Newswise — When Northern Michigan University student Whitney Kulich reported to her job at the NMU Golf Course one afternoon, there was an intriguing handwritten phone message left on the counter in the clubhouse. It said that a “62-year-old visually impaired woman wanted to learn to hit a ball off a tee.” Gretchen Preston had accepted a challenge to play in a Leader Dogs for the Blind charity tournament next year and wondered if anyone at the course might be able to give her lessons. Kulich was eager to return the call.
“I told her I’d be more than willing to help her learn because I’ve been playing my whole life,” said the outdoor recreation leadership and management major. “We started small with putting so she develops proper form and then we’ll work up to chipping and tee shots. Gretchen’s making awesome progress. She sunk a 9-foot putt on her second lesson.”
Kulich did some research online through the U.S. Blind Golf Association, YouTube and other sources, but said she found little practical guidance on introducing a visually impaired person to the sport. So she has developed her own system for communicating to Preston where to move, how to adjust her feet and body and how to position the clubface.
“We talk in degrees instead of positions on the clock, so I’ll say, ‘Turn 15 degrees this way.’ It seems to work better,” said Kulich. “I wear white golf shoes and stand with my feet in a ‘V’ around the hole to make it easier for her to see. We’ve experimented with different colored golf balls and found that the metallic ones better reflect the light. I’ve also tried putting white paper on the clubface. All of this depends on how bright it is and how much contrast there is. Sometimes it works better than others. I videotape the lessons so I can review them and figure out what to tweak to help her adjust to the little nuances.
Learning a new adaptive sport wasn’t a stretch for Preston, who grew up in an athletic family. She has participated in downhill and cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and horse jumping. Preston had normal vision until the age of 11, when it degraded to 20/200 in a two-week period and progressively got worse. She was diagnosed with Stargardt disease, a hereditary form of macular degeneration that typically results in legal blindness. She describes it as “like having Vaseline on your glasses; there’s little usable vision—I mainly see shadows.”
“Blind people can do everything sighted people can; they just have a different way of going about it,” said Preston, a retired social worker who is now a children’s book author and independent publisher. “This is new to both Whitney and me, but she is very patient and communicates well, which is key. She doesn’t make me feel nervous and she is not critical. I thought she’d jump out of her shoes when I sank that first putt. It boosted my confidence when she got so excited. I couldn’t have found a nicer, more flexible person to give me lessons. It’s been fun.”
Adaptive golf was outside of her comfort zone, but Kulich was no stranger to teaching people new sports. She is a professionally certified snowboard instructor and had previously volunteered near her hometown of Boyne City at Challenge Mountain, which offers year-round adaptive recreation for individuals with disabilities.
“Doing something for someone who can’t repay you is one of the greatest feelings,” Kulich said. “I love to give back to the community I live in and help people. This experience has taught me the importance of individualized instruction because each person is different and what works for one may not work for another. I’ve learned a lot teaching Gretchen and I’ve kept a journal and lesson plans. I’m actually thinking about going to school longer to become a recreational therapist.”
Preston’s 4-year old black lab, Floyd, kept a watchful eye from his perch just outside the practice green during one of her recent weekly lessons. She acquired him from Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester Hills. Preston is a regional Leader Dog chairperson. She and Floyd give presentations at correctional facilities that participate in Future Leader Dog programs, in which inmates raise weaned puppies for 12-14 months with on-site training support before the dogs are transported downstate for harness training.
“Raising a puppy to be a good citizen of the planet is an effective rehabilitation program for inmates,” she said. “When I bring Floyd, the inmate handlers see a working leader dog in action who was raised behind bars. It’s very important for them to see the results of their efforts.”
The duo is also active in the Marquette Lions Club. Since Helen Keller challenged Lions Club International to become “knights of the blind in the crusade against darkness” in 1925, the organization has sponsored sight programs aimed at preventable blindness.
Photos available on request.