Seaside >> For most golfers, having your spouse standing close by, directing your position in relationship to the ball, does not sound like an optimum experience.
For Carlos and Barbara Franco, it is ideal.
“I started playing golf here (at Bayonet and Black Horse) through the PGA HOPE (Helping Our Patriots Everywhere) program, which gives vets an opportunity to learn the game,” said Franco, a retired Navy veteran.
PGA HOPE is the flagship military program of PGA REACH, the charitable foundation of the PGA of America. PGA HOPE introduces golf to veterans with disabilities to enhance their physical, mental, social and emotional well-being, according to the PGA REACH website.
On the Bayonet and Black Horse practice range Tuesday afternoon, Carlos Franco positions his golf ball on the turf. With the head of the golf club in hand, he feels for the ball on the ground with his fingers, getting it in position and a sense of how the ball and club are lined up. He then rights himself into his stance, addressing the ball before his swing.
His wife, Barbara Franco, is positioned a few feet directly behind the ball and tells Carlos Franco whether he is too close or not close enough. He adjusts his position according to her input and takes a swing, connecting with the ball and sending it down the practice range to its intended target.
For a man whose vision is greatly impaired, it is an impressive shot.
Franco, 69, of Castroville has macular degeneration, the leading cause of vision loss that affects more than 10 million Americans — more than cataracts and glaucoma combined. It is considered an incurable disease and is slowly taking Franco’s ability to see.
“I have a little peripheral vision and can see shadows but I can’t see anything straight ahead of me,” said the Navy vet.
The Francos were on the practice range along with Miguel, Franco’s guide dog — the three of them working together and enjoying their time at the golf course.
Miguel has been with Carlos for a little over four years.
“He’s more than family, he’s a blessing,” said Barbara Franco. “He’s given him so much more independence now.”
As far as this new form of recreation goes, it is not Franco’s first rodeo. He has tried his hand at archery, bowling, kayaking, and tandem cycling, to name a few.
Franco said he has always been active in sports but when he was first diagnosed with the disease that would take his vision, he fell into a depression. But after being introduced to other patients by a doctor at the VA Palo Alto blind center, Franco realized things could be far worse.
“This keeps me happy, active and shows that anything can be done,” said Franco.
The first time the program was utilized at the golf course, it had 10 participants being taught by golf professionals who were specifically trained to work with impaired and disabled veterans.
“The PGA has done a fantastic job incorporating a lot of the same things we use in treatment,” says Kathleen Waterman, a recreational therapist with the Veterans Administration who refers patients to the Northern California PGA HOPE program. The pros are engaged and involved with the veterans. The veterans all feel that.”
Born in Mexico City and raised in Castroville and Salinas, Franco joined the Navy when he was 20 years old and served over four years.
After his stint in the military, he came back to the area and enrolled at Hartnell College where he lobbied the administration to start a wrestling team “that’s gone now” and a soccer team.
Franco received his degrees in recreational administration and physical education as well as a master’s in business administration from California State University Chico.
He and his wife have six grown children between them. Franco said at their wedding the music for the first dance with his new bride suddenly changed to “The Brady Bunch” theme, a prank put on by their kids.
Now that Franco has the golf bug, he intends on going to the National Disabled Veterans Tee Tournament slated for mid-September in Iowa City, Iowa.
This new national event provides legally blind and eligible disabled veterans an opportunity to develop new skills and strengthen their self-esteem through adaptive golf and bowling events. Each year, the TEE (Training, Exposure, Experience) Tournament uses a therapeutic format to promote rehabilitation, fellowship and camaraderie among participants, according to its website.
“I want to go to the Iowa City golf tournament to see how it runs, how they do it and maybe come back and put one on for our vets,” said Franco.
The Navy veteran credits the PGA HOPE program with a change in his attitude.
“The first thing is that it has opened me up to feeling more independent, … to show people what I can do and that I’m not afraid to try anything. It also gave me the opportunity to become friends with the other participants,” said Franco. “This can help a person to get out and move, meet new people and participate in life.”
Barbara is being encouraged to take up golf by her husband.
“I told her she should take lessons. … She’s always at my side and has been instrumental in getting me out here,” said Franco.
Though the Navy vet is retired, Barbara still works as a nurse at the VA-DOD Outpatient Clinic in Marina.
James Herrera can be reached at 831-726-4344.