Recent diagnosis doesn't sidetrack local golfer
By Ed Zieralski
Union-Tribune Staff Writer
Legally blind Jeremey Poincenot sets up a putt with the help of his father, Lionel Poincenot (left). - Ed Zieralski photo
Jeremy Poincenot will never forget his playing partner in his first round of golf at the recent 64th Annual U.S. Blind Golf Association Championships in Texas.
John Cassolo, of Connecticut, shot 324 in that first round. He improved to score 177 in the second, the best turnaround of any golfer in the field. “After the round, I shook his hand and told him it was good playing golf with him,” Poincenot said. “He just grabbed my hand and said, ‘I had a blast. How about you?’ ”
Amazingly, Poincenot took third place in his second blind golf tournament ever, shooting 97-88, but understandably, it was the last place he ever thought he'd be playing golf.
Last October, Poincenot had just turned 19 years old when he started having vision problems.
He soon learned that the problem wasn't going to be corrected with eyeglasses.
By January, he was diagnosed with Leber's Hereditary Optic Neuropathy (LHON), a rare genetic disorder that affects only 100 or so people, mostly young males, each year in the U.S. There is no cure, no treatment. It left Poincenot legally blind, with no central vision and only limited peripheral vision.
Poincenot went from a typical college student at San Diego State, where he's a member of Sigma Phi Epsilon and majoring in international business, to a young man facing unbelievable challenges.
“I was depressed at first, but I've had some great counseling, plus I have lots of friends and family who have been really supportive,” Poincenot said. “All that support has really helped me keep a positive attitude.”
What has really helped him most is that he was raised in a golfing family, where his parents gave him the gift of golf early.
His mother, Lissa, once was in marketing at TaylorMade. She met his father, Lionel, there. He worked in research and development.
A 3-handicap, Poincenot played three years of varsity golf at the San Dieguito Academy. He figured his vision loss meant the end to his days on the golf course.
“When I lost my vision, the last thing on my mind was playing golf,” Poincenot said. “I never dreamed I'd be able to play golf again, much less competitive golf. But my mom found out about the U.S. Blind Golf Association (USBGA) about six months ago. I found out I could still play golf and compete.”
Before he entered his first blind golf tournament in Lompoc, Poincenot went to PGA instructor Mike Nokes at Stadium Golf.
“I asked Mike, ‘Are you ready for a challenge? I'm legally blind, but I need help with my golf swing.’ ”
Nokes gladly accepted the challenge.
“Obviously, it felt really good to help him,” Nokes said. “What made it easier is he's a great athlete and a great golfer to begin with. He had a great swing. Plus he's a good kid who loves golf.”
The result was Poincenot lost a nasty hook.
“Mike gave me some tips that I use and he recalibrated my swing for me,” Poincenot said.
Playing in just his second USBGA tournament, the U.S. Blind Golf Association Championships two weeks ago in San Antonio, Poincenot took third place in the B-2 Division, which is for golfers with 20/1000 vision. His father was his caddie and coach, helping him select the right club, line up his feet, club face and also assisting with pace, distance and break on putts.
“Basically I give him all the information he needs to make the shot,” Lionel Poincenot said. “But he still has to make the swing.”
Poincenot tied for second, but lost a one-hole playoff to Tennessean Kevin Edwards. San Antonio's Bruce Hooper, 63, and a five-time national champion, took first in the division.
“They both said I had the potential to be the best blind golfer in the world,” Poincenot said.
His parents are thrilled that their son is not letting his vision loss sidetrack his life. Poincenot went sky-diving in the morning for his 20th birthday on Oct. 17, went surfing in the afternoon and out to dinner with his buddies. “He just changed his goals a little bit,” Lissa Poincenot said. “Now he wants to be the best blind golfer in the world.”
He also has been training for triathlons. Recently, he joined a few buddies for a ride from Santa Barbara to San Diego. They raised $3,000 for LHON research at USC's Doheny Eye Institute, where Dr. Alfredo Sadun is working to find a cure. They formed a group, Cycling Under Reduced Eyesight, or CURE.
Poincenot has spoken to fraternities and sororities about the disease.
He spoke to the Luminaires, a women's charitable group that over the past 30 years has contributed $6.5 million to the Doheny Eye Institute. The Luninaires wrote to his mother and said they were never so moved by any speaker.
Also, he and a few of his friends started a clothing line a couple of months before he lost his vision. He remains part of that company, Dienasty Select, and 10 percent of the sales of the clothes go to LHON research.
Next year, Poincenot and his dad plan to go to England, where Jeremy hopes to get invited to play in the World Blind Golf Championships and then play in the Blind British Open, both to be held on the Whittlebury Park Golf and Country Club in Northamptonshire, England.
He takes inspiration from his counselor, Dr. Robert Jackson of the San Diego Center for the Blind. “Dr. Bob,” as the family calls him, is blind, but has a wife and family and a good job.
Poincenot hopes to inspire others the way people like Cassolo, who shot 501 in two rounds at the championship, inspired him.
“The way I look at it, if by speaking to groups, if I'm an inspiration to people, friends who need it, then that's a cool thing,” he said.