By GREG HARDWIG
NAPLES — Champions Tour golfer Tom Pernice Jr. and I are friends, but we hardly know each other.
We don't have to, because we have something in common that goes right to our hearts. We both are raising daughters who are blind.
Almost eight years ago, my daughter Sarah was diagnosed at five months old with Leber's congenital amauroris, a rare genetic eye disorder that occurs at birth. You can imagine how my wife and I felt when we heard the news.
We were going to reach out to whatever was out there. We had to. I vaguely remembered something about Pernice when he had won the PGA Tour's International in 2001. His blind daughter, Brooke, came out on the green with her older sister and mother. She wanted to feel her dad's face, to see how big he was smiling.
I searched for more information about Brooke on the Internet, and sure enough, she had the same eye disorder.
So I found out who Pernice's agent was, and called him up, and asked if Pernice would call us. My wife and I ended up talking to Pernice and his wife, Sydney, on the phone. Later in 2003, Tom and his family were gracious enough to meet with us when he was playing in the Disney tournament on the PGA Tour. We met Brooke, who was 8 then, and talked with Sydney, Brooke's older sister Kristen, and Tom for about an hour. The best thing they did was they provided hope.
Since then, Tom and I have met at Disney a few times, when I was up there to interview players up there who were in the field for the Shark Shootout. It was nothing more than brief chats, and updates on how Brooke and Sarah were doing.
"It gets better," was always Tom's message.
He really had no way of knowing whether it would or not, but it was something to take away and remember.
In recent years, Brooke has developed a passion for music. She learned to play guitar, and started recording songs. She's sang national anthems, and done some performances while out with her dad on tour.
Brooke now has two country-gospel CDs out, performed more than 75 concerts in North America, opened for jazz saxophonist Kenny G, and performed with country singers Darryl Worley and Vince Gill. Last month, she was named "Best Entertainer" out of a group of 300 at the third annual Celebrity Industry Showcase in Hollywood.
Sarah has happened to catch the music bug as well. Just before her eighth birthday in November, she went into our studio at the Daily News and recorded 15 songs -- all covers of mostly country songs from Martina McBride, Miranda Lambert, Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, etc., she'd memorized by listening on the radio. We all had fun with it. And of course, Sarah wanted to know when her videos from some of the songs would be on YouTube.
Saturday, Sarah and my wife waited for Pernice to complete his round. He patiently signed autographs, while Sarah waited somewhat impatiently for him to finish. We shook hands, and Tom's eyes lit up when he saw Sarah -- for the first time in more than seven years.
The two chatted for 10 minutes or so. Susan and I couldn't get a word in edgewise if we had wanted to. Tom had seen Sarah's videos on YouTube -- I had e-mailed Sydney a few weeks ago, and Brooke had listened to them as well. Sarah had a copy of her CD with her, and gave it to Tom, and he quizzed her on music and what singers were her favorites.
Sarah told Tom she wants to do a duet with Brooke -- well, she wants to do them with Justin Bieber and Willow Smith, too.
When the conversation was over, Tom and I shook hands again -- "She's doing great," he said.
He didn't need to tell me it gets better.