Barry McCluskey’s initial foray into blind golf a year ago offered little indication of the glory to come, as a wayward shot scudded into a particularly sensitive part of his guide’s anatomy.
But since that inauspicious start with Gerry Green at Royal Musselburgh, McCluskey has established himself as among the best blind players in the world, recently winning the US Open.
Here, the 37-year-old tells BBC Scotland about how his “head went” during his final few holes in Arizona, receiving text messages from comedian Kevin Bridges, and his father scoring a goal that sparked a riot.
‘I thought I’d blown it with five to go’
McCluskey, the son of of former Celtic striker George, is still trying to come to terms with winning in his first international tournament in April.
There are three categories of blind golf depending on how limited a players’ vision is and the Scot took the B3 title – for those with the smallest degree of blindness – after scores of 79 and 82 put him comfortably clear at the top of the field of 29 competitors.
“It’s a bit surreal,” McCluskey says. “I thought I’d blown it – with five holes to go my head totally went. Thank God for the guy at my side, Gerry, who managed to pull me back in. I finished very strongly.
“To come home and see my family and my wee boy Ruari, the smile on my his face when his daddy has won the blind golf US Open, it’s something I never dreamed I could do.”
Riots, comedians & unrepeatable messages
The trophy takes pride of place at home in Uddingston, Lanarkshire, alongside another famous family souvenir – the ball with which George scored the winner in the 1980 Scottish Cup final.
It’s referred to in the family home as “the ball that sparked a riot” after fans battled on the Hampden pitch following Celtic’s 1-0 extra-time win over Rangers; a game which brought about the alcohol ban which still survives in Scottish football today.
Scottish comedian Bridges is friends with George and was keen to help, as was Scottish European Tour pro Stephen Gallacher.
“Kevin was texting me when I was in Arizona, telling me to keep calm and enjoy the experience,” says McCluskey, who is an ambassador for the Celtic Foundation, the charity arm of his dad’s former club. “Some of the texts he sends me, I couldn’t repeat. They are quite funny, he’s a character.
“Steven has been a phenomenal help as well. He secured me a full new custom set of clubs. It’s good to have guys like that in my corner.”
‘I’m preparing myself for the worst’
McCluskey was diagnosed with the degenerative disease keratoconus at the age of 18 after his eczema caused him to scratch his eyes and damage the corneas. His condition worsened to the point where he was registered blind in January 2018. He struggles with bright lights and cannot see faces unless they are directly in front of him.
He has been redeployed from his job with Glasgow Life, where he worked with children, and is now an operations co-ordinator in the Royal Concert Hall.
“I just woke up one day and my eyes didn’t feel right,” he says. “It was pretty scary, a big turning point in my life.
“Most days now I have to use a white cane when I’m getting about. It’s stable at the minute. If it stays that way, I’d be over the moon, but I’m preparing myself for the worst – total sight loss. Hopefully that day never comes. I just to try to get on with it as best I can and stay upbeat.
“Blind golf has been an absolute revelation, it’s given me a purpose in life again.”
‘I couldn’t do it without Gerry’
After his milestone success, McCluskey is looking forward to playing for the Rest of the World against North America in the biennial Vision Cup – blind golf’s version of the Ryder Cup – in Dublin in June. He will also compete in the British Open and British Masters as well as six or seven events in Scotland.
Gerry, a long-time family friend, will be alongside him every step of the way. His role is to describe the hole, help with club selection, and ensure the club is placed behind the ball. The rest is down to McCluskey.
“I can see the ball at my feet, but as soon as I strike the ball I have no perception of where it goes,” he says. “I can’t judge distances, slopes on greens or anything like that, so my guide is crucial for that. Gerry is a big part of this because if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be able to do it.”