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Blindness won't stop Odessa golfer from playing game he loves

By Rodney Page
WILL VRAGOVIC | Times
Rich Gassner, left, leads Tony Schiros to a tee box during an informal scramble tournament at Silver Dollar Golf Course in Odessa on Wednesday.

ODESSA — Tony Schiros is lined up and ready to go. After a few seconds of standing still, Schiros draws back his driver and takes a mighty swing.

His golf ball cuts through the air and splits the 12th fairway at Silver Dollar Golf Club, landing nearly 250 yards from the tee box. Schiros, 66, didn't see the shot. He can't see any of his shots.

Schiros is blind.

"I know right away whether it's a good shot or a bad shot,'' he said. "I can feel it.''

Ask Schiros what his handicap is and he says "Between 25-30.'' He does not say "Blindness."

Just because two fluke events left him blind, Schiros is not going to stop playing the game that has always given him pleasure. And he has never been more motivated.

On Tuesday he plays in the first round of the U.S. Blind Golf Association national championship at Stone Creek Golf Club in Oregon City, Ore. It is a two-day event with 19 of the best blind and visually impaired golfers in the country competing in three categories: blind, little usable vision and better usable vision.

"I'm hoping for a first place,'' Schiros said.

Two separate incidents left Schiros blind.

When he was 11 and growing up in Cleveland, he was punched in his right eye by a 16-year-old. He lost some vision in the eye, and eight years later he lost all sight in it.

"But I had 20/20 vision in the left eye, so I could do anything anybody else could,'' Schiros said. "I started playing golf when I was 14, and by my early 20s I was down to a 2 handicap.''

Then came July 4, 1976.

While at a neighborhood party in Cleveland, somebody lit a very powerful firecracker. When it exploded, pieces of concrete flew into the air. Though Schiros said he was standing nearly 70 feet from the explosion, bits of concrete landed in his left eye.

"I turned my head and waited and waited for (the firecracker) to go off,'' Schiros said. "It seemed like forever, and I thought it was a dud. So I turned my head back around. As soon as I did that, it blew up.''

It was two years before the eye was healthy enough for a cornea transplant. Schiros said about 60 percent of his vision returned. "That was a wonderful day."

Since then he has had three more cornea transplants. The last one was in May 2008. The cornea was a cutting-edge, man-made one that was supposed to last much longer, Schiros said.

Though the cornea worked, the surgery damaged his retina. By September 2008, surgeons were unable to reattach his retina. Schiros' world went dark.

Schiros can not play without a coach to help him. Since he started playing blind two years ago, he has gone through three coaches. He needed to find somebody if he was going to play in the national tournament.

"I was scrambling,'' Schiros said. "I called five of my high school buddies. The sixth call was to my ex-wife, and she just laughed. She thought I was nuts. But she did say 'Call Richie.' ''

Rich Gassner is a 45-year-old former concrete worker in Cleveland who moved to St. Petersburg several years ago. He is a 7 handicap who earns money by selling new and used clubs. He is also a lifelong friend of Schiros'.

His family lived in the same apartment complex as Schiros in Middleburg Heights, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb. There were times Schiros baby-sat Gassner.

"When I called him, I didn't even get it out of my mouth and Richie said, 'Tony, I hear you need some eyes. I'm going to be your eyes.' I almost cried I was so happy,'' Schiros said.

Gassner has coached Schiros for about six weeks. They have a good rapport. He lines Schiros up on every shot. He gives him yardage, and Schiros decides what club to use.

On putts, Gassner tells him the distance, break of the green and whether there is any slope. Schiros said he computes the distance in his head and tries to swing accordingly.

"I was kind of intimidated at first by his blindness,'' Gassner said. "But I came to realize that I get pleasure out of this. I drive 30 miles to get up here (to Odessa). I spend $50 in gas per day. But I love helping him out.''

Schiros, a retired furniture store owner, said he golfs by a business motto he tweaked.

"In the retail business we used to say 'Location, location, location,' '' Schiros said. "Now it's 'Trust, trust, trust.' I trust the Lord first, I trust my coach second, and I trust my swing. I'm totally at the hands of trust.''

Schiros has played five tournaments blind. He has a third-place finish and a second.

He has played at Silver Dollar for about 28 years, mostly in the Wednesday morning scramble. Four years ago he moved into the Silver Dollar neighborhood. He has a clear vision in his mind about how the course is laid out.

But he has no idea what to expect in the national tournament on a course he has never played. Still, that doesn't lower his expectations.

"I really think he can win it,'' Gassner said. "He's swinging very well right now.''

It doesn't matter to Schiros that he'll never see another drive soar through the air or a long putt drop into the cup. Now he enjoys the feel of a well-struck shot and the sound of the ball rattling into the hole.

"Golf is my game again,'' he said.