20/20 Foresight: Amanda Cunha is Changing Adaptive Golf

By Tod Leonard

| Jul 08, 2023 | Tucson, Ariz.

20/20 Foresight: Amanda Cunha is Changing Adaptive Golf

The following content was first published in Golf Journal, a quarterly print publication exclusively for USGA Members. To be among the first to receive Golf Journal and to learn how you can help make golf more open for all, become a USGA Member today.

It was the summer of 2020 and Amanda Cunha was playing in the biggest golf tournament of her young life. Cunha flew 12 hours and 4,800 miles with her family from their home on the Hawaiian island of Oahu to North Carolina to compete in the prestigious North & South Junior Championship at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club.

Cunha was 16 and among Hawaii’s top juniors. This was the first bow of what she hoped would be many on the national stage. And she was at Pinehurst, home to so much history, including fellow Hawaiian Michelle Wie West’s triumph in the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open. Cunha had never seen such a beautiful golf complex.

What she could not know is that by the time she returned to Pinehurst almost exactly two years later, the needles on the plentiful loblolly pines would look like they’d been blended together with a watercolor brush. Pinehurst’s famed Putter Boy logo would be nothing more than a blur.

Less than a year after the North & South, while driving to school, Cunha noticed blank spots in her vision. Six months later, after numerous tests, difficult treatments and wayward diagnoses, she got a definitive assessment: She had Leber Hereditary Optic Neuropathy, a disease that robs people of their central vision. In less than a year, she went from dreaming of playing college golf to being legally blind.

If that seems like a cruel fate for a bright, vibrant girl with a 1,000-watt personality, know that Cunha has handled her circumstance more like a mere stumble on a curb than being hit by a truck.

“It’s weird, but my friends couldn’t imagine me doing anything different from what I’m doing now,” Cunha says. “I would be golfing either way, blind or not.”

Understandably, then, there were no feelings of “what if,” only joy and gratitude when the Cunha family returned to Pinehurst in July 2022 for another massive golf occasion. Cunha, 18, was among 96 competitors in the USGA’s inaugural U.S. Adaptive Open. It was a watershed moment for the sport and the adaptive community, with athletes from around the world being showcased for their incredible skills and fortitude.

Those on-site at Pinehurst’s Course No. 6 marveled at how people who are short of stature or have one arm, or no legs, or manage their intellectual impairment, or are blind, adapted to their challenges and played competitive golf. Golf Channel and numerous other media outlets told their stories and social media buzzed with videos of the competitors’ jaw-dropping talents. USGA CEO Mike Whan spent the week in Pinehurst getting to know the competitors; he deemed the event among the association’s most worthwhile endeavors.

The outgoing and chatty Cunha became a fan and media favorite, and she appeared completely comfortable in the spotlight. She could often be seen after her rounds happily talking in front of a TV camera. The former single-digit handicap player shot rounds of 86, 92 and 90 to finish sixth among the 18 female competitors.

“It was honestly so incredible out there,” Cunha said. “From someone who wasn’t doing big-time tournaments to playing in a USGA Open, it’s an experience I will never forget.”

Larry Cunha, Amanda’s father, told friends it was the closest his daughter will ever come to playing on the LPGA Tour.

“I wasn’t expecting the tournament to be that unbelievable. I was blown away,” he said.

Cunha, shown here competing in the inaugural U.S. Adaptive Open in Pinehurst in 2022, is back in the field this year. (Robert Beck/USGA)

Cunha, shown here competing in the inaugural U.S. Adaptive Open in Pinehurst in 2022, is back in the field this year. (Robert Beck/USGA)

The championship was a surreal experience for Cunha, competing in the Adaptive Open on the same course where she played two of her three rounds with full sight in the 2020 North & South Junior. The grounds were familiar, of course, but the hospitality and media tents and scores of volunteers created an entirely new atmosphere.

Then there was the golf itself. With her sight impairment, Amanda needs a helper – often her father – to aid in lining up her shots.  Her central vision is “pixilated” and “like a kaleidoscope,” as she describes it, so she can see the ball’s outline but can’t identify its logo. She can’t track ball flight or make out a flagstick from more than 10 yards away. She gauges her putts by the number of paces while feeling the slope with her feet.

Larry Cunha, 52, laughed in recounting how many times he has been blamed for a bad shot.

“Oh yeah, that’s still going on,” he said. “Part of the frustration was me trying to figure out how to help her. She wanted feedback right away. In junior golf, she was always on her own, so for me to be this close to her game has been a learning curve.”

Said Cunha’s mom, Lila, “I have to tell Amanda that when you’re on the golf course, he’s not your dad, he’s your coach. Sometimes she acts as if he’s a dad – ‘I’m not going to listen to him.’ But he’s her eyes on the course.”

Both parents describe Amanda as being something of a perfectionist, and she agrees. “Whatever it is, I’ll do it to the full extent,” she said, though she added with a laugh, “If something isn’t going great, I’m probably not going to finish it.”

She earned her karate black belt at a young age. She’s a diligent student who loves science and chose to build a school desk from scratch for a 10th grade project. “It took so many hours – so many nights I would be crying because the wood wouldn’t match up or the stain was messed up,” she said.

Cunha had a difficult start to life. She was born in Kazakhstan and put into an orphanage. She was adopted at 9 months old by Larry and Lila, who had traveled to the country with no guarantee they would be able to adopt a child. After the success with Amanda, the couple also adopted a son, William, now 12, from China.

Larry Cunha, a partner in an architectural firm, moved to Hawaii 30 years ago and met Lila, and they’ve raised their kids in Kaneohe, a Honolulu suburb. He was a casual golfer who brought Amanda to Mid-Pacific Country Club starting when she was about 5. She began competing by age 10 and became a notable player at the well-known Casey Nakama Golf Development Center, where Wie West trained as a youngster.

Cunha won numerous local tournaments and earned the Oahu Junior Golf Association’s Player of the Year award for the 15-17 girls’ division, which led to her entry in the North & South. When her vision started to deteriorate, Cunha put golf on hold. She was busy with school and treatments – one of which required her to receive steroids intravenously. That treatment didn’t help, and the visits to specialists all seemed to come to a disheartening dead end.

“I would have tears sometimes driving to her eye appointments,” Larry said. “And she’s saying, ‘Why are you crying? I’m still here. I’m not dead.’”

As the family sought answers, they tried to make the best of it and in the summer of 2021 visited Disney World in Orlando, where Cunha, a huge Star Wars fan, reveled in the rides and exhibits. At that time, she could still make out the details of the Millennium Falcon and the numbers on the Galactic Starcruisers. Soon, those would be a memory.

“That was the last time I could fully see,” she said. “I was sitting in the hotel lobby waiting to go to dinner. People were walking by and I couldn’t see their faces.
I thought, ‘Oh gosh, this is happening.’”

In November 2021, a neurological ophthalmologist at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles confirmed the diagnosis of Leber Hereditary Optic Neuropathy. The family learned that a genetic mutation causes nerve damage that affects central vision, and though it rarely progresses to full blindness, it can’t be cured. About 1 in 50,000 people suffer from the disease and females account for only about 20 percent of total cases.

“It was kind of a relief,” Cunha said of finally knowing the condition she would contend with for the rest of her life. Her parents say she has never expressed much self-pity.

“She’s faced this thing amazingly well,” Larry said. “She has accepted it and pushed forward.”

Her efforts include one hugely important decision. In her senior year of high school, during which she returned to the golf team with her now-limited sight, Cunha began researching universities with the best adaptive programs for students. She discovered that the University of Arizona boasted the nation’s largest adaptive athletics department. The Wildcats didn’t have an adaptive golf team, but Cunha reached out to Peter Hughes, the adaptive program’s athletic director, to see if there might be interest in her.

The disease that took away Cunha's central vision doesn't deter her from having an active student life at the University of Arizona. (Robert Beck/USGA)

The disease that took away Cunha's central vision doesn't deter her from having an active student life at the University of Arizona. (Robert Beck/USGA)

Hughes, whose first try at starting a golf program several years ago had fizzled out, responded immediately. He arranged for a recruiting visit, and Cunha fell in love with the campus. She called it an “overwhelmingly positive place.”

“I remember the exact moment I got the acceptance letter,” Cunha said. “I was so excited. I got into college! It’s amazing to be a part of the initial push to get adaptive golf into colleges.”

Indeed, there are a couple of dozen universities with several adaptive sports, the most prevalent being wheelchair basketball, but Cunha is a trailblazer as the only adaptive golfer currently on scholarship in America.

Hughes said Cunha receives $10,000 yearly from the school and another $10,000 from a scholarship fund for blind students. She plays and practices at the public Randolph Golf Complex, which is providing her $10,000 in green fees and driving range credits. Because there is no adaptive team, Cunha wears her Wildcats gear in any events she plays outside of the university. In a career first, Cunha won the women’s division of the United States Blind Golf Association National Championship in late October.

Hughes, who has 55 adaptive athletes in the Arizona program, said he expects collegiate adaptive golf will soon be more prevalent due to the exposure it receives during the U.S. Adaptive Open, as well as the opportunities it gives schools for community involvement.

“I can’t take someone out to play wheelchair rugby, but they can play golf with our athletes,” Hughes said. “I’ve introduced Amanda to some of our sponsors, and everybody in the world wants to play with her.”

Nearly 3,000 miles from home, Cunha has transitioned nicely from Hawaii’s tropical climes to the Southwest’s dry, desert heat. She lives in a dorm with a couple of wheelchair athletes just across the hall, and they frequently get together for sporting events or dinner. “My parents probably don’t want to hear this, but I think I like [being away],” she said with a laugh. “And I’m really thriving.

“The most important thing I get,” she added, “is the support of other adaptive athletes. Our community is so tight-knit. Growing this community, that’s the biggest part.”

For now, Cunha stands alone as an adaptive college golfer, but she hopes her journey will soon encourage others to follow. In so many ways, the sport couldn’t find a brighter beacon.