It’s a common question to ask golfers on a tee box: “Who’s up?”
Usually the person with the lowest score from the previous hole tees off first, but in casual settings, the person with ball and club already in hand can hit first.
After chatting briefly on the 16th hole tee box – a par 3 – at the Wild Dunes Golf Resort Harbor Course, Peter Alan Smith asked the rest of his foursome, “Who’s up?”
“We’re still waiting,” John Duke Hudson replied. “They’re (the group in front of them) on the green.”
“Oh, okay,” Smith said.
It wasn’t a matter of score. It was a matter of wanting to play. For most, like Hudson, it’s a clear observation. For Smith, it’s anything but visual. Smith is blind.
He is diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a degenerative eye disease which weakens vision, according to a report in The Catalyst, the internal newspaper of the Medical University of South Carolina. There is no cure for RP.
Smith, Hudson, Jim Gilstrap and Josh Lorenzetti played together in the Charleston RiverDogs eighth annual charity golf tournament at Wild Dunes, Tuesday. The event benefitted MUSC’s Storm Eye Institute. Gilstrap also suffers from RP, although he can see better than Smith.
Gilstrap, a Summerville native, has 20/400 vision and is also legally blind. Smith stepped up to the tee box first after the group in front finished on the green.
Hudson, a graduating senior on the College of Charleston men’s golf team, acted as his seeing guide. Smith walked with his hand on Hudson’s shoulder while the soon-to-be member of the PGA Tour Q-School narrated changes in elevation and how much farther they had to walk.
Once he was in position, Hudson handed Smith his club, lined him up properly, told him how hard to swing and let him take a few practice swings. Then, he placed the ball on a tee.
Smith swung and the ball careened off to the right about 30 yards and out of bounds. By the sound of the contact, Smith knew it wasn’t a good shot.
“A little off to the right, but we can find it,” Hudson said.
Then, Lorenzetti, a rising sophomore on the College of Charleston men’s golf team helped Gilstrap to the tee box, providing some last-minute instructions. Gilstrap’s shot soared over a water hazard and landed about 10 feet from the green.
“How was it?” Gilstrap eagerly asked.
“It was good,” Lorenzetti said. “Past the water and just to the right of the green.”
“I didn’t know there was water there,” Gilstrap said, pleased. “That would have made me nervous. Thanks for not telling me.”
Lorenzetti’s tee shot proved why he was named the Southern Conference’s co-freshman of the year and the medalist of the conference’s championship match about a month ago. He qualified for next week’s NCAA regionals.
“I didn’t hear it come down,” Smith asked. “Is it playable?”
“Yeah, it’s about a 5-foot putt,” Hudson replied, before taking his own tee shot that would also make the green.
The format of the golf tournament was captain’s choice, so all players used the best shot from the group members. The foursome went to the green to take four different shots from Lorenzetti’s ball’s place on the green.
Again, Hudson and Lorenzetti described the ball placement to their respective partners. They said how they should aim and how hard they should strike the ball. Smith’s shot was too hard, and it rolled past the hole by a few feet. Gilstrap’s putt rolled a few revolutions shy of dropping in the cup.
Lorenzetti scooped Gilstrap’s ball up by the back of his putter and gently lobbed it toward Gilstrap. Gilstrap nervously held out his arms in an attempt to catch the ball. Lorenzetti realized his mistake as soon as the ball was in flight. It dropped to the ground a couple feet in front of Gilstrap.
“Don’t do that to me,” he said, laughing. “Don’t throw golf balls at the blind man.” He found the white ball on the neatly manicured green grass and picked it up.
The pair of blind golfers had an emotional effect on Hudson, who had never been a sighted guide before. “It’s pretty impressive. I’ve played a lot of golf with a lot of people, and I’ve never experienced anything quite like this,” he said. “It’s unbelievable.”
Before the round, when the two Cougars and the two blind golfers were getting acquainted with each other, Hudson said he wasn’t sure how it would work. “I didn’t know what to expect, and he (Smith) hit a wedge (shot) about 100 yards right at the pin on the driving range,” he said.
“You don’t have to see it to tee it,” Smith countered. “The fact is that, in a sense, my game got better as I lost more of my sight. I stopped worrying about it.”
Smith, a business professor at the College of Charleston, added that he’d like to play golf more often, but because of a shortage of available sighted guides, he plays about two or three times a month.
John LaTorre watched the foursome play a few holes on the back 9 of the Harbor Course. A resident of Mount Pleasant since 1956, LaTorre works as a part-time starter ranger at Wild Dunes. He graduated from Bishop England in 1948 and played basketball and football at South Carolina.
“I admire anybody that has a defect and tries to do something because of the defect. I think it’s great,” he said, “and I also admire the two young men who were helping them, because it takes a lot of patience.”
Smith teed off on the 18th hole and hit his drive straight down the middle of the fairway. When about 20 spectators and his group cheered, he lifted his arms up in the air and smiled.
“The last shot he hit was great,” LaTorre said, referencing Smith’s tee shot. “It gives you a new perspective. There’s always somebody that has a bigger problem than you.”