Desire to winLincoln-Way North's Matt Juskie golfs at Ravisloe Country Club during a meet with Homewood-Flossmoor Thursday, August 18, 2011. Juskie is legally blind and is able to compete with the aid of a spotter. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media
Updated: May 9, 2012 9:44AM
Matt Juskie addresses the ball and lines up to hit it like any other golfer. His right shoulder is lower than the left, giving him a slightly shorter backswing, but the ability to power through the ball.
He comes through the ball with great speed and hammers it down the fairway.
A fairway he can’t see.
Juskie, a sophomore at Lincoln-Way North, is legally blind.
He’s also on the golf team, earning that position through the quality of his play, not sympathy. Juskie has scored in the mid-70s, and won his spot on the Phoenix varsity on the final day of tryouts. As a sophomore he’ll also play in some JV matches, as he did last year as a freshman.
His first varsity match was at Ravisloe Country Club against Homewood-Flossmoor. He was in the final varsity foursome, but he was in. And a bit nervous, not that one could tell on the tee. There were greetings, handshakes, a “Juskie! Good luck!” from one of his teammates, and finally, the first tee shot.
For which he is lined up by a spotter, his father, Ken.
As was the case in Illinois Junior Golf Association competition in the summer, the Illinois High School Association allows Juskie to have a spotter, someone who can offer information other golfers would be able to see, but not advice.
His spotter can point out the line of play, explain where trees and bunkers are, note that the fairway is a dogleg and put his foot in front of the ball to indicate where Matt should aim. But he can’t suggest what club to use, which a caddie would be able to do, because the IHSA doesn’t allow caddies.
A natural grinder
Ken Juskie aiding his son on a golf course is nothing new. Matt first had a club in his hands when he was 3.
“We would go to the range and I would just let him swing, just naturally,” Ken Juskie said. “There were no lessons or anything like that. He had a nice, fluid swing.”
So it went until Matt was in eighth grade. It was then he told his father he wanted to play golf in high school.
Said Ken: “Great, but you know what that takes. Commitment. Dedication. You’re going to hit a lot of balls.”
That was music to golf nut Matt Juskie’s ears, for his goals are multifaceted.
“Make the JV team as a freshman,” he said. “Then make the varsity as a sophomore. The next one is to get a golf scholarship (for college).”
That would be the biggest step of all.
“No one’s going to tell him no,” said Jim Nair, Lincoln-Way North’s coach. “With a kid like that who keeps working, the sky’s the limit.”
Work habits alone will not get Juskie a scholarship, just as they didn’t get him a spot on this year’s Phoenix team. Quality of play will. There, Juskie holds his own.
In this year’s junior series at Cog Hill, Juskie posted a 2-over-par 74 on Course No. 3. He fired a 3-over 75 earlier in the summer at Woodbine.
“I’ve already gone low, and I know I can do it,” Juskie said. “I can go lower. I’m not too worried about that. I just have to keep my head in it and just do it.”
20/180 vision, clear goals
That Matt Juskie can play golf at all is amazing to those with unimpaired vision. To him, it’s as routine as the rest of his day.
“This is how I’ve always seen,” Juskie said. “I don’t have anything to compare it to. I only know what I have. A fighter pilot is 20/20. I’m 20/180. Reading, distance and seeing small objects is what really gets me. But with real close-ups, I’m 20/40. For school, I’ve got a computer monitor with a camera that can zoom in and out, so I can see what’s on the blackboard.”
Juskie was born with Aniridia, the absence of the iris in his eyes. His pupils don’t dilate according to the amount of light, because there’s no iris muscle to contract the lens. To him, it’s either dark or really bright, and the latter can be painful.
“In sunlight, your iris is supposed to be 75 percent of your lens and the pupil 25 percent,” Juskie said. “For me, it’s 5 percent iris, 95 percent pupil. So I’m extremely light sensitive.”
That means wearing sunglasses much of the time while outdoors. His pupils also meander slightly, rather than stay fixed on a target.
“It’s genetic,” Ken Juskie said. “I was the first one in our family to have it. My vision is correctable with lenses, so I can drive, but Matt, at this point, he won’t be able to drive.”
There’s hope, Matt Juskie said, in medical advances.
“It’s going to be through stem cells, I think,” he said. “I’d be able to grow an iris.”
Juskie said that through the Illinois Association for Parents of Children with Visual Impairments, he knows of someone who was completely blind two years ago, but now, “they’re looking to fit him with a prescription lens so he can drive.”
As a freshman, Juskie received a boost from teammate Nick Maleski, who has undergone open heart surgery once for aortic stenosis, and will eventually have to do so again.
“He’s got a lot of talent and a lot of desire to win, and desire to play,” Maleski said. “He doesn’t let himself get down about his impairment. Varsity, that was his goal, and he made it.”
Golf, played on the largest field, with the smallest ball and always in daylight, is the most difficult sport for someone with limited vision to play. Juskie’s also played basketball and wrestled, but for him, golf comes first.
The sunglasses come off for chip shots and putting, because he can see shapes for about 50 yards in daylight before everything becomes a rumor. At night, he can see the ball for about 100 yards at a driving range with the lights behind him before it disappears.
“For my short game, I walk a lot of stuff off for yardage,” Juskie said. “I like to go off markers, but if I’m close enough I pace it off directly to the pin.”
First varsity round
That was the case time and again at Ravisloe. Juskie’s tee shot was a perfect draw that landed on the left side of the fairway. He had about 160 yards left, and with his father again lining him up, hit an approach directly on line with the flagstick but came up 50 feet short.
Then the sunglasses came off. Juskie paced up to the cup and back, getting a feel for the rise from the front of the green. He knocked his first putt to within six feet, but missed his par putt and tapped in for bogey.
Another bogey followed on the second hole. Juskie started the third hole, a 490-yard par-5, in splendid fashion, bombing a drive 285 yards down the middle of the fairway. But he ended up with a triple-bogey 7 after his second shot hooked left and his third caught a tree branch and went straight down.
Then came the fourth hole, a devilish par-3 of 181 yards. Juskie’s tee shot went to the left, his pitch bounced over the green and into a bunker, his next shot stayed in the bunker and the adventure was on. The damages: a quintuple-bogey 8.
The good news came on the ninth hole, the last of the round. Juskie hit the fairway with the longest drive of the four, and plunked his approach into the right greenside bunker, but escaped to within five feet of the cup and sank his downhill putt for an up-and-down par. The total: 53, 18 over the par of 35.
For Juskie, it was easy for him to sum up his round.
“Horrible, from my expectations,” Juskie said. “I couldn’t hit the ball. My mind was just wandering. I couldn’t stay focused. The first meet on the varsity, that was new ground. It might have (contributed).
“My thoughts must have gotten in with that first putt on No. 1, because I left it incredibly short. That didn’t help, taking a bogey. On No. 4? Oooh. Of course, on the last bunker, I put it where I can get it up and down.
“I guess I almost expected (more), with the amount of time I put in and the tournaments I played, but I was expecting too much, really. I just need to get comfortable. This was good. Now, for the rest of the season, I can just golf and get on with it.”
On top of his game
Nair said Juskie likely will bounce between the varsity and JV squads, depending on how he and the others are playing.
“We just wanted to get his feet wet at this level, see how he reacts, show him what it’s like,” Nair said. “He’s really going to help us down the road. I think nerves got to him. But he’s going to be a good one for us.”
Homewood-Flossmoor’s Mac Beattie was in Juskie’s foursome and credited him with persevering.
“He never said anything about it,” Beattie said of Juskie’s impaired vision. “I think he played pretty well, with a few bad shots here and there. But it was golf, not vision, that was the trouble.
“I don’t know what I would do (with impaired vision). Quite frankly, I’d be devastated. I don’t think I’d be as positive as he seemed to be with that kind of disability.”
Juskie doesn’t say it, but doesn’t see “disability” as the right word.
“I have what I have,” he said. “I just want to go as far as I can with it.”