Eli Manning, host of the 31st Annual Guiding Eyes for the Blind Golf Classic, with blind golfer Phil Blackwell. Each year the blind golfers compete for the Corcoran Cup awarded to the blind golfer and coach with the best score.
John Vecchiolla
Wednesday, June 25, 2008

MOUNT KISCO, N.Y. — Gingerly, the official scorer approached Brad Eaton, a blind golfer who had just landed his approach on the green at Mount Kisco Country Club's second hole, a 333-yard par four. In a hushed voice, he asked, "You're on in two, right?" Right. Eaton had nailed his drive about 240 yards around the tree-lined corner of the short dogleg to give himself a clear path to the hole. The volunteer official, club member John Russell, was checking to make sure he hadn't missed anything between the drive and Eaton's pitch to the back of the green.

\nA two-putt par, and Russell checked again. "That was a four?"

\nRight.

\nConsidering that Eaton can't see a thing, and the hole is a tough four for anyone, it was perfectly understandable that the scorer would want to make sure of his numbers.

\nThink what you will about the concept of blind people playing competitive golf, but the players and their caddies and coaches take it as seriously as anyone in the game, especially when it comes to the integrity of the scoring. They follow USGA rules to the tee, the one exception being that blind players are allowed to ground their clubs in the bunker.

\nRemarkable as it was, Eaton's par would only help him to finish second among 16 of the top blind golfers in North America. Phil Blackwell won the Guiding Eyes Classic's Corcoran Cup for the sixth time in the past eight years. The tournament is in its 31st year at Mount Kisco.

\nLast year's champion, Pat Browne Jr., the Helen Keller/Tiger Woods of blind golf with 18 Corcoran Cups to his credit, could not play because of injury.

\nThat made Sheila Drummond, coached by her husband, Keith, arguably the most famous blind golfer at the event, thanks in part to her history-making hole-in-one last season. She used a driver on a par-3, 144-yard hole, skipping her ball off the top of a bunker before it took one bounce and went in.

\n"We got a lot of phone calls after that," Sheila said, and then ticked off the number of television producers who fought for the chance to be the first one to interview her live (a competition won by the Today Show).

\nEli Manning, still basking in the glow of his Super Bowl MVP performance, was the other star attraction. A long-time family friend of the Brownes (he's known Pat Browne III since grade school), Manning had a similar story to share at the tournament awards dinner.

\n"A lot of people have asked me how my life has changed," the New York Giants quarterback told the crowd of 450 dinner guests. "One thing I noticed is I get a lot of mail now, especially from young kids. One fifth grader from Indiana wrote, 'Dear Mr. Manning. All my friends say your brother Peyton is the best. I think you're pretty good, too. It only took you four years to win the Super Bowl, and it took him nine. He likes to pad his stats while you just like to win. You're the better quarterback." Here Manning smiled and paused for effect before continuing: "'P.S. Do you think that you could get me Peyton's autograph?'"

\nAlong with getting married and meeting President Bush, Manning said he has enjoyed raising money and awareness for Guiding Eyes, a non-profit company dedicated to breeding, training and donating dogs for the blind. This year's event raised $450,000.

\n"I want to thank all of y'all," Manning said, "and hopefully we can get back here next year and we can do it again."

\nThe competition had been scheduled for Sunday, but it was moved to Monday and shortened to nine holes because of thunderstorms. The tournament was followed by an 18-hole scramble in which the blind golfers were paired with the rest of the players.

\nFor some of the charity-minded players, you could tell by their reactions to certain shots that this was a new experience. First there was surprise that a blind person could even hit a golf ball, much less down the middle and 240 yards or so. Maybe the blind players gain some advantage from not being able to see all the bad things that can happen to the ball. The caddies often neglect to mention water, trees and bunkers as they set their players up for their shots.

\nAfter a while, some new initiates forget they are playing with a blind golfer, which of course is how the blind player likes it. When Blackwell is on his game, which means a score in the 80s, the only tip-off comes from the interaction with his caddie-coach. He won this year with a 45 on the rain-soaked course.

\nAs a first-time caddie for the runner-up, Eaton, I felt fortunate to have a front-row seat to the social side of Eli Manning, to the Guiding Eyes dogs and puppies that were on hand for the event, and to the special camaraderie that exists between coaches, players and supporters of guide dogs and blind golf.

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