Ty Thompson lost most of his vision within a matter of minutes.
The UVA engineering alumnus was working as a national sales manager in Lexington, Ky., when his central vision in both eyes suddenly disappeared one afternoon in 2002. Forty surgeries on both eyes couldn't restore his sight—he could only see shadows and movement. Doctors determined a previously undetected genetic defect was to blame.
Two years later, Thompson (Engr '83) lost his job and wanted to find something to keep him busy. He'd been a recreational golfer, so he started spending time at a local club. He'd ask to join other golfers on the links, but they were reluctant to accompany an almost completely blind man onto the course.
"I kept getting turned down, so I got a lot of practice on chipping and putting," Thompson says. "I made up various techniques from my engineering background: reading the contours of the green with my feet, figuring out how to chip for distance by imagining myself like a clock, things like that."
In 2008, a group of retired seniors agreed to take Thompson out with them. Thompson told them they would just need to line him up, watch where his ball went, and then take him to his next shot. The outings became weekly. He started beating some members of the group.
Last fall, Thompson knocked in his first hole-in-one on a Lancaster, Ky., golf course. "My friends had fun teasing me, saying it didn't count because I couldn't see it go in," says Thompson, laughing.
As his game improved, Thompson joined the U.S. Blind Golf Association. He found a coach and started playing in the association's tournaments. Last year, he finished seventh at the world championships in Canada for his sight group, which is for people with only about 5 percent of their vision. This year, he'll compete in the world championships again and in the 2013 International Blind Golf Association's Ryder Cup.
In 2011, Thompson organized his first clinic for blind and visually impaired children and teenagers with the help of the USBGA. Only six golfers showed. Undeterred, he put together another event in 2012, recruiting local pros to offer instruction and receiving food donations from restaurants.
This time, 53 golfers came—the largest group ever to attend a USBGA clinic.
"My interest was using golf as a tool to teach children about things they never thought they could accomplish," Thompson says. "I want to take them outside their comfort zones so they'll learn they can expand what they can do. A lot of lives changed that day."
Thompson hopes to offer two additional clinics and expand to other courses this year.
"The motto of the USBGA is, 'You don't have to see it to tee it,' and that's what I love about it," Thompson says. "I can participate in the sport without being able to see the sport. It's the camaraderie of the people you're with; there's something remarkable when you can go out and experience the outdoors with good friends."