have fun!" McNeish said with a grin, as she strode confidently across the putting green at Randolph’s Montague Golf Club. Her faithful companion, Balsa, a seven-year-old white German Shepherd guide dog, stuck close to her side.

"My whole world changed in 24 hours," said McNeish of losing her sight. "It wasn’t an easy adjustment, but I realized I had to make the best of it. I still have four per cent vision in one eye, so on good days, I can see a little bit and on other days, not at all."

After an initial period of depression, McNeish, who had owned and operated a successful hairdressing business in Erie, Penna., spent two and a half years in rehabilitation. Feeling dissatisfied with using a white cane, she traveled to California and spent a month training with Balsa at Guide Dogs for the Blind, Inc. in San Rafael. She is now a graduate agency representative for the company, with the eastern U.S. as her territory.

"They try to prepare you for every life experience you might encounter," McNeish said, "including crowded streets, subways, escalators, trains, airplanes, buses and other things."

"Sometimes during the training, I didn’t think I could do it," she continued, recalling a day in downtown San Francisco, when it all just seemed too difficult to master.

A Team with Balsa

"But one day, about two weeks after I got home with Balsa, we were walking along and suddenly it felt like we were gliding on air. We had clicked and figured out how to work together. It was a wonderful feeling! Having Balsa has given me so much confidence. We’ve learned to operate as a team, reading each other’s minds, and she relays information to me. The dog does most of it; when we come to a door, her nose is always pointed towards the door knob so I know where it is."

McNeish noted that "as long as the harness is on, Balsa stays right beside me. You have to keep working with them and praising them for each thing they do for you."

When McNeish joined the Randolph Rotary Club, Balsa joined too—and has her own Rotary badge.

McNeish sparkles with enthusiasm when she talks about playing golf, which she took up five years ago at the suggestion of a friend. She played for four years with the Northwestern Penna. Blind Golfers Assoc., before moving to Randolph Center a year ago to be with her companion, Bill Mather.

"I needed to do something for exercise and sociability," McNeish explained. "I love sports and I can’t play most others anymore. I also love being outdoors."

The sport of blind golf had its beginning in 1924 when a blind man, Clinton Russell of Minnesota, challenged Dr. Beach Qienham of London, England to the first game of blind golf. In 1941, the second tournament took place in Fort Worth, Texas, and the first National Blind Golf Tournament was played in Inglewood Calif. five years later. The United States Blind Golf Association was founded in 1953 and has been growing ever since. The organization has expanded to include Great Britain, Canada, Australia, Japan and Germany.

Blind Golf: How It's Done

Many people would wonder how a blind person could play golf. McNeish explained it as a step-by-step process:

"You golf with a partner and they line you up by having you stretch your arms out in front of you and hold the club straight across with an end in each hand. This helps them orient you toward the green."

When McNeish brings her club down, her feet are already angled.

"I very gently touch the ball with my club and think about keeping my left arm straight," McNeish continued. "I think about my swing and then, with any amount of luck, I’ll hit the ball!"

The golfer’s partner keeps track of the ball, and in a putting situation will go to the flag stake at the hole and tap it to help the golfer hear where the hole is.

After losing her sight, McNeish trained herself to hear more acutely in many situations, and golfing is one of them.

"I follow the sound to hit the ball and then pray that it goes in!" McNeish said with a grin. "The reality is, the blind person hears that wonderful drive down the fairway, or that well-putted ball dropping into the hole. The sighted person sees the ball, but we hear that perfect hit."

McNeish, who will soon be competing with 120 other golfers in a Blind Golfers Tournament in Erie, Pa., says she is grateful to Montague’s resident golf pro Bob Allen for being "very supportive" of the VBGA: "He’s excited to have us play at his course—now all we need are more golfers!"

In addition to golfers, McNeish is looking for more coaches and drivers, since transporting a golfer to the course is often a problem.

In order to be eligible for the VBGA, a person must be legally blind, visually impaired or totally blind, have a coach and want to have fun playing the sport. According to McNeish, "anyone of any age can do this."

In addition to golfing, working to get the VBGA up and running, and traveling as part of her work for Guide Dogs for the Blind, the amazing McNeish is taking college classes from CCV online, using special computer software. She noted proudly that in two more years she expected to have her doctorate in psychology, which she plans to use to help her counsel the blind and visually impaired.

"One of my favorite sayings is ‘being blind isn’t the end of seeing, it’s the beginning of seeing more clearly,’" McNeish said. "Without my vision, I see much more about people than I did before. I’m not blinded by their physical appearance."

For more information about the Vermont Blind Golfers Assoc. or Guide Dogs for the Blind, contact McNeish by calling 728-5843 or sending E-mail to balsasue@sover.net.

By Martha Slater

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