Golfers are well known for being so devoted to their sport they will get out on their favourite course as soon as it opens in the spring regardless of the weather, and continue to play well into the fall with frost on the ground.
But there is one group who take their enthusiasm to an even higher level, who are so passionate about golf they pursue it despite being visually impaired. Golf for blind and visually impaired enthusiasts is a growing trend both nationally and internationally, and Ontario has its own association, known as OVIG or Ontario Visually Impaired Golfers. According to its brochure, OVIG is a charitable organization whose mission is “to provide instruction and opportunities to play the game to blind and visually-impaired Ontarians.” Some were golfers before losing their sight, while others took up golf afterwards.
Leaside’s local OVIG member is Iona Gherasim, who was born in Regina with the hereditary eye disease, retinitis pigmentosa. Her paternal grandmother and father had the condition, as do two of her three siblings. She started working at the CNIB in 1980 as a rehabilitation teacher, or to use today’s term, an “independent living skills specialist.” She then became the supervisor of the rehabilitation teachers, later the supervisor of the intake department, and then the team leader of services for North York. Although she retired more than a decade ago, she continues to volunteer at the CNIB.
Iona has a remarkably positive attitude towards her impairment, which progressively worsened in her 50s to the point that today she has only about five per cent of her vision. In fact, she is grateful that she had the “luxury” of adjusting to the loss of her vision gradually over time.
This positive attitude led Iona to join OVIG in 1992, upon returning from a few years in Edmonton, despite having no previous golf experience. “I joined for the outdoor exercise and the opportunity to meet new people,” she says. “My play has improved over the years with the help of lessons and the association’s coaches.” Ilona participates in all of the Ontario tournaments each year with the assistance of her coach, Diana Ranken.
Diana, and other volunteer coaches, like her are the key ingredient in blind golfing. They act as guides accompanying golfers on their rounds, setting up the ball and giving tips on direction and distance.
Four municipal courses, Tam O’Shanter, Scarlett Woods, Don Valley and Humber Valley, offer a discount to OVIG members so the coach is not required to pay the green fee. In addition, the Toronto Hunt Club is free to OVIG members on Monday afternoons during the season.
These discounts are of vital importance to an organization like OVIG since many of its members live on fixed incomes and need financial assistance to take part. For example, the association will cover the cost of lessons for its members at Don Montgomery Community Centre Gym, or part of the cost for private lessons. It will also cover the green fee and food for members in tournaments.
The major fundraising event for the year is the Colin Kressler Charity Tournament held in July at the Cardinal Golf Course in Newmarket. A banquet wraps up the day of play. Last year’s tournament, with 137 players, raised $9,500.
Iona has high praise for OVIG as it gives its members the chance to get out to different courses, challenges players to improve their skills, and provides social opportunities. Highlights for her occur when she “hits a tee-shot that goes straight down the fairway 150 yards, or makes par. I encourage other visually-impaired players to give golf a try because it can be very rewarding.” It certainly has been for Iona and so many others.