OMAHA, Neb. — The golfer spots a pond off in the distance. Or at least it looks like a pond. It’ll have to do.
Somewhere out there, 305 yards away, sits a pin tucked into a little cup. Dean Nielsen moves his face close to a course map, walks back to his Titleist, raises his left arm and points toward the water.
Another man in his group points, too.
“Just left of that,” the man tells Nielsen. Then the man turns Nielsen slightly. “Just over the bunker.”
Nielsen steps up, shuffles his $4 golf shoes and lets it rip.
He unleashes a straight shot, right down the fairway. None of the other golfers in his foursome are able to execute a better one.
Nielsen lights a cigarette and studies the landscape again through Oakley shades. Nearly blind, he searches for another blurry blob in the distance.
His eyesight is 20/400, enough to make out ponds and mature oak trees, enough to allow him to keep returning to the course.
“Golf, even if you’re perfect, it’s not perfect,” Nielsen told the Omaha World-Herald (http://bit.ly/2sGiKvD ). “You could play for 75 years and have one good shot and never make that shot again. It’s irreplicable. You can’t ever do that again. You do it one time. That’s why you keep playing. You’re trying to get that one shot again.”
Before Nielsen lost most of his vision, got it back and then lost it again, he was a hell of a golfer. Still is, all things considered.
His grandfather taught him to play in Audubon, Iowa, when he was 4 years old. By middle school, he was winning money substituting for his dad’s buddies in tournaments. By the time he was 16, he was among Iowa’s best high school golfers. He finished in the top 20 at the state tournament as a sophomore in 1993.
That next year, while watching TV, the vision in his left eye began to blur.
Doctors told him that stress brought on a disease called autoimmune optic neuropathy, which caused his immune system to attack his optic nerves and degrade his vision.
“I was the 15th person to get it,” Nielsen said. “They pretty much experimented on me.”
For two years, Nielsen took prednisone, a powerful steroid known to bring about intense side effects. Nielsen gained 50 pounds, couldn’t sleep and was angry most of the time.
“Bad, bad stuff,” he said.
But the pills worked. His vision was almost fully restored — to 20/45 — enough for him to play golf in college at Iowa Central Community College for a year before he transferred.
The disease lay dormant for more than a decade before it reawakened.
Nielsen was building houses, 30 years old at the time. One day, a ceiling joist gave way, sending Nielsen crashing to the ground 15 feet below. He hit his head, and the trauma reignited the disease.
He battled it with prednisone for another two years. No luck.
“I can see,” Nielsen said. “But everything is kind of blurry.”
The American Optometric Association classifies his eyesight as “severe low vision.” It’s 20/400. He needs to read with a magnifying glass, and he can’t get a driver’s license.
So now, he lives in Omaha with his parents and he works at Outlook Nebraska, a nonprofit organization that helps blind and visually impaired people by finding them a job and bringing people together for recreation, offering a host of other resources.
Nielsen is a machine operator at Outlook’s facility, where paper towels and toilet paper are produced. Every day, he gets a ride to work.
“That’s the best and worst part of being blind,” he says. “You need a chauffeur to go anywhere.”
But on the golf course, he doesn’t ask for much help.
Nielsen warms up by himself. He tees off by himself. He’ll even drive the golf cart by himself. But when he stares out 300 yards on a par 4, he can’t see the pin.
So his playing partners are his second set of eyes, at least to help point him in the right direction and track and locate his ball. On this day, Nielsen and his buddies are playing in a charity event — a scramble tournament for Outlook Nebraska at Indian Creek Golf Club — and his spotter is a co-worker at Outlook Nebraska.
For all intents and purposes, his spotter is just another guy in the group. Nielsen and his fellow golfers exchange the same barbs you’ll find in most any foursome. Every once in a while, Nielsen will ask for a quick spot on the ball.
“I just need them to tell me the yardage,” Nielsen said. “I’ve played for so long, I know exactly what club to hit.”
Through the first three holes at Indian Creek, Nielsen plays so well that his foursome decides to play two of Nielsen’s tee shots.
“I used to be better,” Nielsen said. “It’s not as easy as it was. It was super easy. Now I have to think about it.”
The difference in Nielsen’s golf game before his vision loss and today comes down to millimeters. When he doesn’t see the ball quite right or when he gets loose with his swing, the club comes in too high or too low. At his peak, he used to shoot around 75. Now, on a good day, he’ll hit 84. That’s still better than most; the average golfer in the USGA system carries a handicap between 13 and 15, translating to average scores in the high-80s. And there are countless golfers out there not good enough to maintain a handicap.
Nielsen and his foursome finish somewhere in the middle of the pack at this tournament. From the beginning, he says he doesn’t plan on winning or even trying that hard.
He looks over the swarm of golf carts before the tournament begins, making fun of hyper-competitive people who will inevitably take this charity tournament too seriously. As he and a co-worker scarf down hot dogs, a group of young golfers approaches a green near the clubhouse.
It’s a group of visually impaired golfers in Outlook Nebraska’s Blind Golfer Academy. They aspire to do what Dean Nielsen does — to play a game they love despite the sand traps and water hazards life dishes out.
A few golfers gather near the green to watch the academy players. Some spectators are visually impaired, but many are not. When golfers with normal vision witness these young blind golfers succeeding at a task they might think impossible, it resonates.
“You have a lot of golfers who would never think, ‘What would I do if I lost my vision? How would I play?’ ” said Donna Faust Aman, communications director for Outlook. “By pairing these two side by side, there’s a realization that ‘Wow, there is a way. There are ways to keep doing the things I love.’ “
Blindness raised Dean Nielsen’s handicap; it hasn’t kept him off the course. But don’t call him inspirational. Nielsen doesn’t fancy himself to be that, exactly.
The way he sees it, he’s just a dude out here trying to have some fun.
Information from: Omaha World-Herald, http://www.omaha.com
An AP Member Exchange shared by the Omaha World-Herald.