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The Catalyst

Low vision golfers tee up for charity, eye disease awareness

By Cindy Abole
Public Relations

In the game of golf, players may sometimes take what they can’t see for granted. Not so for golfers Jim Gilstrap and Peter Alan Smith.

The duo are low-vision golfers who will play as first-time partners of a foursome at the eighth annual Charleston RiverDogs GolftoberFest charity tournament at Wild Dunes Resort, May 7.

The pair will compete with College of Charleston golfers and play a captain’s choice format at the event, which features prizes and awards all built around a German Octoberfest theme. Proceeds from the tournament will benefit MUSC’s Storm Eye Institute.

Golfer Peter Alan Smith works with sighted coach Chris Haley to line up his putt during a practice round at Republic Golf Club in San Antonio.
Golfer Peter Alan Smith works with sighted coach Chris Haley to line up his putt during a practice round at Republic Golf Club in San Antonio.

What’s special about this tournament is that it will include a variety of golfers including sighted, blind and visually-impaired participants.

Both Gilstrap and Smith have been diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that gradually weakens vision. More specifically the disease attacks the light-sensitive rods and cones of the eye’s retina. As the disease progresses, people experience night blindness and a slow loss of side vision. With no cure, RP often results in overall vision loss or blindness.

Smith, 53, is an executive-in-residence professor at the College of Charleston’s School of Business, and has played blind golf for years. He recently competed in the American Blind Golf Championship in San Antonio. In blind golf, the only rule difference is the use of a sighted coach who can assist a player by describing distance, hole characteristics and club head alignment with the ball. Blind or partially  sighted golfers also are allowed to ground their club in a hazard.

On the golf course, Smith feels comfortable with his game, and with help from his sighted coach, has choreographed a routine. For every shot, he works with his coach on his stance, alignment and swing. Just prior to contacting the ball, he repeats instructions to himself like a personal mantra: “Slow back, head down and follow through.”

Playing the game with his senses more than with his sight, Smith says he relishes those moments – the crisp sound of his club face contacting with the golf ball on his drive or the soft plunk of an approach shot on the fairway. He finds joy in every part of the game.

“There’s just something about finding that one shot throughout 18 holes when you know you can do it while enjoying a beautiful day outside. It’s what attracts me to play and compete every time,” said Smith, who mentors others diagnosed with blinding eye diseases.

Smith has battled RP since he was a college student and manages his disease with specialists at SEI. Despite his disability, he lives an active life running, cycling (He won a silver medal in the Para-Olympics.) and volunteering as board chairman of the S.C. Commission for the Blind and other organizations.

Jim Gilstrap uses a club to align his feet and body with the target before swinging.

Unlike his golf partner who has lived with gradual vision loss for more than 22 years, Gilstrap, 49, continues to learn to adjust with his disability. Before, the Summerville native was a leisure golfer active in sports. Since his diagnosis in 2004, Gilstrap’s blurred vision changed his game especially when he lined up his shots or tracked his golf ball around the fairways or greens. Just recently, he reconnected with a friend who is an avid golfer, and returned to playing golf again. In 2012, Gilstrap was introduced to blind golf through the American Blind Golf Corporation where he connected with Smith.

Gilstrap is legally blind with 20/400 vision and limited sight vision, but manages to roll with the changes. “I’m active and doing more things now than before my diagnosis. I enjoy what I can thanks to my friends and my will never give up on life,” he said.

SEI director Lucian V. Del Priore, M.D., Ph.D., is proud to partner with the Charleston RiverDogs and other local and statewide organizations that inspire others to support clinical programs and sight-saving research conducted at MUSC.

“We are immensely grateful to the RiverDogs for their sponsorship of this year’s golf outing along with the other various events throughout the year that benefit Storm Eye. Their donations to our research help us continue and escalate our efforts to find cures and treatments for blinding eye diseases like retinitis pigmentosa. I wish to thank Mike Veeck and the entire staff at the RiverDogs for their tireless efforts and dedication in helping us in our quest to eliminate blinding eye diseases,” said Del Priore.

For information, visit SEI at

May 1, 2013

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