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Marcus Hayes: Remarkable story of George Pilz, a blind golfer

THIS IS WAY easier than it was supposed to be. Then, suddenly, it isn't. Suddenly, it is the hardest thing, the scariest thing, a thing of helplessness and impossibility.

George Pilz and coach Jerry Freil are former co-workers.
George Pilz and coach Jerry Freil are former co-workers.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff photographer

THIS IS WAY easier than it was supposed to be.

Then, suddenly, it isn't.

Suddenly, it is the hardest thing, the scariest thing, a thing of helplessness and impossibility.

It is golf, and I am blind.

To approximate the feeling and to appreciate the skills of blind golfers, I try my hand. George Pilz, 68, reigning senior U.S Blind Golf Association national champion and maybe King of Prussia's most inspirational soul, gives me the chance.

He lends me his coach. Pilz is preparing for the 32nd annual Corcoran Cup, the Masters of blind golf, a 14-player invitational tournament held Sunday at Mount Kisco Country Club in New York.

So we meet last week on the practice green at Cedarbrook Country Club in Blue Bell, which this day is hosting the local Middle Atlantic Blind Golf Association tournament. He arrives an hour before one of his warmup tournaments to explain his methods.

Pilz reaches out a hand for me to shake. He introduces me to Jerry Friel, his coach and, sometimes, he jokes, his scapegoat.

Then Pilz demonstrates how he reads putts. Friel leads him from ball to cup and back again. From that, Pilz calculates not only distance but slight elevation changes and undulation and, from that, break.

"I got 30 feet. A little right to left," Pilz says. Friel agrees.

Pilz drains two of the four putts. One miss lips out. Another is 2 inches short.

"It's working for me today!" he exclaims.

At the time, I had no idea how much "It" was working for him.

A few minutes later I watch Pilz play Cedarbrook's first hole, a short, easy par-4. On the tee, Friel, a 58-year-old former co-worker from Phoenixville, aims him at a target, then steps back. Most coaches tee it up. Pilz doesn't like that.

"I get a better feel for it this way," he explains.

Pilz turns himself 90 degrees, puts a tee in the ground and places his ball on top of it. He retreats, unaided, rips off a couple of practice swings, and gives Friel the go sign. Friel places Pilz' clubface behind the ball. Pilz adjusts his body and lets fly.

His wounded quail darts into the rough 70 yards away. In snarly cabbage, his optimistic if unwise 6-iron dribbles another 20 yards. Now in the fairway, another poor 6 leaves him 103 yards from the pin.

"Pitching wedge," Pilz says, firmly.

"Nine-iron," Friel replies, firmer. "You need to carry that sand trap up there."

The 9, hit flush, lands on the apron and hops onto the green. Pilz smiles at the news. His sky-blue eyes brighten and widen as he says to Friel, "You were right. Right."

They go through the routine on the green: Pilz on Friel's arm, escorted, walking from ball to pin and back again.

"So, 48 feet, downhill, left to right," Pilz says. Nothing from Friel.

Maybe he's thinking what I'm thinking: It really goes right to left.

Pilz strokes his putt. It goes 49 feet. Left to right. Hard. I question my eyes and better understand why I seldom break 80.

Friel lines up the tap-in. There are no gimmes in Pilz' world.

The ball drops and settles and Pilz reaches in and says, "I need to hear that. Oh, what a feeling!"

I would know soon enough.

Excellence at golf - relative excellence, in a world where breaking 100 is astounding and a 5-hour round the norm - is just one more marker of Pilz' journey.

A high school dropout, he enlisted in the Air Force during the Korean War but never left the country. He knew a guy who knew a guy, so when he left the service he got a good job climbing poles for the Peco Energy Co. He was 21, living high and hard.

That ended May 22, 1960. He and a buddy had a few drinks. Pilz was unbelted in the passenger seat of a car that got sideways and skidded into a tree. The driver was fine. Pilz woke up 2 weeks later with a ruined face he would never see again. His retinas detached when his head shattered the windshield.

It could have been the end: no career, no degrees, no business, no golf. It was a beginning.

"I wanted more out of life," Pilz said. "I wanted to be a contributing member of society."

If everyone contributed half as much.

Pilz qualified for care at the Hines Blind Rehabilitation Center, a Veterans Affairs facility near Chicago. Four months after the wreck, he enrolled, and he learned - as much about the human spirit as about living blind.

"I could tell in a day or 2 if people entering that program were going to make it through or drop out," Pilz said. "Me? I came out of there energized."

He came out able to type, able to cook, able to walk with a cane and able to read Braille.

"I hate Braille," he says, and with technology at his fingertips now it is superfluous. But like a radio operator who knows Morse code, Pilz reads a magazine in Braille every day to stay sharp. It is his way.

He returned from Chicago, got a guide dog named Cloudy and enrolled in Temple University's high school equivalency program. Simple, right?

Well, getting to Temple every day meant walking down to the bus stop in Trooper, Pa., where there were no sidewalks. That bus dropped him in Norristown, where he hopped a train to Philadelphia, then another to Temple's campus.

Pilz had his diploma by January. He opened a wood-turning business out of his parents' basement and that, along with a little golf (both skills he picked up in Chicago) was his life for the next 9 years. He never replaced Cloudy, his boon companion for 8 of them. The German shepherd was his starting point, but it was a crutch, too.

"I needed to move on," Pilz said.

In the summer of '69, Pilz met an AT&T executive who was dazzled with his capabilities. That fall, Pilz was working for the company, repairing telephones.

That lasted for 25 years.

It wasn't all he did.

An avid lunchtime runner, Pilz was part of the Olympic torch relay in 1984, the year his father, Ferdinand, died. Pilz carried the torch down the Ben Franklin Parkway and up the Art Museum steps where his mother, Edith, awaited him. It was Mother's Day.

Two years later Pilz graduated from Ursinus, where he studied business administration, finance (he manages his own investments) and industrial relations. His coworkers at AT&T wanted him to represent them during negotiations with management.

When the company packed up, Pilz didn't want to leave the area. He didn't want to leave the house he and his mother had moved to 5 years earlier.

So, he got his MBA at Saint Joseph's and opened VisionTech, a company he ran out of the house. The company mated the newest technology for the blind with people who needed it. He trained sightless people from birth for new jobs; he trained the newly blind to do their old jobs again. With his VA connection, he tested new products and wrote reports on their merits.

And he returned to golf. He had quit when he got the AT&T job - no time for such frivolity - but, master of his time once again, he rediscovered its joy.

"That 5 years - that was payback time for me," Pilz says. "Oh, my God, did I enjoy it."

He shuttered VisionTech in 2001 when Edith's health began a steady decline to her death at 92.

Pilz kept playing.

He rigged a practice tee just outside his back door and created this ingenious practice aid:

He drilled a hole through a golf ball, unwound some line from a push-button fishing reel and strung the line through the ball. He adhered the ball and string with an epoxy filler and fixed a shuttlecock to the line behind the ball to create enough drag so the ball wouldn't fly too far.

He could smash drive after drive, feel the ball come off the club . . . then reel it in.

He has a new practice cage in the yard now. He also has a fold-up treadmill on the back porch, a small, old Universal gym in the garage and the lean, hard body of a man many years his junior.

When he needs something he can call on his three siblings, who live close by. He never married. He explains this in his office, amid degrees and awards and the trappings of security and achievement:

"I never thought it would be fair for someone to be hung up with someone like myself."

He is re-evaluating that stance.

After Pilz putts out on No. 1 at Cedarbrook, Friel walks over to me and secures the blindfold around my eyes. It is the complete darkness of George Pilz' life. I never see the par-5 second hole as we drive up to it.

Like Pilz, I exit the cart on my own. Like Pilz, I pull my own club (the driver was easy to find) and put my left arm on Friel's right. Despite Friel's warning, I nearly trip on the stone curb step-up from the cart path to the tee.

He aligns me. I turn, put a tee in the ground, put a ball on top, step back, take a practice swing . . . and nearly fall over.

I widen my stance for balance. I take another swing, slower. Better. Friel leads me forward, to the ball. I adjust my body to the club's placement. It is time.

Taking the club back - that's a little difficult, like dipping a toe in cold, dark water. But once back, coming through is easy.

Really. Just keep your balance. And I can play a little. Trust the swing? When you can't see the ball, you have no choice.

I pop it up, maybe 80 yards. But, hey, contact is contact and straight is straight. Unlike many of Pilz' competitors, I can't see anything; to qualify for blind golf one must only be legally blind, which means some golfers have limited vision. Sometimes, they will pull their heads up early to try and track the ball in flight.

"That sounded great!" Pilz says. I beam.

Friel is less impressed. Even less so, when, feeling pretty confident, I shank my next shot, a hybrid 4-iron. I use the same club on the third shot, which I clobber. Friel is encouraging. Another try, same swing, same club, and I'm 15 yards short of the green, just in front, chipping for par. I flip it 30 feet past, but I'm on in five, a double-bogey in sight.

Because putting is even easier, right? The first thing I'd seen was Pilz drop two of four from 30 feet.

Thermonuclear dynamics in Chinese is easier.

Putting is like floating in the ocean on your stomach and trying to spear minnows. Blindfolded.

You have no bearings. You drift in space.

You walk the putting line, but, come on, what is 10 paces on a blind putting stroke? Did I go uphill on the way back? Because everything feels uphill when you walk in the dark. Does it break left to right? Whatever. I'm having a tough time feeling my legs, much less subtle undulations.

All you want to do is make contact.

If you thought pulling the driver back was tough - well, that putter was in cement. I feel the sweat on the backs of my hands. My palms are already drenched, stealing the moisture that usually resides in my mouth.

I can hear them breathing. I swear it. Because I'm not.

Finally, I jerk something toward the hole. I feel contact. Then, silence.

"A little short," Friel reports. How much? "You'll see."

It's 15 feet short. I got it halfway there.

The next one was 10 feet past. The next, 7 feet past. This feels awful. The next, 2 feet short. Two stinking feet, and dead straight. Oh, Lord.

Clunk. Clunk.

"Doesn't it sound great?" Pilz asks.

Yeah. Yeah, it does.

That's enough.

Slowly, I remove the mask. It is a little like un-drowning.

This next part is cliché. So what?

I feel the soft morning breeze and the gentle sun's warmth and I breathe it all in. I hear an orchestra of birds and a single-engine plane and the little hairs on my arm tingle. I remember the faces and smiles and the beautiful, beautiful skin of my two baby daughters and I think of how horrible it would be to never see them again.

Pilz comes over.

"You put that mask on, you lose a lot," he said. "But don't you appreciate the other things more?"

Yeah. Yeah, you do.

"You know what's important to me today?" Pilz continued, quieter. "The future."

Yeah. Me, too. *

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