Legally blind golfer Jim Whitton of Auburn savors victory at ISPS Handa U.S. Open Championship
Despite being legally blind since birth, Jim Whitton has played golf for nearly half a century, but for the first time in his life he played in a tournament this spring with other blind golfers.
And he won.
Whitton, 59, of Auburn captured the B2 Division of the ISPS Handa U.S. Open Blind Golf Championship April 5-6 at the King & Bear course, an official golf course of the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Florida. The B1 Division was held for the totally blind, the B2 Division for those who can see at 20 feet what others can see at 600 feet and the B3 Division for those with slightly better sight.
The 6-foot, 240-pound Whitton needs to sit so close to his 85-inch television screen his knees touch the TV stand. One day while watching YouTube, he found out about the blind golf event and decided to enter to discover what it was like to play with other visually impaired golfers. His devoted wife of 35 years, Debbie, accompanied him as his coach.
Unfortunately, shortly after Whitton arrived at his hotel room, he tripped over a chair he didn’t see and fell on the tile floor. Debbie, a nurse, asked if he was OK, and he replied that he had bruised his right ribs.
“She said, ‘Yeah, you hurt your ribs, but we didn’t come here to not play golf so you’re playing,’ ” Whitton recalled.
He agreed. He wasn’t going to let the pain stop him. His ribs bothered him on each swing during the tournament, but he took ibuprofen and blocked out the pain as best he could.
On the first day of the tournament, he combined with Kevin Frost of Canada to shoot 6 over and finish second in a two-man scramble. His prize was a Belen Mozo TaylorMade Tour golf bag.
The U.S. Blind Open Golf Championship began the following day. The King & Bear course, designed by Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, hosts a Korn Ferry Tour event. The greens are elevated and there are bunkers and water all over the place. Whitton also had never played on Bermuda grass before and had a tough time chipping. It was not only the most challenging golf course Whitton had ever played, driving rain fell intermittently for much of the day.
“My ball was making friends with the water and sand a lot,” he said.
Whitton struggled to card a 27-over-par 99, his highest round since he was a freshman golfer for Auburn High.
The following day, he was determined to redeem himself. He hit three balls in the water, but still managed to shoot a very respectable round of 14-over 86. His best shot came on the par-4 16th when he managed to hit a difficult, 35-yard bunker shot to within five feet of the pin on a green he couldn’t see that was 15 feet higher than him. Debbie had lined him up and told him the yardage from the bunker. Then he sank the putt to save par.
Whitton learned he had won that night at the awards banquet at the World Golf Hall of Fame.
“I was shocked when they called my name because I didn’t think I had a chance,” he said. “I’m overwhelmed.”
Ring for the victor
For his victory, Whitton was awarded a gold ring with diamonds, and it’s inscribed with the name of the event and “1st Place Gross.” As his coach, Debbie also received one. He doesn’t wear the ring while he plays golf because it’s too heavy.
Whitton said he couldn’t have played without his wife, who also guided him through the airports.
“She’s such an awesome wife,” he said. “I wouldn’t be able to do anything without her.”
He had never played the course so relied on Debbie to line him up for each shot. GPS told him how far each shot was, but he couldn’t see the green, let alone the pin. Coaches of other players also helped him.
He read his putts on his own as he always does — with his feet. He walks from his ball to the pin and back, sometimes more than once, to get an indication of the slope of the green. Putting is the best part of his game.
“It’s just all feel,” he said. “My eyes don’t work, but my feet work great.”
His ears also work well. When he’s playing at his home Pakachoag Golf Course, he often hears a ball hit a tree 250 yards out when no one else does.
With no peripheral vision, Whitton can see the ball when he tees it up, but not during his backswing or follow through. Nevertheless, he usually hits the ball cleanly because of practice and his repeatable swing.
Whitton was amazed by the number of his friends who called him for updates and congratulated him after he won in Florida. He was also impressed with how welcomed he was by his competitors, many of whom had played in the event for years.
“It was amazing,” he said. “I felt like I belonged there.”
The entry fee of only $250 included four nights in a hotel, three days of golf and all meals for both Whittons.
One of the highlights of the trip occurred the first day when the blind golfers coached teenage boys from a nearby school for the blind in driving, chipping and putting. Whitton enjoyed serving as a role model for them.
“It made me feel really good,” he said.
Whitton was born with blepharophimosis, ptosis, epicanthus inversus syndrome. He had poor vision and no eyelids. When he was 5 years old and again when he was 6, skin was taken from his leg to form his eyelids.
Three of his four children also were born with the syndrome, but surgery for it improved.
For 20 years, Whitton drove a forklift and loaded trucks for a food distribution center, but after the company moved from Oxford to a larger, but unfamiliar plant in Westborough, he accidentally forklifted a pallet of bottled water through the roof. He got drenched and then underwent eye exams that determined he was officially legally blind. He guessed that he probably was legally blind all along, but didn’t know it. He’s been on Social Security disability ever since.
He estimated that he sees 10-20 percent of what most people can see. When people stick their hands out for him to shake them, he can’t see them unless he looks down. His right eye can see only light and color. The vision in his left is fuzzy and lacks depth perception.
“I can’t tell if a sand trap is 20 yards away or 50 yards away,” he said.
Born in Berkshires
Whitton grew up in Dalton and took up golf at age 10 at Berkshire Hills CC in Pittsfield. His family moved to Auburn when he was 15. For many years, he’s lived next to the forward tee on the fifth hole at Pakachoag, and he plays the course three or four days a week.
When Whitton was interviewed for this column in Pakachoag’s clubhouse, he wore a black golf cap with International Blind Golf Association printed on the front and a white-striped red golf shirt with the U.S. Blind Golf Association logo on the front.
Whitton knows Pakachoag so well, he doesn’t need anyone to line him up. He just relies on his playing partners to help him find his ball. Only five years ago at Pakachoag, he shot a 4-under 32 for nine holes one day and a 4-under 68 for 18 holes another day.
But his vision has worsened since. When he underwent an eye exam prior to the golf tournament in Florida, he couldn’t see the large E on the top of the eye chart. He’s also bothered by arthritis in his back and knees. Nevertheless, his nine-hole scores at Pakachoag usually range from 40 to 45 these days.
Whitton enjoyed himself so much in Florida, he has already decided to play in the U.S. Blind Golf Association 76th National Championship Oct. 24-26 in Sacramento, California.
Whitton believes he had an advantage over some of his competitors in Florida who once had perfect vision, but lost it. He’s never seen well.
“This is all I know, and I’m just happy the way I am,” he said. “I’m the happiest guy in Auburn. I wake up laughing sometimes.”
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This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: Legally blind golfer Jim Whitton of Auburn savors victory at ISPS Handa U.S. Open Championship