Sport Golf

Thursday 17 October 2019

From losing his sight after 9/11 to winning Portmarnock President's Prize: The inspiring story of Paul McCormack

Golfer Paul McCormack
Golfer Paul McCormack

Dermot Gilleece

Back in January 2002, a Scottish 14-handicapper named Ron Conway, gained the distinction of out-playing some of the world's top professionals. It involved the apparently simple challenge of hitting the green at a 130-yard par-three in a charity event prior to the Johnnie Walker Classic in Perth, Australia.

Of course there was a catch. Conway happened to be a three-time winner of the World Blind Championship and his challengers, who included Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia, Nick Faldo, Colin Montgomerie and Lee Westwood, were obliged to wear blindfolds.

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In the event, the professionals had the humbling experience of missing the target with a mixture of shanks, pulls, hooks and slices, whereas Conway, who only took up golf after being blinded by meningitis, hit it every time, mostly in the middle.

When I related this tale to Paul McCormack, he wasn't at all surprised. "Professionals like to talk about trusting their swing," he said. "But if you're standing over the ball with a blindfold on, all of a sudden the most important sense you have, an asset you take completely for granted, is gone. Trust becomes a far more serious issue when you're blind."

McCormack knows about these things. As a blind golfer, he outscored fully sighted opponents nine days ago to capture the President's Prize at Portmarnock Links, with the splendid score of 41 points. Playing off 23, he carded six gross pars and a gross birdie on the 10th, for a winning margin of four strokes.

We met last week in Sutton in north Dublin, where he lives with his wife, Nicola, and their five children. It was a strange experience for me, in that McCormack looked perfectly normal; there wasn't even the addition of eye-shades, let alone a white stick or seeing-eye dog. And at 50, he appeared admirably fit for his age.

He explained the three categories of blindness in golf, starting with B1 which involves those totally blind. "B2 is me, pretty badly visually impaired," he said. "Those in B3 would have much better vision but are still visually impaired."

How he lost his sight - most notably his central vision, though some peripheral vision remains - is still a painful issue for him. He declined to deal with it in specific detail, other than recounting his role as an inspector with the New York Police Department in the aftermath of 9/11.

McCormack was born of Donegal parents in Philadelphia in 1968 and he was a child when the decision was made to return home, where the family settled in Ballybofey. After his Leaving Certificate in 1986, he sought employment here without success. Disappointments included being ineligible for An Garda Siochana for which he wasn't tall enough at 5ft 7ins.

So he headed for New York where, after working first in construction, he joined the NYPD in 1990. "It became a very fulfilling career," he said. "Having attained the rank of captain, I was promoted to inspector, which meant commanding two precincts.

"It also gave me the opportunity to become involved in golf. The thing about New York's police officers and its Irish bartenders was that we kind of worked the same hours. And the best time to go golfing on the better courses in the Tri-State area is early in the morning.

"For a good few years, I was working from nine at night until five or six in the morning. With the bartenders finishing work around that time, we would arrange a few fourballs, three or four times a week. We played top courses like Bethpage Black and it wasn't long before I had a fairly decent game off about 15 handicap, even though I never had lessons."

At the time of 9/11, Nicola was a photographer with the Irish Voice and he was commander of the 41st Precinct, which was immortalised in the Paul Newman movie, Fort Apache. "That was when I became involved in the largest mobilisation in the history of the NYPD," he continued. "I had 250 to 300 cops working for me, including sergeants and lieutenants and I sent a sergeant and a van-load of cops to assist in getting the crowds out of the buildings.

"Everything changed when the towers fell. The most vivid memory I have of 9/11 is of a female officer calling for help over the radio when the first tower collapsed. It was very faint, but as a trained police officer, your ears were tuned into stuff like that. It brings a very sick feeling, especially so when it's a female officer calling for help."

It transpired that the officer involved happened to be the only female NYPD officer killed in the outrage. She was Moira Smith, a New Yorker whose father was born in Dublin. "During last Friday's round, the ball-marker I used was a Moira Smith commemorative coin, with the American flag on one side and Moira's police picture on the other," said McCormack. "It meant I had Moira looking up at me every time I marked my ball."

Back at 9/11, when it was McCormack's time to head for the disaster area, he had a strange experience. "I couldn't get my bearings because the towers were no longer there," he recalled. "Eventually, I was confronted by a breathtaking mountain of rubble. It took us a while to know what to do. There were no police guidelines for something of this magnitude."

After four or five days, McCormack and his colleagues had reduced the exclusion zone around the scene of devastation to a large, fenced area - a 10-block radius. "That became the frozen area around Ground Zero," he said.

When I returned to the issue of his blindness, he said: "Eighteen years on, there are a lot of people who are dying right now, people I worked with in the police and fire departments. People are dying of cancer, respiratory diseases. My situation? It is what it is."

He began to lose his sight between six months and a year after 9/11. Around that time, his central vision deteriorated to the extent that he could no longer see a golf-ball. Conscious of slowing down the other players, he decided to quit the game.

Meanwhile, his work was being affected. Eventually, he was forced to accept a stark reality. "If you can't shoot and you can't drive, you can't be a cop," he accepted bluntly. Which meant retiring from the force in 2010 after being "injured in the line of duty."

He had settled in retirement in Sutton when he returned to golf. Towards the end of 2015, by which stage he had been 13 years away from the game, he was inveigled into a charity fourball at Howth GC. "When I protested that I couldn't see, my playing partners assured me they'd be my eyes," he said.

"The game worked out fine and at the end, it was suggested I should join blind golf in Ireland. I wasn't aware such an organisation existed. Then the following summer, I played in my first event, the US Blind Golf Open at Torres Blancas in Green Valley, Tucson, Arizona. And I won it by four strokes. I had always been competitive, back to playing with the Donegal minors, and this was a wonderful new experience."

He then joined Portmarnock Links where he was warmly welcomed by the members, and acquired the help of Karl Herbert, a teaching professional based in Kinsealy. Still, there was the challenge of putting a ball in play.

"I have guys who act as my guides," he explained. "Gerry McCormack and Jim Kavanagh do it regularly and last Friday [September 20], my guide was Luke McAteer. He lines you up for each shot: we're not allowed to use binoculars or any such visual aid in blind golf. And depending on the speed of a putt, he might tell you that you have to hit a 30-footer say 18 feet, and with a four-foot break from the left.

"I don't want to know anything about bunkers, water or out of bounds. I just want to be pointed down the middle of the fairway, which can be tricky enough on the dog-legs at the Links."

His birdie came on a treacherous green which he managed to hold with his approach shot for the first time. And in a splendid finish, he had gross pars at the difficult 16th and 17th before completing the round with a creditable bogey on the last.

When not involved with helping youngsters at Binn Eadair GFC, McCormack and his wife have a 9/11 exhibition which they have brought all over Ireland and the US, as a tribute to the victims and their families. The display includes Moira Smith's NYPD hat and her radio.

All of which has become part of a remarkable journey by a player, who is relishing the caring side of a notoriously demanding game.

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