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Brian MacLeod, 47, is arguably the best blind golfer in North America. Reigning king of the U.S. Blind Open and four-time defending Canadian champion, he’s shot as low as 83 and is on track to be the best in the world. But it’s been a long haul to the fairway for MacLeod.
Diabetes at Age 16
A straight-talking, no-nonsense man with a sledgehammer style, he’s spent much of his life in the rough. At the age of 16, he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes after passing out on the family staircase. “I was devastated,” he says. “Daily insulin and a strict diet shouldn’t have been a big deal, but it made me feel like I was different. It felt like a big dark secret. I didn’t tell my friends about it.”
Blind at Age 28
As a youth, MacLeod didn’t try very hard to take care of himself. Sports came first, and a life like his friends. In 1986 he won three local golf tournaments, but all the while, diabetic retinopathy was chipping away at his sight. Then two freak collisions detached his retinas and, weakened by retinopathy, they could not be reattached. At the age of 28, MacLeod saw his world go black.
It was only then that he began to take care of himself. “The key to medication is to always test at the same time every day,” he says. “I would test four times a day and if I thought I might be low, I’d test more often.”
Glucose Management on the Course
MacLeod didn’t let blindness stop him. He kept golfing and he kept improving, both at golf and at managing his diabetes. He notes, “A lot of guys take their test equipment right on the golf course. You adapt your insulin to the amount of activity you’re going to have that day.” Describing his regimen in British millimoles/liter, he states, “If I was doing a lot, my sugars would drop, so I’d have a lot of juice and chocolate bars or fruit in my golf bag. A little bit high, it didn’t worry me too much. My body can burn that off over 18 holes. But with low sugars I could get weak and pass out. I’d keep it at seven or eight, a little bit high. I’d usually take 44 or 45 units of Lente in the morning. Then let’s say at the first tee box I’m at 12. I’m thinking I’m okay. After the ninth hole, let’s say it’s down to four. I’d probably have a sandwich and a juice and bring it up. If it went up, to say 14, by the ninth hole I’d take 4 units of Toronto (a fast-acting Canadian insulin) and check in two hours later to see if it came down. Then I’d check after. I’d test before, middle and after.”
Kidney and Pancreas Transplant
Despite his best efforts, MacLeod’s kidneys continued to deteriorate. He was on dialysis for seven months in 1992 before receiving a kidney transplant. After the 1999 Canadian Blind Open, he was again placed on the transplant waiting list, and in July of 2000, he received another kidney and a pancreas as well. “Now I’m a kid in a candy store,” he jokes. He has been free of his type 1 diabetes for the last 6½ years. His last blood work, in February, showed everything in good order.
Hooray for Canadian Health
MacLeod pulls no punches in his praise for the Canadian health care system. “We’re so lucky here. The rejection pills I take, tacromycin and rapamycin, cost $5,000 a month. I don’t pay a dime. The operation would have been at least $120,000. Where am I going to come up with that kind of money? Maybe our taxes are a little higher, but that covers all medical. You think you’ll never use it, but I never thought I would either.”
Many Diabetic Golfers
Many top blind golfers are diabetic. Stompin’ Bob Comba of Vancouver, the last man to defeat MacLeod before his run of four straight California Classic titles, has diabetes. So does Dennis Smith of Talladega, Alabama, who was part of the United States Blind Golf Association delegation to the world championships last year. So does Bob Spencer of Phoenix, 2005 USBGA champion in the partially sighted division.
But kidneys, sugar levels, insulin dosages, transplants, and blindness are subjects rarely broached in the bar after golf. “At tournaments, the talk is all about golf,” MacLeod asserts, scoffing at the very idea of diabetes-related topics. “That’s the beauty of it. It gets old reliving that other stuff. It turns into a pity party. These guys are past that poor-me stuff.”
MacLeod is an intense competitor. “My ultimate goal is to win the worlds,” he declares. World champion David Morris of England is the only obstacle remaining in MacLeod’s path. Morris defeated MacLeod in Japan at the 2006 world championships
Though the dozen blind golf tournaments held in North America each year could be termed a tour like the Professional Golf Association tour, there is a whopping difference—no prize money. Participants pay their own way, occasionally with help from a sponsor. For instance, golf manufacturer Calloway assists MacLeod with equipment. The big events are the United States Blind Golf Association national tournament, in Philadelphia this year, and the biennial world championships.
MacLeod is the favorite in every tournament he enters. “He’s not playing for second place any more,” observes Nova Scotian Andy Crowe. Andy is part of MacLeod’s rotating stable of coaches, the critical men who walk the course with the blind golfer, talk distance and wind, place his club at the ball, and then get out of the way.
“His putting is always good, and his drives are 250 yards. In my mind Brian is the best blind golfer in the world. If you play Brian against David Morris, Brian is going to win eight times out of ten. Morris went to Australia to prepare before the Worlds last April. And here’s Brian with hardly any chance to practice before that. We’re not even golfing around here yet at that time of year. So he had a huge disadvantage.”
MacLeod, a demon for self-improvement, has two goals for 2007—to drop his weight below 200 pounds again and to shore up his chipping game for smoother approaches to the green. Then, he reasons, he will be ready in 2008 to knock off Morris in the world tournament in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in August. The word “can’t” is absent from his vocabulary. “It shouldn’t be in anybody’s vocabulary,” he growls."
What Golfing Has Given
Thanks to blind golf, MacLeod has visited more of the world without eyesight than he would have with it, a development he could not have imagined when diabetes blinded him. “Look where I’ve been: Australia, Japan, and all over the States and Canada. You can be just another statistic sitting home, or you can be one who gets people back outside doing things. You can be part of the problem or part of the solution.”
Feb 7, 2007
Diabetes Health is the essential resource for people living with diabetes- both newly diagnosed and experienced as well as the professionals who care for them. We provide balanced expert news and information on living healthfully with diabetes. Each issue includes cutting-edge editorial coverage of new products, research, treatment options, and meaningful lifestyle issues.