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Meet the dog who kept a 78-year-old blind golfer on course

PALMETTO — Whitey Adams loves golf.

Every morning, right before the sun comes up, the 78-year-old gets out of bed inside his Rock Hill, S.C., home, grabs a few golf clubs and walks 500 yards to the driving range.

He hits ball after ball after ball.

A former club pro, he can't get enough of it. He plays as much as he can — with his buddies, with his grandson. He tunes in to the PGA Tour every weekend.

And once a year, he makes the 140-mile trip to Augusta, Ga., home of the most famous golf tournament in the world.

He will do it again this April.

There are two remarkable things about this trip. One, he will be attending the Masters for the 61st consecutive year.

The other? Whitey Adams is blind.

But there he will be, setting up his chair for the Par 3 Contest at Augusta National and catching up with friends, maybe even the great Jack Nicklaus. Whitey has known Nicklaus for more than 50 years.

If the two get a chance to catch up, Whitey might continue his tradition of giving Nicklaus a blue tee. They'll talk golf. Surely, Whitey will tell Jack about Hap.

Hap is only 2 years old. Long black hair. Handsome as can be. Even though Whitey just met Hap last month, Whitey already calls him, "my best buddy.''

Hap is Whitey's new dog.

And his new eyes.

• • •

Robert "Whitey'' Adams has always been a good athlete. He grew up in South Carolina and played a little pro baseball, getting an invitation to Milwaukee Braves camp in Bradenton in the early 1960s. But golf was his passion, even though he didn't pick up the game until he was 17.

Adams served in the Army and eventually became a club pro, before moving on to become a UPS driver. He still played golf, gave lessons on the side. Over the years, he collected 11 holes-in-one. He even got the chance to play Augusta three times, once shooting a 70.

Life was great.

Until.

LARA CERRI | Times

Southeastern Guide Dogs trainer Marisa Gerlach hands the microphone to Whitey Adams, 78, as Adams prepares to address the crowd with "Hap" at his feet during graduation from the guide dog school program in Tampa Jan. 27, 2017. Adams of Rock Hill, S.C., has retinitis pigmentosa and is legally blind. He is getting his first guide dog so he can keep his streak of attending the Masters golf tournament. He has gone every year since 1956. "Hap is going to improve my life because it's going to give me more security," he says.

"It started when I was 42,'' Whitey said. "I couldn't see my golf ball hit the ground. And so I went to get me some glasses and they thought I had something a little more serious.''

Whitey had retinitis pigmentosa, better known as RP — a rare, genetic disorder that involves a breakdown and loss of cells in the retina.

"Four years later, UPS pulled me (as a driver),'' Whitey said, "because I was backing over too many mailboxes and Cadillacs.''

Still, Whitey didn't let the condition get in his way. He still played golf, still led as normal of a life as he could. The only thing he couldn't do was drive.

"Then about a year and half ago,'' Whitey said, "it started getting worse.''

His eyesight deteriorated to 20/1,000. Legally blind is 20/200.

"I decided I needed to get some help,'' Whitey said.

That help was waiting for him on 33 acres of land in Palmetto.

• • •

LARA CERRI | Times

Hap, a guide dog from Southeastern Guide Dogs, is Whitey Adams' first guide dog. At age 78, Adams is learning to navigate without the help of his wife. Adams, of Rock Hill, S.C., has retinitis pigmentosa and is legally blind. He is getting his first guide dog so he can keep his streak of attending the Masters golf tournament. He has gone every year since 1956. "Hap is going to improve my life because it's going to give me more security," he says.

Meet Hap. A black Labrador with an easy, yet playful disposition.

He's one of the 3,000 guide dogs over the years trained by Southeastern Guide Dogs. He understands 42 direct commands. And he now serves as Whitey's guide, able to cross busy streets, step on buses, navigate office buildings and crowded rooms and restaurants and tight corners and just about any environment a human would encounter in this busy world.

But going from puppy to life-saver is a long, arduous process that requires months of breeding, raising and training.

At Southeastern, dogs are born and weened. At 10 weeks, they go out to volunteer homes to be raised like any other dog. They run and play and learn how to be around people, as well as where — and more importantly, where not — to go to the bathroom.

After a year, they return to Southeastern for assessment. Through two-way glass, dogs are observed.

How do they react to people? To noises? Are they too aggressive? Too skittish?

Then they are assigned a certified trainer who zeros in on that dog. As the people at Southeastern will tell you, the dogs pick their own careers.

Those who sniff too much might end up searching for bombs or drugs for law enforcement. Those who are too food-motivated might end up becoming emotional support dogs for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Some might end up becoming ambassador dogs for nursing homes.

The best of the best — such as Hap — become seeing-eye dogs. They undergo intense harness training for six months. The stories about these dogs are incredible.

For instance:

A blind person comes to a street corner and the light says it's okay to cross. But the dog doesn't move. His owner tells him to "move,'' but the dog does not. The owner hears no car coming. Still the dog does not move. What the owner doesn't realize is a Prius hybrid car, which makes virtually no sound, is running the red light.

Another: A man is walking down the sidewalk when his guide dog suddenly stops. The owner doesn't know why because, if there was a hole or an obstacle, the dog would simply walk around it. The owner commands the dog to move, but the dog does not. Soon, another person tells the owner what the problem is: there's a snake slithering next to the sidewalk.

There are other obstructions that dogs watch for that most of us don't realize or simply avoid by instinct, such as low-lying tree limbs and wet spots on floors.

Having these dogs allow the owner to move freely through his world without the fear of being hit by a car, falling into a hole or tripping over a chair.

"Confidence,'' said Titus Herman, CEO of Southeastern Guide Dogs. "It's that feeling of self-assurance.''

Simply put, these guide dogs give their owners their lives back.

Southeastern has been around since 1982. Their campus near I-75 and I-275 in Palmetto houses a puppy kennel, a veterinary center, a training kennel, living facilities for the students and lots of wide-open spaces. They have 120 full-time staffers and more than 700 volunteers. They place about 450 dogs a year to those who need them. The cost of raising and training these exceptional dogs runs into the tens of thousands.

But for the owners, the cost is nothing. Southeastern is a non-profit which receives no federal, state or local funding, but relies solely on donations from private citizens.

• • •

LARA CERRI | Times

Whitey Adams, 78, trains with guide dog, Hap, as Southeastern Guide Dogs trainer Marisa Gerlach, follows in downtown Tampa Jan. 24, 2017. Adams of Rock Hill, S.C., has retinitis pigmentosa and is legally blind. He is getting his first guide dog so he can keep his streak of attending the Masters golf tournament. He has gone every year since 1956.

Students — about a dozen at a time — arrive at Southeastern and live in pristine rooms, not unlike a four-star hotel. It will be their home for the three weeks. Again, the cost for the students is nothing.

Students and dogs are matched on their second day and the two get accustomed to each other, such as walking pace and stride and, most importantly, personality.

They learn how to go up steps, across streets, around obstacles, down paths. The owners are even taught how to clean up after their dogs. Each dog arches his back in a certain way to let the owner know he went No. 2 and stands in a such a spot that the owner knows where to clean up.

Even after the dogs go home with their new owners, there are regular check-ups and more extensive training.

Whitey and Hap took to one another immediately. That's not surprising.

"He has always been positive,'' said Joan, Whitey's wife of 53 years. "That has always been in his personality.''

The same could be said for Joan, who never really thought her life changed after Whitey's sight loss. The two met in the chow hall in college when Whitey said, "Who is that good-looking girl?'' Even after Whitey lost his sight, they still line-danced and did all the things they used to do.

"Just don't really think about it,'' Joan said. "You don't even realize it. It's just what you do.''

But getting Hap is going to do more than make sure Whitey doesn't walk into trouble. These guide dogs lend an emotional support that cannot be measured.

"Hap will give my family more security,'' Whitey said. "They won't have to worry about me.''

Like the time last summer when Whitey decided to hit golf balls. In the middle of the night.

Whitey has a watch that reads the time out loud when you push a button.

"I pushed it,'' Whitey said.

It was 3:30 a.m.

"I thought it said 5:30,'' Whitey said. "So I got up, put my clothes on and (walked) to the driving range. It was a full moon and I kept waiting for the sun to come up, but it was bright enough with that full moon. I was hitting balls and my wife was looking for me. She thought I had gotten lost walking around the neighborhood.

"She's driving around and she says, 'Where have you been?' And I said, 'I've been hitting balls.' She said, 'Do you know what time it is?' I said, 'I do now.' ''

But Whitey shrugs and says, "What's the difference, I can't see anyway!''

That's Whitey. Self-deprecating. Joke-teller. A favorite among his Southeastern graduating class that included students from Seminole, West Virginia and, for the first time, Canada.

Whitey does have some peripheral vision. If there's a big putt on TV, he'll get right up close to the screen. Mostly, however, he lays there and listens to the broadcast, pulling for his favorites: Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Henrik Stenson.

He hopes to be around them at this year's Masters.

◘• • •

Photo courtesy of The Herald, Rock Hill, S.C.

Terrell Wiggins, left, chats about previous Masters tournaments with friend Whitey Adams of Rock Hill, S.C. Adams is legally blind and has attended more than 50 Masters tournaments.

Whitey's first Masters was 1956, the year Jack Burke Jr. took advantage of amateur Ken Venturi's final-round collapse to prevail. Whitey's favorite Masters?

"That's easy,'' he said with a smile: 1986 when a 46-year-old Nicklaus won his 18th and final major.

These days, Whitey just goes to the Par 3 Contest. He doesn't think he will bring Hap this year. It'll be too hot for a dog to sit in the sun for eight hours. But even before Whitey goes, he is already thinking about getting home.

"Can't be away from Hap for too long,'' Whitey said.

On Southeastern's graduation day at Centre Club in South Tampa, each graduate gets to stand up with his dog and say a few words. Most want to thank their trainers and Southeastern Guide Dogs. Everyone waited to see what Whitey, the class clown of the group, would say.

But before he could tell a joke, he broke down.

"This fine dog,'' Whitey said through the tears.

His best buddy.

Side-by-side from now on.

Every day.

Starting at the driving range.

Contact Tom Jones at tjones@tampabay.com. Follow @tomwjones.

LARA CERRI | Times

Southeastern Guide Dogs trainer Marisa Gerlach, left, pauses as Whitey Adams, 78, praises his guide dog, Hap, while they train in downtown Tampa Jan. 24, 2017. Adams of Rock Hill, S.C., has retinitis pigmentosa and is legally blind. He is getting his first guide dog so he can keep his streak of attending the Masters golf tournament. He has gone every year since 1956. "Hap is going to improve my life because it's going to give me more security," he says.

Meet the dog who kept a 78-year-old blind golfer on course 02/17/17 [Last modified: Saturday, February 18, 2017 7:53pm]
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