Over the past eight years, Jeremy Poincenot has won six national golf titles and two world championships, but the 28-year-old Carmel Valley man says he couldn’t have done it alone.
That’s not his humility talking. Poincenot is the reigning national and world champion in blind golfing, and the man by his side every step of the way has been his father, Lionel Poincenot.
When Jeremy suddenly lost most of his vision to a rare eye disorder in 2008, his now-62-year-old dad gave him a new set of golf clubs and signed on as his shot guide and caddie.
It wasn’t easy at first. In the initial months, father and son struggled to communicate, stay positive and find a balance on the links. But now, Lionel says, they’re “buddies.” And Jeremy said the best part of winning the tournaments is having his dad by his side.
“Golf is an individual sport, so if you win a tournament, it’s just you. But in blind golf, it’s our victory,” Jeremy said. “We won it together and it’s something we’ll always share. Being able to do this with my dad has been the most fulfilling part for me.”
Jeremy is the oldest of Lionel and Lissa Poincenot’s three children, and the only one who loves to golf. It was golf that brought Lionel and Lissa together three decades ago and golf that provided the family with a good life.
Back in 1986, Lionel was working in his native Paris as a designer for the French ski manufacturer Salomon, when it purchased TaylorMade golf in Carlsbad. Lionel was asked to spend two months studying product designs at the new subsidiary, but once he got off the plane in San Diego, he never went home.
One reason was Lissa, who worked in the marketing department at TaylorMade. They married and had Jeremy. Then came Julie, a 25-year-old hotel executive in San Francisco, and Eric, 22, who just graduated from UCLA with a mechanical engineering degree, like his dad.
Lionel began teaching the basics of golf to Jeremy when he was little. From the age of 12 to 17, Jeremy played golf with his dad every Sunday, first at the Shadowridge Golf Course in Vista, and then at the Morgan Run golf course when the family moved to Carmel Valley.
“It was our ritual, our bonding time,” Jeremy said. “In high school was the first time I beat my dad. I played four to five times a week on the high school team and he said it wasn’t fair because I got so much more practice.”
Jeremy was a sophomore, studying international business at San Diego State in November 2008, when he noticed one day he couldn’t read a sign on campus without squinting. Assuming he simply needed glasses, he went to an optometrist. It was the beginning of what he called a living nightmare.
Over the next two months, Jeremy lost all the central vision in his right eye and then his left. Doctors were confounded by his mystery illness until—thanks to his mom’s dogged Internet research—he was diagnosed with Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy (LHON). The disorder is so rare it affects just 100 people in the US each year. There is no treatment or cure.
Depressed and unable to read, drive or golf, Jeremy canceled his plans to study abroad in France, cycled through the stages of grief and slept in every day until noon, telling his parents at least he could still see 20/20 in his dreams.
Then he got a wake-up call while watching the news in December 2008. A Navy fighter jet crashed into a University City home killing four family members and the sole survivor was interviewed on TV crying and begging the public for help in dealing with his grief.
“I thought this guy went through something so tough I couldn’t imagine and he wasn’t sulking. From that day forward I decided I’d have a positive attitude about my situation and stop complaining.”
With a close friend, he launched the Cycling Under Reduced Eyesight Foundation, which just hosted its ninth annual fundraising bike ride for an LHON cure.
Then he found his way back to sports. Again with his mother’s help, he connected with the Challenged Athletes Foundation, the Blind Stokers tandem cycling club and, finally, the sport of blind golf.
Blind golfers compete in three categories: B-1 for the totally blind and B-2 and B-3 for the vision-impaired. Jeremy still has his peripheral vision, so he is classified as B-2. Each golfer is allowed a caddie who can guide them on the course, help them select clubs, line them up for a shot and help them locate and count the steps to the tee.
Lissa said father and son were used to playing against each other, so they had to learn how to play as a team. At first they bickered through their rounds, then she said they found their groove.
“At these tournaments, they’re equals but they have different roles, so they had to figure out how they overlap and how to work out the parent/child versus player/coach relationship,” she said. “They’ve both benefited from the experience and they have so much fun now. They love each other and they’ve traveled the world together.”
In 2009, Jeremy and his dad won third place at the U.S. Blind Golf Association national championship. A year later, they won the World Golf Championship in England. They’ve since won numerous other titles and still play a couple rounds a month together at Morgan Run.
Jeremy’s turnaround story helped redirect his life in more ways than golf. He’s been featured on numerous TV shows, including “20/20” and CNN, and in countless articles. He’s also recorded several TEDx talks.
He now works as a professional inspirational speaker, traveling by himself to paid engagements two to four times a month nationwide. He’s on track this year to do 35 speeches, where he explains his positive outlook and the benefits of interdependence, like his cherished relationship with his dad.
He’s also newly engaged. He met his fiancee, Ellen, at a tailgate party in L.A. back in fall 2009. They’ll marry next May in Paris.
Jeremy tells audiences that given the choice, he wouldn’t wish to be sighted again because the experience has changed his perspective in a good way.
“I don’t take things for granted any more and I appreciate the things I do have,” he said in one TED talk. “I’ve discovered that in life there are obstacles. We all face them every day … It’s how we approach these obstacles that determines who we are; it determines our character and our happiness.”