Teeing is believing

Xavier and Alexaliz Melendez are no strangers to life on the green. The two local siblings, ages 12 and 15, can often be found on various golf courses throughout Northeast Philadelphia. In fact, this Saturday, the duo will once again be practicing their swings, attempting holes in one, and participating in varied contests.

And they do it all despite a serious visual impairment.

Xavier and Alexaliz will be attending a golf clinic that’s part of the Blind Junior Golf Program, a unique program for blind and visually impaired youngsters.

Sponsored by the Middle Atlantic Blind Golf Association, the program is open to any youngster in the tri-state area — and beyond — who is blind or visually impaired and wants to golf. It provides them with equipment — golf clubs, golf balls, golf bag — plus coaching with a PGA golf professional, all free of charge.

Twice a year, the young golfers get together to golf on a  course at the Overbrook School for the Blind. Here they engage in several competitions, while family and friends cheer them on. Afterwards everyone enjoys a pizza party.

Both Xavier and Alexaliz have attended past clinics and are looking forward to this Saturday.

“I like entering the contests,” said Alexaliz, who proudly noted that so far, she’s won two trophies, claiming the “Closest to the Pin” competition in 2009 and ’10.

The youngster added that she also enjoys meeting other visually impaired and blind youngsters who, like her, play golf energetically despite their disabilities.  

For Xavier, the putting contest is his favorite activity. “And the coaches are really nice,” he said.  

Both brother and sister have the same degenerative condition, called retinitis pigmentosa. Because Xavier is older, his condition is now more advanced.  He has no peripheral vision — only central vision.

“There’s only a very narrow area where he can see,” said his father, Alexis Melendez, who likened it to looking through a straw. “One eye has this very limited focus, and the other eye has no vision at all.”

Only one in 35,000 children suffers from this disease, and there’s a 30-percent chance that it is inherited. The Melendez’s oldest son, Steven, has normal vision. So his parents were taken by surprise when Xavier developed retinitis pigmentosa. He was five years old before he initially showed signs of visual impairment. By then Alexaliz had been born, and in time, she, too, developed the condition.

Xavier is now in ninth grade at Overbrook School for the Blind, and his sister attends Overbrook Educational Center, designed for blind and visually impaired youngsters up to grade six.

Both of them enjoy varied activities in their respective schools. Xavier especially enjoys playing basketball and wrestling, and his favorite academic subject is math. He uses computers both at school and at home; they are especially geared to the needs of visually impaired users.

Alexaliz’s favorite class is computer lab, and second place goes to social studies. The versatile youngster lays both the xylophone and the recorder. And she enjoys playing Scrabble on Fridays.

“I’m really good at it!” she declared proudly.

Their parents first learned about the golf program when Xavier brought home a flyer from school.

“I thought it was a very interesting idea,” said Alexis. His son and daughter liked the idea, too, and so they were soon fitted with their own set of golf clubs and attended their first clinic.

“I was surprised and amazed to see how the kids in the program could drive the ball so far,” Alexis explained.

The nine-hole chip and putt golf course on the campus of Overbrook School for the Blind was designed by Norman Kritz of Cherry Hill, N.J., co-founder of the Junior Blind Golf Program. Kritz is not visually impaired, however, has a longstanding interest in community service, especially for youth. The other co-founder is blind golfer Gil Kayson of Elkins Park.

“They put a lot of effort into helping these kids and that’s just great,” said Alexis. “It’s not easy to teach children to play golf, even without a disability. And it’s so much harder when they’re visually impaired. So my hats are off to them.”

The youngsters play on this golf course twice a year, in fall and spring. In between, many of them practice at home or undergo coaching sessions.

Of course, there are modifications for blind or visually impaired golfers. When they lay, the coach places the ball on the tee, and positions the player behind it, telling him or her the approximate distance to the hole. But then it’s up to the player to swing and follow through.

“I had some trouble at first because I didn’t know how to play,” said Alexaliz. “So at first, I was a little nervous. But my coach taught me, and I thought it was fun.

“It helps give them more confidence,” added her father. “It shows them that even though they can’t see well, they can still do things.”

Meanwhile his son and daughter are both ready and eager for Saturday’s golf activities.

Alexaliz even hopes to take home another trophy. “I’m going to try my best to see if I can win another one,” he said. “But even if I don’t win, I’m going to have fun.” ••

 The Blind Junior Golf program’s clinic will be held this Saturday, May 14 at the Overbrook School for the Blind, located at 63rd and Malvern Avenue from 10 a.m. to noon, with free pizza to follow. It takes place rain or shine.

Participants should call in advance so a coach can be arranged for each golfer. For more information, call Gil Kayson at 215-884-6589 or e-mail SASGIL@verizon.net or contact Norman Kritz at 856-428-1420 or 609-680-5480.

For information on the Middle Atlantic Blind Golf Association, visit website www.mabga.org