Retired volunteer is a pioneer in world blind golf

by Angela Jeffs

Toshitake Hirose is tickled pink to think he is the only Japanese-Aussie in the world to be helping blind golfers play the game they love at the local and international levels.

Visiting friends in Kanagawa Prefecture during Golden Week, he has just finished volunteering his services at the five-day 2006 Blind Golf World Championship, held at the Five Hundred Club in Shizuoka.

“Every two years the best blind golfers in the world get together to compete in the International Blind Golf Association’s World Championship. Last week, American players took three out of the four top places, but with Australian Peter Robinson named champion.”

Blind golf dates from when Clint Russell of Duluth, Minn., who lost his sight when a tire exploded in his face, began playing the game in 1925. By the early 1930s, he was shooting an 84 for 18 holes.

A match between two blind Englishmen and two Americans took place before World War II, leading to the establishment of the United States Blind Golf Association in 1947.

The International Blind Golf Association was established in 1997 at a meeting held in Perth, Western Australia. Which is where Toshitake comes into the picture.

Born in Hokkaido but brought up in Tokyo, he went into announcing, first on the radio and then TV. Then dabbled in law. Ran a construction business, opening hotels and restaurants — and at one point owned eight mah-jongg shops. “Yes, I was busy. Very busy. No time for anything.”

When his son turned 10 and his daughter 7, he began to think. “I was worried about Japanese education. It was all about competition and ‘juku.’ Children had no time to be children.”

Looking around the world, he wondered what country might offer a better alternative, a more relaxed and improved quality of life. “I decided on Australia because if my kids were brought up speaking English and Japanese, they’d be good survivors. I chose Perth because it’s safe and surrounded by lots of wildlife, with a superb coastline and good clean water. I like boating and fishing.”

In the beginning, he admits, his wife was far from keen. “But now she has an interesting job and we both have lots of good friends. We’re out in Scarborough, beach side, about 15 minutes from the center of the city. It’s a great life.”

Last year, though, he sold his cruiser. “My son was going to Japan. My daughter is coming this month. And my wife doesn’t like boating.”

With even more time on his hands, he upped his volunteering activities, and now works for any number of organizations concerned with physical and mental disabilities. His interest in blind golf began four or five years ago, when he spent 10 days training in Perth.

“It was a very good course. We had to wear eye masks for the first few days to understand how it feels (to be unseeing or partially sighted). We then spent four days on a golf course. I was the first Japanese they’d ever trained; it was great last week, because as well as assisting players, I could act as a bridge between native English speakers and Japanese staff on courses.”

Blind golf includes only minor modifications to the standard rules of the game. Disabled players have a sighted caddy who assists the golfer in describing distance, direction and characteristics of the hole, and helps with club head alignment behind the ball prior to the stroke. From this point, the golfer is on his or her own, with their skill determining the resulting stroke. Amazingly, holes in one are not unknown!

Participation in blind golf competitions is determined by a player’s level of sight, using the same categories as in other branches of sport played by the visually impaired. “My regular partner, Marry, was born blind. He plays every week, and I have to be there. He depends on me. Yes, it is a kind of marriage.”

Blind golf, he adds, is only possible when both sides cooperate and understand one another; without the caddy there is no player and without the player there is no caddy. Rather than being a coach, a caddy is the player’s assistant or guide.

Toshitake (who claims his own game is improving as a result) says he has to do everything for Marry. And it’s hard work.

“We need more volunteers, as more blind golfers want to play. We cannot deny them. Often it is their only joy in life. But volunteers tend to be retired people, and we’re not so strong. It’s demanding physical work to carry a bag of clubs on one shoulder, have the player’s arm hooked through your own on the other side and have to guide them safely and successfully for 18 holes.

“It’s hardest when it’s raining, he adds. “No extra arm to carry an umbrella.”

There are currently nine member countries in the international association: Australia, Canada, England, Germany, Ireland, Japan, Northern Ireland, Scotland and the United States of America. It conducts a world championship every two years. The 2004 world championship tournament was held in Australia. This year, Japan. The venue for 2008? Still undecided, “but maybe the U.K.”

In Shizuoka, Toshitake helped Peter Robinson and also Suzy Westwood, “who’s only 16 but very good already. Her father’s her caddy. In terms of reading courses, I’m always the player’s eyes. Australian courses are big and flat. In Japan, they are narrow and hilly.”

Once the championship ended, the work did not stop for several days at least. “There was a lot of clearing up, exhibition matches, helping people to airports. Since then I’ve been wandering around, seeing old friends, drinking beer, enjoying ‘onsen.’ I go back home on May 8.

“On yes, he confirms, Australia is most definitely home. “When people ask where I’m from, I say I’m Japanese but I’m Aussie too!”