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Local blind golfer receives honor

Golfers will admit it’s a challenge to play the game with consistent success.

Now imagine trying to swing the club at that little white ball while being totally blind.

Lehighton resident Sheila Drummond graduated from Palmerton High School in 1972, where she had played field hockey. When she was eight years old, diabetes had begun to reduce her ability to see.

After six unsuccessful eye surgeries during the next 19 years, Drummond was diagnosed in 1982 as completely blind at age 27. She had to quit her job in the Trauma Center at Lehigh Valley Hospital to learn how to cope with a world that she could no longer see. Her courage to do so was never in doubt.

“It is what it is,” Drummond said when she was told by the doctors. “I couldn’t spend the rest of my life in denial.”

Play golf?

Drummond and her husband, Keith, had attended a sports function for blind people, where they were told it was possible to do water skiing, hiking, and learn archery without having eyesight.

At the function, Drummond met two visually impaired men who encouraged her to play golf.

“Yeah, right,” she said sarcastically.

But after exploring more about the idea, Drummond thought she’d give it a try.

She met Lynne Lazaro, a Sighted Board member of the United States Blind Golf Association. Lazaro’s father had been a blind golfer, having lost his eyesight from a land mine explosion during World War II.

Lazaro said that the first imperative is that blind golfers must have coaches who can see the course for them.

“Blind golf is a team sport,” she said. “The coach, who doesn’t have to ever have played the game, becomes the golfer’s eyes. He or she will set up the ball and pick out the club. Then, the coach tells the golfer how to align the shot and judge what the distance will be. The coach has to consider things like whether the ball lies on a dog leg, or what the slope is like on the putting green.”

Once Drummond began to play the game, she liked it so much she called it “an addiction that’s better than smoking.”

She had a few different coaches at first, but Keith said if she was still interested in the game after a year, he would become her coach.

The shot that made history

Drummond improved her game by playing three or four times a week at the Mahoning Valley Country Club course near her home. She practiced swinging her golf clubs in her driveway even in the winter after she had shoveled off the snow.

“Swinging clubs in the driveway sounds boring, but it’s better than doing nothing, or just walking 10 miles a day,” she said with a chuckle.

She noted the problems that come up when you cannot see.

“Oh, there are times when I swing and miss the ball, or it might be difficult to understand exactly what my husband, Keith, is telling me about what kind of shot I have to make,” she said.

Then came a moment on a damp and dreary August day in 2007, when, against all odds, Drummond made the perfect shot at the Mahoning course.

They were set to play a round of golf with two foursomes - men vs. women - but as it started to drizzle, Drummond was thinking of going back home.

Instead, she and Keith decided to stay and play the round.

At the 144-yard par 3 fourth hole, Drummond stepped up to the tee and Keith detailed the shot into her ears. Drummond swung her club and hit the ball dead center.

“I saw the ball fly between two bunkers,” said Keith, “and both of us heard the ball hit the pin at the hole. ‘It’s going in!’ I shouted. ‘It’s in!’

“We jumped into the golf cart and drove across this bridge toward the green. When I got out, I didn’t see the ball on the green, but somebody said it went in and I looked into the hole and there it was. I told Sheila, and she said, ‘Are you serious?’”

For a golfer with eyesight, the odds of sinking a hole in one are 12,000-1.

Drummond, at the age of 52, became the first totally blind woman in the United States to accomplish the feat. The shot brought instant notoriety and fame to her. She and Keith appeared on the Good Morning America show in New York City.

“They picked us up in a limousine,” said Keith.

“The show was live and they asked me to hit a few balls into a net, “said Sheila. “Of course, I was nervous and they were telling me there was a window behind the net that cost millions of dollars. I trusted my muscle memory, which is what I have to do while I’m on the courses, and I managed not to miss the balls and hit them all into the net.”

Back home in Lehighton, the Drummonds were inundated with phone calls.

“I had to call my parents to come over and answer the phone while Keith was at work,” said Sheila. “It was crazy. I had one interview after another.”

The Hall calls

Drummond continued her golfing career, playing at tournaments in Rhode Island, New York, Texas, Oregon, Arizona, North Carolina, and Florida. One thing remained common during her country tour: All of her competitors were men. She placed second in the Raleigh Regional, and has won numerous awards in several other tournaments. In 1993, she shot a 62 for nine holes, and has a career best 118 for 18 holes.

“There are days when I play awful just like anyone else,” she said.

“I can blame my coach for telling me the wrong thing to do, but since he’s my husband, that’s not good because we have to go home together,” she added with a laugh.

Drummond became a member of the USBGA in 1995. In 2002, she was elected to the board of directors, and later served as president for two years.

The organization was first established with very little fanfare in Minnesota in 1938.

In early October of this year, Drummond was inducted in the US Blind Golf Association Hall of Fame at a ceremony during the 75th anniversary of the National Golf Championships in Orlando, Florida.

“The Hall of Fame Award is given to individuals and organizations that support, promote, and preserve the history of blind golf,” said Lazaro. “Sheila is a remarkable woman. She took control of her life, and has achieved many notable milestones as a blind golfer throughout her career. We have a brick installed in front of our Hall of Fame building commemorating her hole in one.”

Now at age 67, Drummond takes her golf achievements in stride. She talks about them with wit and humor that are contagious to anyone who should be so privileged to be in her company.

She and Keith will soon get back on the travel circuit and continue to play the game they love.

Don’t be surprised when driving through Lehighton this winter to see Drummond standing on the driveway swinging a golf club through some snowflakes falling from the sky.

Sheila Drummond, right, and her husband and coach Keith, are seen here at the ChampionsGate Resort in Florida. Drummond was recently inducted into the US Blind Golf Hall of Fame. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
Lehighton's Sheila Drummond tees off during a round of golf. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO