His friends ask him before they tee off.
What can you see?
Sometimes, it’s the tree line down the right. Maybe a hint of where the fairway starts. Sometimes, not much.
This is golf through Mike McKone’s eyes. He started losing his sight in 2006. He lost it completely in 2010, before surgery worked a miracle and gave him 20 percent sight in one eye.
Golf seems an odd choice, but McKone had always played and wanted to again. It was difficult at first, a little less so now. It’s never easy.
And yet, every time he tees off, McKone counts his blessings.
“It’s something I was passionate about and it was taken away from me,” McKone said. “Now I don’t take it for granted.”
Golf is only part of McKone’s journey these last few years, and certainly not the most important. Dealing with the vision loss and its impact on everyday life trumps it. The list of challenges is long. McKone can’t drive so he needs rides. He has a special computer monitor so he can continue working as a CPA. Easy tasks are now hard.
But golf highlights the challenges, and more importantly, McKone’s response to them. It’s not easy to get lined up and hit a ball you can barely see, out to a hole you can’t see at all. But McKone does it. He’s a national and international champion in the United States Blind Golf Association.
He just wants to keep swinging.
“I have a much keener appreciation for it,” he said.
McKone, 54, grew up in Warwick and still lives in Buttonwoods. Summer nights as a kid, he and his father would go to Warwick Country Club after dinner and play golf until the sun went down. He went to on to play at Bishop Hendricken and continued his career at Providence College.
His journey in golf would continue, he figured, just like everybody else’s. Sunday leagues. Nine holes after work. Tournaments in the summer.
His life’s journey, he learned, would not be like everybody else’s.
After college, McKone worked on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. An accident there left him with vision problems, but for the most part, it was under control. Every few years, he would have trouble seeing and would get a corneal transplant. They always worked. Never one to dwell on things, McKone didn’t think much of it. Along the way, he beat prostate cancer. A few transplants were no big deal.
But in 2006, things took a turn. McKone got an infection in his corneas and quickly started losing his sight. Doctors tried more transplants, but this time, they didn’t take.
The next three years were a whirlwind. They tried everything. Once, he had surgery on a Friday and was back on the table for another on Monday. At one point, he had six surgeries in eight weeks. By 2008, McKone was completely blind and options were running out.
“It was bad,” he said. “They were talking about permanent blindness.”
Finally, in 2010, Dr. Stephen Foster laid out a plan. They would try a plastic cornea. The hope was that the infection wouldn’t impact the plastic. Foster, renowned in his field, performed the surgery.
McKone woke up in his hospital bed and couldn’t see a thing.
“The doctor said, ‘What do you see on the chart?’ I couldn’t see the chart,” McKone said. “I was dejected.”
There was still hope, but McKone’s optimism was tested.
“I would wake up in the morning, look at the ceiling before I opened my eyes and say, ‘I wonder if today’s the day I can see,’” McKone said. “There was nothing.”
But one day in April, McKone opened his eyes and thought he saw stripes on his sheets. He went into the bathroom. Toothpaste. He could see it.
“I cried,” he said.
McKone called his doctor, who thought he might be hallucinating. But sure enough, when Dr. Foster saw him, McKone was labeled a miracle.
“This is a world-renowned doctor, and he’s saying, ‘You’re a miracle. We never thought we could get you to see,’” McKone said.
McKone still couldn’t see out of his left eye but through his right eye, he could see the big ‘E’ on the vision chart.
Two years later, that limited vision has held steady.
And McKone has built a life around it. He still works as a CPA. He lives with his mother, Mary, who helped him through the toughest of times.
And McKone plays golf.
In the spring of 2010, he was out on the course at Exeter Country Club, tagging along with his buddies in their golf league. He swung a club now and again, but mostly just rode the cart. The camaraderie was enough.
One day, his friend, Ed Hewitt, turned to him on the course.
“He said, ‘You can do this,’” McKone said.
They tried it. Hewitt would line him up, help him with yardage and club selection. McKone swung, just like old times. Almost, at least.
“The game is the same, but how I approach it is completely different,” he said.
He was back, though, and through INSIGHT and Services for the Blind – two Rhode Island organizations that provide assistance to the blind – McKone found out about the USBGA. As it happened, their national championship was coming up and McKone put in his application. He and Hewitt headed to Philadelphia. McKone would play in the B-3 division for the vision impaired. Hewitt would be his coach.
They came home with a second place trophy.
Since then, McKone has continued to play in his league – he and Hewitt have won three years in a row – and in regular tournaments. In 2011, he won the USBGA international championship, and this year, he won a national title.
Hewitt lines him up on the course and they plan out their shots. On the green, McKone walks the path to the hole, getting a feel for the grade. Hewitt stands by the cup, and McKone aims for his shoes. He typically shoots in the low 80’s.
McKone is grateful for the help provided by Hewitt, and another friend, Marc St. Martin, who has also coached him.
“I haven’t done it alone,” McKone. “So many people are part of this.”
For all the success, though, being on the course and being part of the USBGA is the real reward. McKone is now a USBGA board member and, earlier this summer, he teamed up with INSIGHT and Mulligan’s Island to provide a golf clinic for blind children.
As he watched them pick up a club and hit a ball for the first time, he realized what this journey has meant.
“Their smiles are so big,” he said.
McKone is hoping to help the USBGA expand. Plans are in the works for more clinics next summer.
And McKone will keep on playing.
“I thought I would play golf for the rest of my life and then it was taken from me,” he said. “I couldn’t. Now that I’m back, I have a much keener appreciation for it.”
This is why he’s grateful. This is why, when he tees up and looks out at a fairway he can’t really see, Mike McKone smiles anyway.
“I love to play, and I’ve been given so much,” he said.
What can he see? More than you might think.