A golfer with strong Valley roots who lost his sight at age 16 has shot to the top of the world of blind golfing over the last three months.
Kiefer Jones could golf before he could ride a bike, spell his name or kick a soccer ball. He has always loved the sport.
“The thing I like about golf is it’s you doing it, and only you. Whether you do good or bad, it’s on you,” reflects Mr. Jones. “If you want to get better, it’s just putting the time and effort in and you can keep getting better.”
He grew up kitty corner to Riverside Golf Course in Fairmont Hot Springs.
“Kiefer and his brother were born and raised on the golf course,” recalled mom Deb Frey. Growing up, she shares, “Kiefer would put on his rubber boots and his ninja turtle helmet and bike around to the course at Riverside and head out to the driving range.”
Mr. Jones remembers those early years well, with his dad, former Riverside golf pro Brad Jones, teaching him the ins and outs of the sport.
“He taught me pretty much everything I know,” says Mr. Jones. “All the fundamentals of my swing came from playing as a kid growing up on Riverside.”
When the brothers were 7 and 9, they moved with their mom to Mexico. He continued to play golf recreationally with his stepdad while living there.
But his life took a dramatic turn when he was barely 16 years old. He woke up one day and could not see.
Doctors told him he had contracted an upper respiratory virus that attacked his optic nerves, leaving him with only minimal peripheral vision. He was declared legally blind.
“It was horrible,” remembers his mother. “I wanted to fix it and I couldn’t … All I could do was help him accept it and move on.”
Ms. Frey sent her son to Calgary to live with his grandparents, where he could get the help he needed to adjust to his new life.
When he was 17 or 18 years old, Mr. Jones went to the driving range with a friend and realized as long as someone told him where the ball went, he could still play. He started hitting the links again just for fun. He adapted to playing with the vision he had, learning from the sound of the club the calibre of his swing.
“I could still see the ball that close to my feet; as long as I had someone telling me where it was going, I could still play,” Mr. Jones explains.
As an adult, Mr. Jones moved back to Invermere to work in turf management at Copper Point Golf Club. It was there he started to play more seriously, teeing off up to six days a week for the six years he lived here. Mr. Jones even passed his playing ability test to become a golf pro, a feat in itself for any golfer, blind or fully-sighted. But Mr. Jones never pursued it further because it would be a challenge to teach when he could not see where the ball landed.
Back in Calgary again, Mr. Jones had heard of blind hockey leagues and joined a team to satisfy his competitive edge. Then his aunt sent him a newspaper clipping about the blind golf world championship and Mr. Jones’ eyes were opened. This past July, Mr. Jones, now 27, carted his clubs to his first blind golf tournament in Saskatchewan.
None of his friends were available to caddy, so Mom stepped up to the challenge. Ms. Frey admits she is not an avid golfer, but this was something she could do for her son and she was determined to do so. Being a caddy for a blind golfer is much more than passing them the correct club.
“I didn’t know what I was doing. I’m still learning,” comments Ms. Frey. “But we have come a long ways.”
Mr. Jones agrees it has been a learning curve for both of them.
“I think it’s hard for her because she doesn’t golf a lot. She has to pretty much paint a picture of what the green looks like,” he describes. “I think the first day I overwhelmed her with questions.”
But whatever method the two have worked out appears to be successful, because Mr. Jones’ first tournament started a winning streak that included low gross scores (the total number of strokes in a game with no handicap score factored in), in every blind golf tournament he has entered, from Westerns in Saskatchewan, to the Canadian open in Hamilton, then back-to-back tournaments in Australia.
He has now qualified for the world championships, taking place in Rome next September. He also plans to compete in the US Open in Arizona, the Westerns in Winnipeg and the Canadian Open in Nova Scotia. There are approximately 400 members in the International Blind Golf Association from 13 member countries around the world competing in three different sight categories, reports Gerry Nelson, president of Blind Golf Canada.
The World Championship should be “fairly competitive,” Mr. Jones figures, based on the similar golf handicaps of other competitors qualified to attend.
“I’m more excited than anything. In some of the other tournaments, I just assume I’m going to win gross, because you can tell on the handicaps where you stand,” he says.
Golfing is a family affair, with his dad still giving him tips when he needs a hand. Mr. Jones now works at the same golf course in Calgary as his brother KJ. And, with his mother by his side at golf tournaments, he has support 100 per cent of the way.
Ms. Frey is philosophical when asked about her son’s past.
“I always said to him, ‘God has given us lemons, we’re not going to let them rot. Something good is going to happen,” said Ms. Frey to him.
Ms. Frey has some advice to other parents:
“You have to be positive, and have faith, and believe there’s a path for that child,” she urges. “There’s times you can get down … you have to have support and faith that there’s something out there for him.”
Mr. Jones attributes his success to the fact he loves the game, he practices often, and he is already used to playing longer, harder courses than those on which the blind golf tournaments took place.
“I’ve always had a fairly competitive side to me, where I want to practice because I want to get better. Now that I have blind golf, it’s more of a goal; I have a reason to practice,” he reports.