This article was taken from the April 2014 Lions International magazine.
Ace in the Hole
For a blind golfer and his coach, the relationship is anything but one-sided.
One of the many memorable moments in Bill McMahon’s golfing life was when he birdied a par four during a tournament in New Jersey. It wasn’t so much that he sunk an 18-foot putt that set this moment apart. It was the response he got from a member of his foursome who just happened to be Baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra. “He just kept banging his head on the cart,” recalls McMahon, because he was incredulous at what he had just witnessed.
How does McMahon know what Berra was doing with his head at that moment? That would be Kevin Sullivan’s doing. McMahon is as blind as blind can be. “You could shine a spotlight in my face and I wouldn’t know if it was on or off,” he explains. So the image of a sports icon not usually known for being at a loss for words banging his head on a golf cart made its way to McMahon’s brain by way of Sullivan sharing the observation. Sullivan is also the one who talked McMahon through the drive and then the attention-getting putt.
“I can’t believe it, I just saw a blind guy make a birdie,” were Berra’s words as McMahon remembers them, “I never saw anything like it and I’ll never see it again, that guy can’t see anything.”
As it happens, “the blind guy” is how Sullivan often refers to the man he as come to think of as a younger brother. They have been a team on the golf course for more than two decades. Technically, when they are competing together Sullivan is McMahon’s coach. Important as that is, the word doesn’t capture the depth of the relationship.
They met in 1989 when McMahon joined the Framingham Lions Club in Massachusetts of which Sullivan was president at the time. By then McMahon, 55, who lost his eyesight to complications of diabetes at the age of 24, had already been competing in the US Blind Golf Association (USBGA)–an organization that has been organizing tournaments since 1953. He had a string of different coaches over three years. “Kevin said, if you ever need some help doing this, I’d really like to try,” according to McMahon. It turned out to be the beginning of a life-changing bond for both of them.
Teeing off recently on the 10th hole of the Millwood Farms Golf Course, a manicured and verdant swath of turf in Boston’s outer suburbs, for a few late-season holes of the game they both love, the pair displayed both the enjoyment they derive from each other’s company as well as the seriousness with which they approach the sport. At 6’4” with a full head of hair, a slightly lumbering gait, shades and a cigar, Sullivan’s jovial presence is a contrast to McMahon’s more crisp and buttoned-down demeanor. “It’s a slight dogleg left. It’s hilly. We’re going to aim down the left side and deal with what we’ve got,” says Sullivan, 59, as he holds out a club parallel to the ground pointing in the direction he wants McMahon to hit the ball. McMahon grasps the shaft of the club with both hands to orient himself as he positions his stance, making sure his shoulders, hips and feet are in line before taking the grip to get ready for a swing. Sullivan plants the tee at the end of the club, steps back, and says “clear,” the signal for McMahon to take his stroke.
Only when they get to the green does one of the two modifications to the rules of the game become evident. In sighted golf, the caddie is not allowed to stand in a line with the ball and the flag. In blind golf, this is precisely the area the coach occupies so as to gauge the contour of the ground the ball will traverse. “I play all the breaks,” says Sullivan. “Bill putts everything straight.” In other words, the coach does the mental calculations involved in deciding whether his teammate should aim a few degrees to the left or the right of the hole. He also must give a precise distance to let the blind partner know what kind of an arc to give the swing and how much juice to put on the ball.
The only other way the rules of blind golf differ from the standard regulations is that a player can touch the club to the ground in a hazard without being penalized a stroke. “Other than that I play by the same rules as Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus,” says McMahon. “Name me another sport where there are no gimmicks [to make it accessible to blind people].”
Golf has been a constant through a life of great adversity for McMahon. He developed diabetes when he was 8 years old and was barred from playing Little League baseball because of the disease. “That is when my grandfather introduced me to golf,” says McMahon. “He figured it would be a great game for me to play for the rest of my life. I needed the exercise. I caddied all the way through high school, college and even after college.”
Then he went blind. “Every day I would look in the mirror and I could see less and less. It was extremely frustrating. It was the hardest 18 months of my life,” says McMahon. He was selling golf equipment at the time and he switched to selling insurance. In 1996 he needed a kidney transplant and his youngest brother stepped up to give him one of his. Given the time that has elapsed, his doctors say he will need a new kidney soon. “I’m living on borrowed time,” says McMahon. Then in 2007 McMahon had a major accident. “I had a diabetic reaction. I didn’t know where I was. I went to walk into what I thought was my office. It turned out to be the stairwell and I just tumbled down a flight of stairs.” He broke three vertebrae, his rotator cuff and his right wrist.
He not only beat the prognosis that he would never walk again, but McMahon returned to the links. “I didn’t have much of a swing. I competed in a lot of pain,” he says. “Kevin stuck with me even though I was half crippled.” They missed the national championship that year but they returned the next. McMahon has never won a championship. But, his competitive spirit shining through, he quickly adds, “I never once came in last.”
The stories McMahon and Sullivan can tell keep piling up. He reckons they have been to at least 30 states together and several foreign countries including two trips to Scotland and Ireland. And they are constantly rubbing shoulders with celebrities. “One of Bill’s favorite lines,” says Sullivan, “is that his blindness has taken him places his sight never would have.”
Besides lining up McMahon’s shots and being a trusted companion who is constantly vigilant about steering him away from danger as they go to new places, Sullivan’s eyes have become a lens through which both see the wondrousness of the world. “I’ll never forget a par four in Hawaii that was straight up a hill. The fog was so bad we couldn’t see 100 yards in front of us,” says Sullivan. When the fog lifted it revealed a black beach below with whales gliding up and down in the distance. “Everything I could tell him about I told him about,” says Sullivan, giving both of them a richer perspective than they would have had as individuals.
Sullivan worked as an automobile mechanic when he met McMahon. Sullivan’s father had owned a gas station. The trajectory of his life was clear–until he met McMahon. He switched to making a living teaching golf as a direct result of their relationship.
“When Bill and I started working together we got a PGA pro who helped us become a team,” says Sullivan. “He showed me a lot of things about the game.” Today they view their mission as more than trying to win tournaments. “I think what Bill and I are doing is growing the game of golf for the handicapped person,” says Sullivan. “He’s showing everyday people that a blind person can play golf.”
McMahon is the cofounder of Golf for All, an organization dedicated to making the game accessible to people with disabilities. He also sits on the USBGA board of directors. Sullivan was inducted into its Hall of Fame in 2010.
Seeing McMahon succeed, such as during their Yogi Berra encounter, gives Sullivan an almost surreal sense of well-being. “I remember setting up a 45-foot putt, and he made it. It was cool. He got all the congratulations, which is fine. It took me to an out-of-body experience,” says Sullivan. “Bill is the player; I’m the guy behind the scenes. He’s like the singer in the band.”