Story: Augustus Fitzgerald
Neil Herdegen and Todd Sleep PGA win back to back Blind Golf Queensland Open Tournaments
Gold Coast golfer Neil Herdegen and his caddy Todd Sleep PGA have won their second successive Queensland Blind Golf Open after two solid days of tough competition from some of Australia’s top blind and visually-impaired players at Parkwood International Golf Club.
Neil cemented his victory with a six-inch tap-in birdie putt on the notorious peninsula-shaped 18th hole green after an exciting two rounds with his playing partner, 2021 Australian Stableford Champion, Darren Solley who finished second overall.
“Obviously I’m thrilled to win, especially considering the great efforts many of the players have put in over the last couple of days” said 2020 & 2021 Qld Champion Neil Herdegen.
Neil chose not to accept all of the accolades personally, instead quickly singling out his caddy, coach and golfing mentor, Todd Sleep PGA for well-deserved credit.
“The long days of short game practice that we’ve been doing certainly seems to be making me a lot luckier around the green, that’s a funny thing about golf.” Herdegen said.
“However the credit for this victory really lies with my coach Todd Sleep PGA who has supported me during my entire Blind Golf journey, without his unwavering encouragement, friendship and inspiration I wouldn’t be here in the first place.” Herdegen said.
The 2021 Queensland Open was played at Parkwood International Golf Club on July 15 and 16 with a field of more than a dozen players from as far away as Canberra battling it out in Queensland’s number one blind golf event. Overcast skies and increasingly wet conditions underfoot added to the drama of the already trying conditions. The changing light conditions throughout the two days of play also proved challenging to many of the visually-impaired players with the afternoon glare kicking in late on day two to provide an increased level of difficulty.
The annual Queensland Open is hosted by Blind Golf Queensland and is an important order-of-merit event in the Blind Golf Australia yearly schedule. Players compete for points throughout the year with Australia’s best players qualifying for the International Blind Golf Championships and other international events.
Blind Golf is played by men and women of all ages with all levels of golf prowess and vision. Players are classified according to their certified level of visual acuity; totally blind players compete in the B1 category and players with increased levels of vision play in the B2, B3 and B4 categories.
Organisers of the event pointed to the number of final scores above forty points on the difficult Par 70 Parkwood course as evidence of the strength of the competition and the rapidly rising skill-levels of many of the sport’s top players.
Herdegen also pointed to his structured training program at the Gold Coast-based TS Golf Academy and support from his partner as being the two biggest driving forces behind his back-to-back victories. Since completing the highly-acclaimed Golf Australia All-Abilities Community Coaching certification earlier in the year, Neil Herdegen has been assisting his coach Todd Sleep PGA and assistant-coach Francesca Althen with regular Junior’s clinics at TS Golf Academy at the Glades Golf Club, a training gig Mr Herdegen credits for his increasing appreciation of modern best-practice golf training methods.
“It’s certainly not an understatement to say that Blind and All-abilities Golf has the potential to change lives for the better – we’re seeing this more and more, and thanks to the careful and well-considered adaptations of the beautiful Golf Australia Get Into Golf programs that TS Golf Academy is putting into place, there’s now a well-defined route forward for all players who are seeking to improve, regardless of any physical barriers” he said.
Herdegen led the 13-strong field with a ten-point lead after the first day over lowest handicapped player of the tournament, Canberrian Paul McKenzie and BGQ President Dr Brad Carver, following it up with another strong finish on the final day.
This year’s winner of the Australian Stableford competition, Darren Solley reminded the field exactly why he’s considered to be one of Australia’s most prestigious blind golfing talents, maintaining the pressure on his good buddy Herdegen to be well-placed after stumps on the first day’s play.
The humble Australian Stableford winner is never shy when asked about the merits of his chosen sport.
“Blind golf has given me the chance to open up a whole new social circle that was definitely lacking since my sight started to go.
“I have met some great people and it has allowed me to play a sport that I now enjoy competitively – something which I thought was not going to happen, especially after losing most of my vision” said Mr Solley.
“It’s also given me a chance to play with my new Onyx Golf Clubs. Gary and Rebecca from Golf Gear Australia have been huge supporters and their Onyx brand clubs have helped me enormously”.
Queensland’s Steve Art had initially won Runner Up but was ineligible for the trophy due to his B4 sight classification which unfortunately limits major prizes to players in the B1 to B3 categories. The sight classification is based on a player’s visual acuity and for Mr Art as well as many B4’s across Australia, it enables them to participate in officially-sanctioned Blind Golf Australia events and enjoy the great social and community-involvement opportunities that he sport delivers.
Herdegen’s coach, Todd Sleep PGA was quick to sing the praises of Queensland’s blind golfing community, also paying recognition to the strong involvement of other PGA-certified coaches and training centres, in particular the Golf School at Palm Meadows.
“Blind Golf is getting bigger and better all the time, we’re all expecting the trajectory of the sport to continue rising” said Mr Sleep.
The PGA-accredited coach also acknowledged the increasing attention that the sport of Blind Golf is getting both at a National and a State level and also from well-known pro golfers.
“What Blind Golf Queensland is doing here is being replicated at a State level all around Australia – all State blind golf organisations deserve special praise because they are all smashing boundaries and helping gain the attention that these talented blind and visually-impaired players deserve”.
“We’re seeing a big shift now with many of our blind golf come and try days receiving lots of attention from State and local administrators, local club members and from many sectors across the all-abilities and disabled sporting communities” said Mr Sleep.
“It’s very rewarding to be a part of it”.
For the second year, the Qld Open also included a junior academy category for young players who wish to experience the thrill of playing in a real golf tournament. Last year, Brisbane junior golfer, Joshua Woods made the history books for being the first junior blind golfer ever to play in a nationally-accredited golf tournament. Joshua returned this year and put in another sterling effort with his caddy PGA IGI graduate, Sean Bradfield from Canungra to win the junior category.
According to President of Blind Golf Queensland, Dr Brad Carver, Blind Golf is exceeding its mission statement by bringing Blind Golf to the attention of an increasing number of both visually-impaired and fully-sighted players.
“Blind Golf Queensland is growing what is an enjoyable and rewarding pastime for not only our blind and visually-impaired members but for all all-abilities players regardless of their age, sex or physical issues”.
“Full inclusivity is where it’s at” he said.
“We’re now attracting lots of attention from regular-sighted players and golf club members of all sorts wherever we go, we’re happy to see overwhelming support from club golfers who are extending invitations to our members to play socially and to compete in club-based competitions.
“I think many people are starting to realise that golf can be a sport that is well-suited to players who have vision-loss.
“Tournaments such as this year’s Queensland Open not only showcase the inclusivity that Golf provides but it is starting to make a lot of people sit up and take notice.
“Many club golfers are starting to say, hey those guys can play golf!” Dr Brad exclaimed.
Students from the PGA International Golf Institute were also on hand to assist in managing and delivering the tournament and assisted with scoring and course marshalling.
According to Jamie Brew, Program Manager at PGA International Golf Institute, his students really enjoy working closely with blind golfers with a range of conditions as it provides excellent experience in the rapidly-evolving disabled sports space.
Dr Brad Carver from Virginia Golf Club, performed well to win the B3 division from Canberra golfer Paul McKenzie who shot the lowest gross score of the competition to win the B3 division Runner Up prize. The B2 winner trophy was awarded to Stephen Mitchell who was assisted over the two-day Queensland Open by his caddy Lee Harrington, WPGA Director of Development and Coach at The Golf School at Palm Meadows on the Gold Coast. The B2 Runner-up prize went to Paul McKenna.
The B1 division was won by David Saxberg in his second golf competition. The B4 category winner went to Logan golfer Steve Art who played some of his best golf to easily win the B4 division prize.
If you would like to find out more about Blind Golf or attend any of the upcoming come-and-try blind golf days please visit Blind Golf Queensland’s website at www.blindgolfqld.org.