By Bob Buttitta
Photos by Don Kohlbauer
Surprisingly, Jeremy Poincenot might be a better golfer today with a 17 handicap than he was just 14 months ago when he was close to a scratch player. That's because he now plays the game without the benefit of being able to see the ball.
Poincenot, who became legally blind about a year ago, finished third in the B-2 Division at the 2009 United States Blind Golf Association (USBGA) National Championship in San Antonio, Texas. It was the first time he had competed in national competition. He's hoping his strong play at the nationals will get him invited to play in the World Blind Golf Championships in England, where he could also compete in the Blind British Open. Both will be held on the Whittlebury Park Golf and Country Club in Northamptonshire, England.
Those are big aspirations for a guy who didn't even know blind golf existed until eight months ago.
Last fall, Poincenot was a "normal" 20-year-old San Diego State student who enjoyed a strong academic and social life. But just after Christmas last year, Poincenot was officially diagnosed with Lebers Hereditary Optic Neuropathy (LHON), a rare genetic disorder that affects only 100 or so people each year in the United States, with most of those being males 19-25 years of age. The disease, which has no cure and no treatment, left Poincenot with no central vision and only limited peripheral vision.
Poincenot, who played high school golf at the San Dieguito Academy, where he was a 3-handicap, figured the loss of his sight meant the end to his days on the golf course. But when his mother Lissa discovered the USBGA, golf was back in play for Poincenot.
"When this first happened, if you would have told me I would pick up a club again, I would have told you that you were crazy," Poincenot said. "When I was fully sighted, I hated slow players. I hate the feeling of being one of those types of players. But golf is really important to me. Being able to play golf again has helped me feel like I'm getting my life back to being normal."
While his limited peripheral vision gives him the ability to get his ball ready for play, Poincenot relies on his father (and SCGA member) Lionel to serve as his eyes on the course. It starts with his dad describing the layout of the hole, in as much detail as possible, giving Poincenot a chance to visualize the hole in his mind and then develop his strategy.
"The toughest shots for me are from about 75 yards and in, because those are feel shots," Poincenot said. "It's a part of my game I am going to have to work on more in order to get it where I want."
Poincenot said he's grateful to have a father who takes the time to serve as caddie and coach for him. He and his dad played golf every Sunday together for much of his life. "We had some great battles, and it was our bonding time," Poincenot said. "I'm so grateful to have him out there with me now. He gets nervous because he has to line me up, but he does a great job. We have the same bond as before, even though the circumstances are a little different."
Lionel Poincenot is understandably proud of how his son has handled the challenge that has been dealt to him. Just as his son has had to learn to do things differently on the golf course, being a coach for a blind golfer has been a learning experience for him as well.
"As we've gone along, I've learned I need to be as descriptive as possible, whether it's in lining up a putt or telling him about his ball flight after a shot," Lionel Poincenot said. "The better job I can do telling him what happened with a shot or how a hole looks, the better chance Jeremy has to be successful."
Poincenots life was turned upside down during what he thought was going to be a routine visit to the optometrist. He had started experiencing some blurred vision, and found himself squinting to read things. He thought all he needed was a pair of reading glasses.
When the optometrist asked Poincenot to cover his left eye, he looked at the board and it was a complete blur. That sent off the alarm in the doctor's head, so he ran a few more tests. Eventually the doctor told Poincenot and his parents he suspected Jeremy might have a brain tumor or pituitary adenoma.
"The next day I went to get an MRI, which ruled out the brain tumor, which was a relief, especially to my dad, whose father died of a brain tumor," Poincenot said. "They ruled out the pituitary adenoma also, but they still knew something was wrong."
That started a string of misdiagnoses. In the midst of one bad diagnosis after another, Lissa Poincenot hit the Internet in search of answers. After countless hours of research, she believed her son suffered from LHON.
A neurologist actually dismissed her thought, telling the family how rare LHON was.
"I hated meeting doctors and knowing more than they did," Lissa Poincenot said. "But Jeremy handled it beautifully. He stayed calm, kept his wits about him. He stayed up and looked on the bright side. And as long as he stayed up, it was manageable for me to keep going. But it is brutal to watch your son go blind before your eyes."
Finally, specialists at the Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA confirmed Lissa Poincenot's diagnosis of LHON. The family also learned there were three mutations of LHON. With all three, a person can get a sudden return of their vision. In one mutation, that happens 50 percent of the time. With another mutation, there is a 20 percent chance of a return of vision. With the mutation that Poincenot has, it happens four percent of the time.
"It was bad, but it felt good to finally know," Jeremy said.
Like anyone in his situation, Poincenot battled some depression after getting the diagnosis. But thanks to the support of his family, friends and fraternity brothers at Sigma Phi Epsilon, he slowly started to adjust. He returned to school last spring. He took two courses and made his way around campus with a little help from his best friend, Josh Rousch, who took the same two classes and walked with him to make sure he arrived safely.
Last summer, another fraternity brother, Mark Prophet, organized a bike ride from Santa Barbara to San Diego to raise money for the USC Doheny Eye Institute, where Dr. Alfredo Sadun, Poincenots current doctor, is working to find a cure. Prophet rode a tandem bike with Poincenot behind him, and the group of six guys raised $3,000. Poincenot calls the experience the best thing hes done in his life.
Additionally, Poincenot and a few of his friends started a clothing line before he lost his vision. He remains part of that company, Dienasty Select, and 10 percent of clothing sales go to LHON research. "I have so much support. Its made it easier for me to get to a point where I feel normal again and can accept I am legally blind."
Being able to play golf and compete has helped Poincenot reach that mindset.
When he decided to compete in blind golf tournaments, he turned to PGA teaching professional Mike Nokes of Stadium Golf Center in San Diego to help with his transition to playing without sight. Nokes said when Poincenot showed up, he already had a great swing. His concern was that he was hooking the ball too much, which was caused by an inside-out path on the downswing.
"We started working on getting him to swing more left after impact; this created an inside-to-inside swing path which had him hitting very straight and slight fade shots," Nokes said. "The results were instant, as I figured they would be, because I believe he has a greater sense of feel and is more in tune with his swing than people who can see normally."
At the nationals, Poincenot was paired with John Cassolo, a totally blind player from Connecticut. After shooting a 97 in the first round, Poincenot was upset with his play. But he got a quick attitude adjustment after chatting with Cassolo, who fired a 324. "I shook his hand and told him it was good playing golf with him," Poincenot said. "He just grabbed my hand and said, 'I had a blast. How about you?' The way he handled himself was so inspiring. Its something I will never forget."
The man who won the B-2 Division, San Antonio resident Bruce Hooper, is considered the best blind player in the world. Hooper has told reporters he believes Poincenot will be a champion someday soon. "The way Bruce handles himself is an inspiration as well," Poincenot said. "When reporters talk to him, he's always telling them to focus on the guys who are totally blind because they are the true story. My goal is to beat Bruce while he's still the best, and then become the Tiger Woods of blind golf."
And it's his hope that he can retire with the title when a cure for LHON is found.
"I know there will be a cure, but believe it or not, I don't want one found just yet," Poincenot said. "That's because I have more left to accomplish."