By: Tedi Rountree
June 9, 2015

Hunter Cornelius

Number 23, June 9, 2015

Hunter Cornelius had a career with the College of Coastal Georgia men’s golf team that most any player would welcome.

A four-year letter-winner for the Mariners, Cornelius played for back-to-back NAIA national championship teams the last two seasons. He was named an All-American by both the NAIA and the Golf Coaches Association of America this season and was twice named all-conference in the  Southern States Athletic Conference while also winning Daktronics NAIA Scholar-Athlete honors in each of his final two seasons with the team.

And of course the former Heritage High standout and Ringgold native played for a Coastal Georgia team that won numerous tournaments during his time with the team and rewrote its own record books the last two years while establishing the Mariners program as one of the elite ones in the NAIA in just four years as a member school.

But for Cornelius, his time with the Mariners wasn’t exactly all peaches and cream. Playing golf became a bigger challenge than Cornelius would have ever imagined when he was faced with a serious eye infection near the end of his sophomore season which hampered his playing ability and ultimately led to a cornea transplant in his infected left eye midway through his junior year.

He actually was still dealing with the issue well into this past season, although the worst of the ordeal was pretty well behind him during his recently-completed senior campaign with the Mariners.

Cornelius was diagnosed with a very rare eye infection known as Acanthamoeba keratitis. Acanthamoeba are naturally occurring amoeba [tiny, one-celled animals] commonly found in water sources such as tap water, well water, hot tubs, and soil and sewage systems.

If these tiny parasites infect the eye, then Acanthamoeba keratitis results. The condition was first diagnosed in 1973, with about 90 percent of cases involving contact lens wearers who most likely used their lenses for an overextended period of time or did not properly store their lenses between uses.

Still, this parasitic infection in the cornea is so uncommon that it occurs in approximately only 15 cases per every million contact lens wearers, according to Dr. Ravi Patel, a board-certified ophthalmologist who practices in Jacksonville. Dr. Patel diagnosed Cornelius with the rare condition and performed his transplant surgery.

Cornelius figures his eye became infected as a result of swimming while wearing his contacts and leaving them in for an extended period of time. In simple terms, the parasite then became trapped between his contact lens and his eye allowing it time to eat away at his eye, which resulted in a tear in his cornea.

He first noticed symptoms while playing in a tournament at Lee University in early March 2013 when he experienced periods of blurred vision in the infected eye. He didn’t think much of it until a few weeks later, when he woke up on Easter morning with a blood-shot eye which he couldn’t stand to open because it  was “super sensitive to light,” as he described it in his words.

Trips to two different Brunswick doctors who suspected he might have this rare infection led him to visit Dr. Patel, who made the official diagnosis and began treating Cornelius for the problem.

Prior to that, Cornelius finished out his sophomore season with the Mariners. He remembers competing in the conference tournament wearing sunglasses to ease his eye’s sensitivity to light as well as one contact in his right eye. He shot 73-72-72 for a 1-over-par 273 score that earned him an eighth-place individual finish in the year-ending tournament for the Mariners. The team was hoping to get a bid to the national tournament, but didn’t.

Initial treatment to cure the infection involved an experimental process called “cross linking” which exposes the eye to ultraviolet light as it is used to eradicate the parasitic infection. Cornelius said several other doctors attended his treatments with Patel to observe the infected area and this new treatment method.

Though his treatments were going well throughout that summer, golf became a struggle for Cornelius, who said “he couldn’t see anything out of his eye for a while” during the treatment process.

“I was hitting worm-burners and had the shanks,” he said, recalling his first few visits to the practice range that July. “Eventually, I got used to it.”

He returned to school and the team that August for his junior year and managed to play the fall schedule while awaiting the transplant, which his doctor didn’t want to perform until he was sure the infection had been completely eradicated.

Cornelius finished tied for 10th at the season-opening Coastal Georgia Fall Invitational in September, shooting a first-round 69. He played in the next two tournaments as well, finishing tied for 21st and 26th while never shooting above a 77.

He did not qualify for the team’s final fall event and missed the team’s winter invitational in February to start the spring season while recovering from his successful transplant surgery in January in which his damaged cornea was replaced with one donated.

Cornelius returned to the lineup in March at the Sand Shark Classic. With numerous stitches in his eye, and though still dealing with side effects from the surgery, he amazingly tied for sixth individually while helping the Mariners to a team victory with rounds of 70-78-69 for a 1-over 217 total for the tournament.

He also played in the team’s next tournament, the Emmanuel Invitational, where he tied for 35th after shooting a closing-round 85. Cornelius did not qualify for the next tournament, but was back in the mix at the SSAC tournament, where he tied for 18th while helping the Mariners to a runner-up finish with rounds of 77-72-75.

Cornelius also played in the NAIA Men’s Golf National Championship, where he tied for 25th as the Mariners brought home the school’s first national title in 2014. At nationals, Cornelius had rounds of 70-75-74 to finish at 3-over 219 for the championship while playing perhaps his best overall golf of the season.

Otherwise, Cornelius said his performance was sporadic, pointing to the higher scores he posted throughout the season.

“I never hit the ball well,” he said. “I was scraping it around, seeing what I could get. [My vision] affected everything slightly, and nothing was as sharp as it should be. It wasn’t until nationals that I started to show some consistency.”

Still, it was remarkable that Cornelius was able to shoot scores that most golfers would be proud of any day while dealing with his vision troubles.

“It showed Hunter’s true dedication and skill as a golfer,” Dr. Patel noted. “Most individuals would have an extremely difficult time adapting to depth perception with decreased vision in one eye. It was truly amazing how he continued his high level of play.”

Coastal Georgia coach Mike Cook was surprised that Cornelius was able to play at all last season. “I thought we were going to lose him,” he said.  “If you close one eye and try to hit a golf ball, do you know how hard that is? I was just hoping we’d get him back for his senior year.”

Cook said his strong mechanics allowed Cornelius to hit most shots fairly effectively, but he noticed that he struggled more than usual with finer shots such as chips and putts. “But, he fought through it and helped us to a national championship,” the coach said.

Cornelius chose not to play in any competitions last summer despite his improved play at last year’s national tournament. Instead, he practiced regularly to get his game in better overall shape while awaiting his senior season with the Mariners.

With his vision gradually improving in his previously infected eye to the point where it was 20/40 uncorrected by the end of the season, and his game much more in form, Cornelius enjoyed a outstanding senior year in which he posted four top-5 finishes and nine top-10s while taking medalist honors with a 5-under 67 in a home match this spring against Swarthmore.

For the season, Cornelius recorded 10 sub-par rounds while finishing with a 71.96 scoring average. His highest score was a 77 in the second tournament of the fall. He had two 75 rounds, but otherwise never shot higher than 74 while helping the Mariners to eight wins in 10 tournaments.

Of course, he closed with a bang, shooting under par twice at the national tournament while tying for fourth overall at 5-under 283 as the Mariners repeated as national champions this year.

“Oh yeah, it was definitely more fun,” he said of this season.

Cook was happy to see Cornelius go out in grand fashion after persevering through the frustrations the eye infection caused him especially in the competitive arena. “He did a lot of things like we thought he would when we brought him here,” Cook noted. “I think he had a good doctor. He needs to send him a picture of that national championship trophy.”

For Cornelius, that same trophy meant something different than it did for his teammates. “I was thankful I got back to where I could play the way I wanted,” he said. “I guess I was fortunate things weren’t worse than they were. I just always tried to tell myself that a lot worse things happen to people than this.”

With his collegiate playing career now complete, Cornelius is focused on finishing his degree in public affairs this fall at Coastal Georgia before pursuing a career in professional golf sometime early next year.

Looking well into the future, Cornelius said one of his career goals is to one day become a college golf coach. But whether he is playing or coaching in the game, chances are Cornelius won’t be wearing contact lenses anytime soon, if ever again.

Those days are probably over, he says, but Cornelius will gladly go to the golf course wearing his prescription glasses and looking to build on his All-American career with the Mariners.

Profile by Kevin Price
CCGA Sports Information Director