51: Making Contact

51: Making Contact

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tales of Golf and Sport

Making Contact

Driving back to New Orleans with his cousin Bill Kyle after attending a wedding in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Pat Browne’s thoughts drifted to a round of golf he planned to play the next day. It was late afternoon on Saturday, February 26, 1966, and Kyle was driving, so the thirty-two-year-old Browne, who had played on the golf and basketball teams at Tulane University in his hometown of New Orleans, did not have to concentrate on the road.

Suddenly, though, he saw a car driving at a high rate of speed from the opposite direction. As it got closer, it swerved out of control, crossing a small median divider.

“Look out, Bill!” Pat Browne screamed. As he did, the other car slammed into the auto Bill Kyle was driving. The force of the impact drove the hood of Kyle’s car through the windshield, sending shards of glass into Browne’s eyes and severing his optic nerve.

The teenage driver of the speeding car, which had been stolen, was killed instantly. But both Browne and Kyle survived with serious injuries. “Seeing that car jump the divider was the last thing I ever saw,” Browne recalled thirty-five years after the accident which left him blind along with a fractured collarbone, jaw and knee cap and cost him several front teeth.

“How in the world am I ever going to play golf again?” Browne thought to himself when doctors told him that he would never see again. “And how can I bear not seeing my three daughters again?”

At the time of the accident, Pat Browne was married with three young daughters, aged eleven, nine and seven, who were the joy of his life. He also was a lawyer with a large law firm in New Orleans and a well-known athlete. When he was able to find time, Browne also excelled on the golf course, shooting in the 70s and holding a 3 handicap, which was 2 less than the one he possessed while playing on the varsity golf team at Louisiana State University. Occasionally, the six-foot, four-inch 210-pound Browne also played some pickup basketball. As a player at Tulane, he had gone up against such Hall-of-Fame players as Bob Pettit of Louisiana State and Sam and K. C. Jones while they were winning back-to-back national championships at the University of San Francisco in the mid 1950s.

Indeed, Pat Browne had a lot going for him until, suddenly, the lights went out forever on that winter afternoon in 1966.

“Depressed? I guess I was for a while,” said Browne, whose weight dropped from 210 pounds to 165 during his convalescence. “But I knew I had to get on with my life and was convinced that, even though I had lost my sight, I would still be able to do most of the things I did before the accident, including maybe even play golf.”

Following months of hospitalization and a long convalescence, along with learning how to get along in a world that had suddenly gone dark, Browne returned to work with the law firm of Jones and Walker on a part time basis in June of 1966, four months after the accident. “In September, when I was back working fulltime, I tried my first case,” he said, “and realized that I could still practice law effectively.”

The following spring, two friends, Bobby Monsted and Doc Schneider, convinced Browne to try to hit a few golf balls at the New Orleans Country Club, to which the three men belonged.

“Come on, Pat, let’s give it a try,” Monsted said.

“Bobby, how in the world am I going to hit the ball when I can’t see it?” Browne said.

“Don’t worry, you’ll do fine,” Schneider said. “You’re still going to be a good golfer.”

At the club, after Browne had taken a few practice swings, Monsted placed a ball on a tee, set Browne in position, handed him a driver and set the club back on the ground directly back of the ball. “You’re all set, Pat,” he said. “Now all you’ve got to do is swing and hit it.”

Browne, apprehensive and unsure of himself, swung easily and lofted a drive about 150 yards down the middle, about 100 yards shorter that he would normally hit his two shots before his accident. “That impact felt good,” he told Monsted and Schneider. “Where did it go?”

“Right down the middle,” Schneider responded. “Not bad for the first time out.”

“Let’s hit some more,” an enthused Browne said.

For the next fifteen minutes or so, with Monsted and Schneider lining him up for every shot, Pat Browne struggled. Most of his wood shots went straight, some as far as 200 yards. But most of his iron shots sailed wide to the right—shanks, as they’re known in golf.

As they left the driving range, Monsted said, “Pat, that was great for the first time. I think you ought to keep at it. After all, you were practically a scratch golfer before the accident, and you still have a great swing, good coordination and excellent reflexes.”

“Maybe you’re right, Bobby, and thanks a lot to you and Doe for your help today,” Browne said to his friends as they walked towards the clubhouse. “Maybe if I really work at my game, I can still play reasonably well.”

As it developed, Browne played more than reasonably well. Henry Sarpy, a member of the same law firm, volunteered to be Browne’s coach, as the people who line up blind golfers for their shots and lead them around the golf course are known. Together, along with other friends, they played scores of rounds of golf together over the next two years. Then one day, Sarpy said, “Pat, I think you ought to consider playing in the national blind golfers tournament.

“A golf tournament for blind golfers?” Browne asked incredulously,

“Yes, they have it every year,” Sarpy said. “Charlie Boswell is the head of the Blind Golfers Association, and the way you’re playing, I’m sure you would do well.”

Browne knew about Boswell. He had been an outstanding football and baseball player at the University of Alabama before losing his sight in World War II. After taking up golf following his blindness, Boswell had written a book entitled, Now I See.

With Sarpy as his coach, Browne played in his first blind tournament in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1969. At the time, the blind golfers’ field was dominated by Boswell and Joe Lazaro, who, like Boswell, had been blinded during World War II, Browne finished fourth, shooting between 100 and 108, which is excellent in blind golf competition. “I know I can do better,” he told Sarpy after the tournament ended. And he did, winning his first national tournament in 1975, and then, from 1978 through 1997, winning it a phenomenal twenty years in a row with Gerry Baraousse, a former All-America golfer at Washington & Lee, as his coach.

During that period, and into his sixties, Browne established himself as the best blind golfer in the world. Playing under U.S. Golf Association rules, he performed better than most sighted golfers, even very good ones. He carded an 80 at the very difficult Pinehurst course in North Carolina, a 76 at his home course, the New Orleans Country Club, and then, incredibly, put together four consecutive rounds in the 70s, including two in which he shot 74, in 1982 at the very challenging Mission Hills Country Club in California. By the 1990s, as the blind golf circuit expanded internationally, Browne was winning scores of other tournaments, both in the U.S. and abroad. At times during the mid-1990s, his “coach” often was his teenage son, Patrick, who had developed into one of the best junior golfers in Louisiana.

Numerous honors have been bestowed on Browne, who served as president of the U.S. Blind Golfers Association from 1976 to 1992, when he was succeeded by Bob Andrews, who lost his sight in Vietnam. Browne has received the Ben Hogan Award from the Golf Writers Association of America and been inducted into the Tulane Hall of Fame and the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.

“I think I’ve been blessed,” said Browne, who for the last twenty-five years has been president and chief executive officer of a savings and loan association in New Orleans. “I’ve played at some of the world’s greatest golf courses in England, Ireland, Scotland, Australia and New Zealand, which I may never have played if I hadn’t lost my sight. And I’ve met some wonderful people along the way, particularly the other blinded golfers. I’ve also been to the Masters six or seven times since the accident and played the Augusta National Course. Now that’s golfing heaven. And to think I’ve played it twice. I imagine that some people wonder why blind golfers play. But they don’t understand that the thrill of hitting the golf ball is what counts. And you don’t have to be able to see it to enjoy doing it.”

~Jack Cavanaugh
Chicken Soup for the Golfer’s Soul, The 2nd Round

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