Friday, November 18, 2005

Israeli blind golfer gets hole in one

An inspiring story:
A blind Israeli golfer realised the dream of every amateur hacker when he shot a hole-in-one.

Zohar Sharon aced the 160-metre (176-yard), 15th hole at the Caesarea Golf Club in Israel during a round on Monday.

Sharon, with a handicap of 20, initially thought he had overhit his tee-shot but was delighted when his caddy, Shimshon Levy, found the ball nestled in the cup.

"He went crazy. I did not understand what he was shouting about, I thought a snake had bitten him," Sharon said of Levy, who accompanies him on his regular rounds of golf and lines him up for his shots.

But the story of Zohar Sharon is much more than just one lucky shot. He is a blind golf champion who only took up the game competitively a few years ago: (this story is from March, 2004)
Zohar Sharon, winner of the 2003 World Invitational blind golf tournament in Scotland, takes a window seat at a restaurant and pub inside Morgan Run, a posh golf club and resort in North County’s Fairbanks Ranch.

Sharon sits by the window of the clubhouse sipping coffee with a huge grin on his face, even though he’s just finished playing one of the most grueling rounds of golf a player could experience, with sight or without.

Flash back 25 years. While on an army demolitions detail, Sharon lost sight in his right eye after a chemical substance was accidentally sprayed in his face. Three years later, he lost his remaining sight forever while driving with his first wife, who had to take the wheel when Sharon’s left eye rapidly filled with blood. Severe depression, and eventually divorce from his wife, followed.

But now he’s a successful golfer and an accomplished painter and sculptor who has exhibited his works in galleries and exhibitions. After he went blind, he also became a trained physiotherapist. He never golfed before going blind. He’s only been serious about the game for three years. Now, he wins golf tournaments playing against people with sight.

He claims to regularly hit 100, but that’s a bit of an exaggeration – his handicap at the Scottish World Invitational was 37, good for an average round of 109. He won his category (B1, for completely blind) at the Tournament by 20 strokes; he would have been first even without his handicap. Next up? The World Blind Golf Championships in Melbourne, Australia, in April.

Sharon lives near downtown Tel Aviv and is 51. Hiss golden-brown skin tone reveals his Yemeni ethnicity. With his receding hairline, athletic figure and barking intensity, Sharon possesses the type A personality of an Israeli colonel (he actually served five years as an officer in the army, after his compulsory three-year stint.). You can’t tell he’s blind. He’s not wearing dark sunglasses and his eyes aren’t an eerie void of translucent glassiness; they are a solid brown that often have an uncanny ability to pierce deeply through the eyes of the person he’s talking to, as if he could see their soul.

Sitting at the table to Sharon’s left at the clubhouse are a father and son tandem, Rafael and Jorge Mareyna, both Mexican Jews who until the last decade lived in Mexico City. They are Sharon’s friendly competition for the day. Also seated is a Canadian Jew, Nitsan Watkin, who for the next week will serve as Sharon’s interpreter and caddy, even though he doesn’t know much about golf.

Seated at the foot of Sharon’s right leg is Dylan, a 3 1/2-year-old Israeli-born golden retriever. Dylan is Sharon’s guide dog. He basically has had the day off running around wild at Morgan Run. Trained at the Israeli Guide Dog Center for the Blind, Dylan loyally sprints after and chomps up Sharon’s infrequent errant and short drives.
This is Sharon’s first golf outing in the U.S., where he’s come to help raise money for the Israel Guide Dog Center. He’s also practicing for a charity event in Palm Springs (held February 9) that raised an estimated $125,000 for the Center and other charities.

Sharon’s first introduction to golf came when the divorce lawyer of his first wife presented him with a putter and some balls. In the mid-1980s, a golf rehabilitation program was developed for disabled Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) veterans. According to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, Sharon is one of 20 or so veterans who have participated in this project.

The Superman-strength of Sharon’s spirit and the encouragement and help from his San Diego hosts made this a memorable day on an otherwise miserable afternoon that kept all but a couple hardcore golfers off the greens. Nobody kvetched once about the cold or the rain, not even 73-year-old Rafael, who had a stroke three months ago and was wearing a meager short-sleeved windbreaker, no proper dress for his exposed lean and pale frame. Rafael, who is a member of Morgan Run, doesn’t speak Hebrew and therefore can’t directly communicate with Sharon.

Rafael’s son Jorge learned Hebrew after living in Israel for five years (he also speaks fluent Spanish and English). He has been living in San Diego for a year and a half and plays surprisingly well for having only six months of golfing experience. The physical antithesis of his father, Jorge, 52 and a CPA/financial advisor, stands several inches shorter and has a pudgy frame.

Sharon says he plays golf six times a week, often 10 hours a day. The only day he takes off from the game is on Saturday. He’s religiously observant. He’s not wearing a yarmulke on this day, but always does so when he’s in a tournament or playing with non-Jewish golfers. “I want people to know I’m Jewish,” he says. “I want them to know what Jewish perseverance and courage is all about.”

“Nu, boy nesachek gvar!” (“Come on, let’s play already!”) Sharon says. Sharon travels in one golf cart with Watkin, a Toronto resident and family friend of Sharon’s.

Throughout the afternoon, Sharon and Watkin will be intermittently arguing with each other and laughing hysterically.

In the cart ahead of Sharon and Watkin are the Mareynas, soft-spoken, well-mannered gentleman who speak Spanish to each other and on more than a few occasions yell words of encouragement to Sharon.

Approaching the first hole, the elder Mareyna gives the scouting report to Sharon’s interpreter. “Zohar, the first hole is 180 yards away. It’s a par 3. If you hit it too low, you’ll get it stuck in the dry grass.

Hit it high and straight. There are two sandtraps 50 yards from the hole on both sides of the flag.” Sharon approaches the tee and has Watkin help him lean over to feel the ball.

Watkin painstakingly tries to line up Sharon. Sharon constantly questions Watkin about positioning. Watkin’s lack of golf knowledge immediately frustrates Sharon, who possesses a fierce competitive intensity. “Am I lined up straight? Should I swing open or closed?” Sharon asks.

Sharon takes a couple of practice swings and again asks Watkin if he’s properly aligned. Watkins tells him he’s ready to go.

Sharon looks up in the direction of the flag as if he could see. It’s easy to forget he’s blind.

His first drive is solid. Jorge yells to Sharon, “Maka tova!” (“Excellent shot”).
“Ze haya yamina, nachon?” (“That went wide right, correct?”) Sharon asks. He not only knows the direction of his shots, he can tell the fate of the other golfer’s swings by the sound of their drives.

On his next approach, Sharon is informed that he’s about 20 meters away from the hole. He doubts Watkin’s estimate. “Really, 20 meters?” he asks, looking Watkins right in the eye. Watkins answers him while looking down at the ground.

Watkin has the toughest assignment of the day. He is Sharon’s surrogate caddy for the first five holes; he later gladly relinquishes the role to Jorge. Sharon’s full-time salaried caddy is named Shimshon Levy, who doesn’t speak English very well either and couldn’t attend Sharon’s first U.S. golf visit.

Now on the green, Sharon instructs Watkin to stand next to the flag and clap so he can judge by the sound how far away he is. On other holes, one of the other golfers taps the flag with their putters.

Golf is a frustrating game for people who can see. Imagine how it must be for a blind golfer. When Sharon sinks a putt as he does on the first hole, it’s nothing short of miraculous.

According to Ha’aretz, soon after starting to play, Sharon began working with Dr. Ricardo Cordova, a sports psychologist in Israel. Cordova, who was the psychologist for the Bolivian national soccer team before migrating to Israel, instilled in Sharon the ability to imagine each shot.

“Without Ricardo, I wouldn’t be here right now,” says Sharon. “I’d be completely lost.”
Here’s what Cordova did with Sharon: For several weeks, Sharon didn’t even swing with his clubs. The two worked solely on visualization and biomechanics. Towels were placed under Sharon’s arms to restrict his arm movement and keep them within close proximity to his trunk. Cordova made sure Sharon’s motion didn’t involve unnecessary muscle groups.

Next, Cordova had Sharon practicing his swinging motion – still without the use of his clubs. Sharon would take imaginary swings and relay to Cordova how far the ball flew in the air and how far it rolled in his mind. The third stage of Sharon’s training involved pain. Cordova lined up the ball next to a pole. If Sharon’s head and torso excessively protruded during his backswing, his skull would receive an uncomfortable reminder from the pole.

By the time Cordova allowed Sharon to swing at a ball approximately two years ago, Sharon found it quite easy to drive the ball far distances. His blindness allows him to enter a trance-like state where he imagines every shot and considers all inclines, declines and other hazards that lay on the course.

“Sharon considers golf to be a highly spiritual game,” says Watkin, walking back to the cart in route to the second hole. “He feels absolute peace and tranquility when he’s playing, even if he’s frustrated by an inexperienced caddy.” Watkin continues, “Zohar’s concentration is tremendous. He forgets everything when he’s on the green.”

Sharon puts his putter back in his golf bag, which is attached to the back of the cart. He puts the covers back on his clubs and readjusts the tightness of the bag’s straps. This reporter knocked his head twice getting into the cart, while Sharon enters the cart and moves around the golf bag with ease.

A friendly argument ensues between Sharon and Watkin, evidently about Watkin’s lack of golf knowledge. Dylan the guide dog is tied to the golf cart. He has his rear left leg lifted, relieving himself on the golf cart’s tire. Suddenly, Watkin steps on the cart’s accelerator. Dylan manages to turn around on a dime and sprint, keeping up with the cart.

Before playing the second hole, Sharon is asked if Dylan is forbidden to run around the course without a leash.

“Ata tishmor al lo?” (“Are you going to watch him?”) Sharon asks, undoing Dylan’s leash. And with that, Dylan is free to roam around Morgan Run. While Sharon is mentally picturing his approach for the second hole, Dylan is digging a hole in a sandtrap.

Sharon’s second drive goes beyond the flag, only 20 yards away.

“Keemat be degel,” (“It’s near the flag”) says Jorge, who has a thicker Mexican accent than his father.

The rain picks up once again. On the way to the second green in the cart, Sharon has his left arm around Watkin. Sharon’s head rests on Watkin’s right shoulder.

“I love you,” Sharon tells Watkin (in Hebrew). “I joke with you and I’ve been hard on you but understand I love you.

Caddying is a thankless job. I could never be one.” Sharon repeatedly refers to Watkin as “Ach-ee” Hebrew slang for “my brother.”]

It’s a surreal image: three Jewish golfers of different ethnicities, one blind with a free-roaming guide dog. Sharon’s golf bag says “Caesarea Golf Club Israel.” This scene would never have transpired on this course a few decades ago, not at a blue-blooded resort like this. Before he started playing golf, Sharon’s only opinion of golf was that it was for wealthy elitists. Now he realizes golfers can be normal people.

“Maybe their kids are spoiled, but overall, the people I have met have been fantastic,” he says.

Meanwhile, the sky darkens around the hilltops surrounding the course. After the seventh hole, Sharon acknowledges that the rain on this very unusual day will not let up. When asked if he’s pleased with his performance, he jokes, “I feel like crying.”

Sharon tries to persuade Jorge to be his caddy for another round of golf at the Bridges Country Club in Rancho Santa Fe.
“I would love to, but I have a business to run,” laments Jorge. “You are an extraordinary man Zohar.”

Perhaps Sam Silverstein best summarized the experience of witnessing Sharon golf. Silverstein, who organizes numerous golf tournaments around Palm Springs, played with Sharon at the Canyon Country Club Tournament in Palm Springs two days after the Morgan Run tune-up.

Silverstein told the Journal: “He swings better than I do, and I can see.”