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Framingham’s Bill McMahon a role model for blind golfers

Instructor Kevin Sullivan helps Bill McMahon set up for his next shot.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Instructor Kevin Sullivan helps Bill McMahon set up for his next shot.

Bill McMahon is celebrating his 56th birthday Sunday, fittingly, on a golf course, doing what he loves and what motivates him every day.

The Framingham resident will play a practice round in preparation for the 69th annual US Blind Golf Association’s national championship, which tees off Monday at the Exeter Country Club in Rhode Island.

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“Golf has been a part of my life since my grandfather introduced me to the sport at Shorehaven Golf Club in East Norwalk, Conn.,’’ said McMahon, who has diabetes and has been blind since 1984. “After I lost my sight, not a day has gone by when I haven’t thought about playing, talking about or introducing golf to others.’’

McMahon has played in every USBGA national tournament since 1986 — except 2007, when he fell after an insulin reaction and suffered a broken back and other injuries.

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His comeback has been slow and complicated by diabetes, “but his desire to play is incredible and he’s swinging freer now than he has in years despite the pain,’’ said his coach of 23 years, Kevin Sullivan.

Off the course, McMahon serves on the board of directors of the USBGA, the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton, and the Framingham Lions Club; he quips that he finds time for all of it “even when I don’t have the time.’’

He is considered a great role model by students and staff at the Carroll Center, where he was taught to live independently 30 years ago.

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“Bill’s summer golf clinic gives students in our youth program this incredible experience that most would never have access to,’’ said Caroll Center president Joseph Abely. “His success as a national blind golfer and his willingness to help others is an inspiration to all of us.’’

McMahon instructs blind individuals from the Carroll Center and the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown at annual clinics held at the MGA Links in Norton. He also speaks with their families.

“I’ll always remember a question I was asked by a parent, ‘How can my child, who is totally blind, play golf?’ ” he recalled. “And I said, ‘Through communication we can make you and your son a team and play the game as one.’ ’’

That’s what McMahon has done successfully with Sullivan, an instructor at the Southborough Golf and Learning Center, and at Millwood Farms Golf Club in Framingham.

They first met as part of a foursome at Juniper Hill Golf Course in Northborough, playing in a tournament for the Framingham Lions Club.

“I was an auto mechanic at the time at my dad’s gas station on Route 9, and that’s what I’d be doing today if I hadn’t found out what blind golf was all about,’’ said Sullivan.

“In a short time I became Bill’s coach and at first it was trial and error, but Kurt Sokolowski, who was the pro at Framingham Country Club, made the transition easier for both of us.’’

‘One day I woke up and said, “The hell with this. I want to live a normal life.” ’

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Sullivan places the club in McMahon’s hands, helps him address the ball with the club on the ground and lines up his putter on the green. He also offers verbal instructions.

“Other than that,’’ said McMahon, “I play the same way as Tiger Woods.’’

Sullivan said McMahon considers it his duty to give back to the sport.

“Bill also works with people in wheelchairs, Special Olympians, and amputees, all of whom look up to him,’’ he said.

“What always sticks in my mind is what Bill once told me, that his blindness has taken him places his sight never would have.’’

A cofounder of Golf For All, the flagship program of the Northeast Accessible Golf Association, McMahon has played in the Guiding Eyes for the Blind Tournament — considered the Masters of blind golf — in Mt. Kisco, N.Y., for 29 consecutive years.

A retired insurance salesman and former golf equipment sales rep, he has finished as high as fourth at nationals, but because of his injuries has lost length off the tee, which has been offset in part by constant short game practice.

McMahon fell into a brief, but deep, depression after unsuccessful eye surgery in January 1984.

“I was in shock. They were the toughest two weeks of my life,’’ said McMahon, “and then one day I woke up and said, ‘The hell with this. I want to live a normal life.’ ”

Golf was a major catalyst, especially after McMahon met Joe Lazaro, the late, legendary national blind golf champion from Waltham. They connected at a Hope for the Blind fund-raising tournament held at Marlborough Country Club.

“I was a student at the Carroll Center at the time and Joe was playing in a foursome with Doug Flutie, Tip O’Neill, and Bob Hope,’’ McMahon said.

“He was 40 years older than me, we hit it off and he encouraged me. I started playing in tournaments with him a year later.

“He’d always say, ‘Kid, want to go hit some balls?’ and he became my mentor.’’

In 1992, the Bill McMahon Golf Classic was founded by his uncle, and was held at the Shorehaven Golf Club annually through 2011. It raised nearly a million dollars for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.

“I’m proud of that and it shows that although I’ve been dealt some lousy cards in my life, I’ve played them as well as I could,’’ said McMahon, who is called a “battler’’ by Bob Beach, the head pro at Braintree Golf Club and cofounder of Golf For All.

“Bill just grinds it out and doesn’t give up,’’ said Beach. “On the course or in life.’’

There is one more battle to be won.

In 1996, McMahon received a kidney transplanted from his younger brother, Kevin. Now he needs another because the kidney is deteriorating.

“I’m trying to find a donor on my own,’’ he said. “But because of my diabetes I’m not a primary candidate and time is not on my side. That would be the best birthday present of all.’’

Marvin Pave can be reached at marvin.pave@rcn.com.
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