Chad “Doc” NeSmith and Malachi Johnson are entranced by the same game.
Though neither of them could see the patch of grass travel through the air after being struck by Johnson’s iron blade at Brentwood Country Club, they could hear it.
“Now what do you think you did wrong there?” NeSmith asks.
“Lost my balance?” an uncertain Johnson asks back.
“You lost your balance," NeSmith says.
"Try it again.”
NeSmith stands with his arms crossed, his blue-chromed glasses fixated on his student, waiting for another swing.
This time, he hears something different. The sound is compact. It's harmonious. It's right.
“There it is! Outstanding Malachi! Dead straight," NeSmith says with a wide smile. "Once you figure out 'I'm gonna swing and never miss,' you're going to start swinging with so much confidence."
Golf has become a source of elation for NeSmith he never would have envisioned when he lost his eyesight as a teenager. His journey has taken him from a young boy unsure about his future to a 51-year-old man certain about his purpose in life: mentoring young people with disabilities such as his.
Johnson, 13, is his latest student, who came to him after rapid vision loss in 2020. He was playing basketball as recently as December. Now he’s taking lessons from NeSmith – a national-champion blind golfer – despite never having played the sport in his life before going blind.
"When I'm on the golf course playing,” NeSmith said, “I actually forget I'm blind."
How NeSmith lost his sight
NeSmith was destined to be an athlete. Growing up in Cullman, Alabama, as a staunch Crimson Tide fan, he had his life figured out.
He’d become a high school quarterback, play Division I college football and get drafted into the NFL. If the final part of that plan didn’t work out, he’d just become a coach in the pros.
“I had nothing else in mind since I was 5 years old,” he said.
“That's not what God wanted for me.”
NeSmith began to notice his eyesight deteriorating when he couldn’t detect blindside hits in practice. He knew something was seriously wrong when he’d slam into trees while playing with his friends at dusk.
A visit to a doctor resulted in a diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa, a rare genetic disorder that slowly causes vision loss. NeSmith was 12 years old, and there was no cure.
“Being blind is a permanent state of loss,” NeSmith said. “Just socially for me, it was a miserable time until, you know, 23-24."
NeSmith’s dreams of football stardom vanished.
Crediting his friends and family for their help and support, he’d carry on and attend his dream school: the University of Alabama. He’d meet his wife in Tuscaloosa, along with graduating with a PhD in counselor education. The two would eventually open and own a private clinic for 13 years, counseling families and children with learning disabilities.
With his work at the forefront, his athletic aspirations were almost forgotten.
That is until, 26 years after his diagnosis, his wife, Patricia, recommended he try out golf.
NeSmith had never played, but he had tuned in to the Masters on TV on occasion.
NeSmith, who swings left-handed, struggled at first. But his competitiveness unlocked something inside of him that he hadn’t felt in decades.
Like a basketball player knowing the feel of a perfect shot as soon as it leaves his hands, NeSmith felt a similar rush in golf.
"I'm looking to feel that internal harmony that goes off when you hit a perfect golf shot," NeSmith said. "It's a wonderful feeling of accomplishment because you know ... you did it without being able to see the ground."
How does blind golf work?
Imagine lining up to hit a 20-foot putt. Or trying to read the slope of a green while determining how hard to hit it.
Now imagine doing it with your eyes closed.
NeSmith does this every time he plays, and he loves it.
"Blind golf is an absolute sanctuary,” he said. “Because when you're playing golf, whether you're sighted or unsighted, it's about you and hitting that golf ball.”
With the help of a guide or coach, blind golfers play a course just like anyone else, with one exception: blind golfers can ground their clubs in a bunker, allowing the club to rest against the sand and the ball while preparing to swing.
The guide is the player’s eyes on the course, painting a picture of how to visualize each hole. The guide also helps the player set their stance and lines up the clubface for the perfect shot.
"It's a team sport, he has to have a good coach," NeSmith’s wife, Patricia, said. "There has to be a rapport between them, and the coach has to learn how to keep him safe."
NeSmith learned to make good use of his coaches.
He has spent countless hours perfecting his swing. He started competing in tournaments ?when? and made his breakthrough in 2016, when he won the U.S. Blind Golf National Championship in Sarasota, Florida.
NeSmith felt a child-like "happiness for months," he said.
He repeated as champion the next year, but the same joyful rush didn’t last. He leaned on Patricia for help.
"I asked my wife, I said, 'You know, I just won the second time, but it's already gone. You know, what's the deal?'" he said. "She said, 'You're doing it for you. You're not doing it to better anyone else.'"
NeSmith had an epiphany.
He recalled the social and mental challenges he faced as a boy growing up blind. And he wondered how different his life would have been if someone handed him a golf club as a young teen in Alabama.
"I wish somebody would have given me a club at 13 and said, 'Hey, I think you can play golf,'" Doc said. "Because who knows, I mean, it could have been a game changer for me emotionally.
“That’s what we're trying to do now. ... I want to keep passing the message out there to folks that blind golf is something that can save your life."
‘Doc’s been an answer to a prayer’
Candice "Joy" Green Clopton – Johnson’s mom – discovered blind golf from a friend. She called NeSmith in May while looking for activities for her son to do after going blind.
"(Doc's) helped Malachi open up his eyes and see, just because you've lost your sight doesn't mean anything," Clopton said. "'It just gives him that hope of his own, and somebody he can relate to, that he can look up to that inspires him."
NeSmith invited Johnson to Brentwood Country Club for a lesson through A Vision in Darkness (AVID) — the NeSmiths’ non-profit organization that seeks to help blind or visually impaired children by introducing them to golf.
Johnson came back for another lesson, then another one a week later.
They began meeting every week over the summer, with Johnson improving each week and his mother serving as his guide.
"This has made life so much better for Malachi and for Joy," Johnson’s grandmother, Pearlette Kinnard Green, said. "This is something that he looks forward to. He looks forward to that practice every week, he looks forward to being out there playing golf.
"I feel like (Doc) has been an answer to a prayer."
Because of his commitment to the sport, NeSmith decided Johnson had earned himself a fresh set of golf clubs— his first set.
Johnson, who continues his training at home, hopes one day he can make it to NeSmith’s level.
"Just to win a couple of tournaments," Johnson said with a smile. "Probably more than him."
More than just a golf coach
The relationship between NeSmith and Johnson is more than just golf coach and pupil. It’s also life coach and friend.
Johnson confides in NeSmith, asking questions such as, “How do I use my cane?” and “What was school like for you?” and “Will I be able to go to college?”
NeSmith laughs at the last question and comforts Johnson with a big smile.
They don't call him "Doc" for nothing.
NeSmith teases Johnson that his time in college will be a breeze compared to his "old-school" ways of having tutors read him his textbooks.
"You'll be able to, no problem," NeSmith says.
After the exchange, NeSmith and Johnson stand and head to the Brentwood Country Club driving range before closing.
Johnson has more golf balls to swing at, and NeSmith has more harmony to find.